In The Scarlet, Letter Hypocrisy is evident everywhere. The characters of Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and the very society that the characters lived in, were steeped in hypocrisy. Hawthorne was not subtle in his portrayal of the terrible sin of hypocrisy; he made sure it was easy to see the sin at work. Parallels can be drawn between the characters of The Scarlet Letter and of today’s society. Just because this book is set in colonial times, does not mean its lessons are not applicable to the world we live in.
The first character, Hester Prynne, is guilty of adultery and of hypocrisy. She “loves” Dimmesdale yet she says nothing while for seven years Dimmesdale is slowly tortured. This love she felt that was so strong, that it made her break sacred vows must have disappeared. Why else would she condemn her supposed love to the hands of her vengeful husband? Dimmesdale is continually tortured by his inner demons of guilt that gnaw at his soul, and Chillingworth makes sure these demons never go away. Hester allows this to happen. Physically and mentally the minister begins to weaken, slowly he becomes emaciated, and he punishes himself constantly. Only when Hester knows that if Chillingworth is allowed to continue, that Dimmesdale will surely go insane if she does not reveal her secret. Why did Hester wait so long? She did not reveal who her lover was on the scaffolding when she had the perfect opportunity to. Also, she did not tell her husband who her lover was.
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Why did Hester Prynne keep secrets that ended up hurting everyone? Hester can atone for her sin of adultery, but every day that she keeps the secret of her lover, and the true identity of Rodger Chillingworth a secret she is committing a sin. If Hester would have “Take heed how thou deniest to him—who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself—the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!”(Dimmesdale 47) things would have been infinitely better for everyone. Everyone Hester Prynne loves, she does in a hypocritical way. She loves Pearl enough to sacrifice to feed and clothe her, but she does not love Pearl enough to give her a father. Hester loves Dimmesdale, but she does not love him enough to expose his sin publicly, and she conceals her knowledge of Chillingworth. Either you love something whole-heartedly, or you don’t. Hawthorne might have portrayed Hester in a more favourable light than the other characters, but still, she should have to wear a scarlet H in addition to her A.
The second character, Arthur Dimmesdale is the epitome of hypocrisy. Hawthorne intended his name to have a symbolic meaning. Dimmesdale meaning dim or not very bright. Arthur might be bright in the areas of theology, but when it comes to hypocrisy, he is a fool. Dimmesdale says very near the beginning of the book “What can thy silence do for him, except to tempt him—yea, compel him, as it were—to add hypocrisy to sin?”(Dimmesdale 47) He knows what will happen to him if he endures his sin in private, but he is too weak at this point in the book to admit it. The tapestries of biblical adultery, which are found in Arthur’s room are hypocritical. These are supposed to help him atone for his sins by making him feel guilty, but he feels no better. Arthur goes and preaches every week on how bad sin is, and how he is the worst sinner of them all. These partial confessions just make him more of a hypocrite. Dimmesdale knows how the parishioners will interpret these confessions, he is not blind to their looks of adoration. Dimmesdale enjoys being viewed as a saint when he knows he is truly a sinner.
The years of torture the minister receives, are brought on by his own doing.
If his supposed commitment to the community had stopped him from admitting his sin, he would have not been tortured. His love of the community is very similar to Hester Prynne’s love of Pearl. Dimmesdale only loves his community enough to preach in it, but he is a preacher harbouring a great sin, and so he cannot truly guide his community spiritually. Dimmesdale’s and Hester’s love are alike in their limitations. While Dimmesdale does speak up for Hester keeping her Pearl “Truth in what Hester says, and in the feeling which inspires her! God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and requirements,—both seemingly so peculiar,—which no other mortal being can possess. And, moreover, is there not a quality of awful sacredness in the relation between this mother and this child.”(Dimmesdale 78) but he cannot love her enough to be her husband.
The scene at the scaffolding at night is a truly disgusting scene of hypocrisy. Arthur seizes the opportunity to go up on the scaffolding and feel better about his sin, but when he sees a fellow man of the cloth walking by, he cowers. Would it not have been better to have his sin revealed? Then when Hester and Pear stand with him Pear asks “Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, to-morrow noontide?”(Pearl 105)The minister is given another chance to redeem himself, but he cowers yet again!
