How can we as a society differentiate what is to be deemed morally wrong, biblically sinful, or passionately blissful? No matter what we decide for our own predicaments, it is of no place for our peers or community to make the choice for us. Every day through radio, magazines, and television, we hear of scandals and celebrity breakups- gossip about other people’s lives, none of which pertains to our own. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne created many characters, all of which went through this very suffering, but carried out their situations in a variety of ways. The characters in the novel, Hester Prynne; the father of her illegitimate child, Reverend Mr Arthur Dimmesdale; and Mistress Prynne’s estranged husband, Roger Chillingworth, live their Puritan lifestyle while being persecuted tremendously.
One of these characters was publicly humiliated to be set an example of and given punishment. Another spent years with pain, self-inflicted, from having to bear the guilt and shame of committing a “sinful” act with a said mistress. And the third, unknowingly, self-destructed his body inside and out with the lust of getting revenge from the first two. Why must we do these things to not only ourselves but to our neighbours as well? Does life really get to the point where we feel the need to drag others down with us? As they say, misery does love company.
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At the beginning of Hawthorne’s novel, he tells us of Hester Prynne, the protagonist of the story, and the life she has been living. Hester had been put in jail for committing adultery and was imprisoned along with her unborn child. She had been previously married to Roger Chillingworth, a man who had yet to be seen by not only his wife but also the entire town of Boston, in years. Because of his absence, no one could be sure if Chillingworth was dead or simply yet to return from Europe. To come from being married to being left without a companion as such, would be hard on the majority of people- breaking them down, leaving them yearning for even a decent adult conversation to hope for the least. Some would say that she was right in making a relationship to fill her loneliness; while others would argue in that not only her physical acts with Dimmesdale but also the initial thought of lust for another man while being married, as well as her psychological/emotional attachment to the town’s Reverend was an unforgivable sin according to the Puritan way.
When Hester erupted from the prison doors, three-month-old newborn baby Pearl in hand, Hawthorne described the towns folk’ reactions as said- [quote:1dfe683c90]“Those who had before known her and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. It may be true that, to a sensitive observer, there was something exquisitely painful in it. … But the point which drew all eyes, …was that SCARLET LETTER… It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.” (2, 7, 2) They were stunned to see her standing so tall- expecting a colourless woman with only cheeks of red and embarrassment- but instead saw beauty and glow that Hester had never lost in all the months of imprisonment. To Hester, the birth of her child Pearl and the acts of which preceded was not thought of initially as sin and wrongdoing, but of passion and emotion much longed for. The Puritans in her town wrongly invaded Hester’s private life, exploiting her relationship and setting judgment upon her.
Over the years, Hester’s glow began to dim, and townspeople refuse to make much contact with her and her love child as if her sin was something contagious they would never want to catch. Young Pearl grew older, and increasingly acted as a scarlet letter in physical form, something Hester will never be able to escape. Even towards the end of the novel, Hester removed the letter from her chest but Pearl refused to obey her mother without the scornful piece of cloth placed upon her. Hester asked Pearl why she must forever condemn her mother to her sin once she had finally found a