Dimmesdale is selfish, he tries to atone in private, by whipping himself and fasting. This accomplishes nothing, he knows in his heart that no punishment in private will get him forgiveness from the lord. Yet he continues his practices of private punishment, so he temporarily feels better about himself. Another occurrence of hypocrisy was when Hester finally revealed the true identity of Rodger Chillingworth. Dimmesdale was overcome with anger, how could Arthur have been mad? Hester had finally conquered her weakness of character and told him the truth. Dimmesdale could only see that she had been harbouring a terrible secret in her heart. After that, the agreement to run away to the Old World was another instance of a character weakness of Arthur. He had not atoned for his sins, but he would still run away with Hester. He even interpreted the flood of sunshine to mean that God himself approved of their plan.
Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter is the ultimate incarnation of hypocrisy. He represents how the Puritan ideals had been twisted into something that reeked of hypocrisy. Dimmesdale pretended to be a good, just, and wise minister, in reality, he was bad, unjust, and foolish. Dimmesdale recognizes the danger of hypocrisy, but his character is too weak to avoid the pitfall of hypocrisy.
The third character of Roger Chillingworth is a man who at one point was guided by intellect and not his emotions. He pretends to be Dimmesdale’s friend but inflicts grievous wounds upon the reverend. At the beginning of The Scarlet Letter Rodger returns to his wife, only to find her being publicly condemned for adultery, his emotions began to take over. At that point, his only goal in life is revenge. When he eventually figures out who Hester’s lover was, he begins to torture Dimmesdale in such a way that he does not know he is being tortured. Chillingworth’s emotions rule him, his single-minded pursuit of revenge overtakes him. He is supposed to be a scholar, a man of reason. Revenge for the betrayal of Hester is the driving force in his life.
The actual torture he inflicts is purely mental and is successful in breaking Dimmesdale’s body and soul down. During one instance Chillingworth sees what he has become “The unfortunate physician while uttering these words, lifted his hands with a look of horror, as if he had beheld some frightful shape, which he could not recognize, usurping the place of his own image in a glass. IT was one of those moments—which sometimes occur only in the interval of the year—when a man’s moral aspect is faithfully revealed to his mind’s eye. Not improbably he had never viewed himself as he did now.”(Hawthorne 118) He sees just how far evil he has become, but still, Chillingworth continues his vengeful work.
The Puritan society itself was a lesson in hypocrisy. Supposedly, they were firm believers in the Bible, but the Bible advocates forgiveness and toleration. The whole society’s basis was on religious enlightenment. Yet, why was it that the first thing that was to be built in Boston was a prison? Why is the first building thought of a place of punishment? Another example of religious hypocrisy happened early in the book. Hawthorne described some gossiping housewives that were talking about Hester’s punishment. Each one of the housewives was advocating harsher punishment for Hester. “The magistrates are God-fearing gentleman, but merciful overmuch,—that is the truth,” added a third autumnal matron. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madam Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me.”(Housewife 36). Religion is often the source of much hypocrisy. A great example of God being perverted into something else was the Crusades. Christian soldiers were told to go and kill “in the name of God”, so they went off into the holy lands and killed the infidel. Fanaticism to a deity is not a good thing.
The terrorists of 9/11 killed so many people did so “in the name of God” also. Their creed actually does not call for anything like that. Perversion of God by those who hold power is a sin. It’s impossible to truly believe in a religion, and feel justified in killing or persecuting others. The infamous Bill Clinton fiasco was made into a big issue because of fundamentalists in government. Newt Gingrich (a former prominent Republican) was much too busy thumping his Bible to even read it. He called for Clinton’s head, even though Newt liked to philander too. This man was exactly like Arthur Dimmesdale in some respects. Both of them were guilty of a sin they themselves were condemning. Hypocrisy was present in Puritan society and it endures still even today.
Hypocrisy is the major theme in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne’s work was meant to highlight the hypocrisy in Puritan society, and in the people that make up the society. The Scarlet Letter was meant to expose just how much of sin hypocrisy is, and just how it causes so much pain and suffering.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter.
New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994.
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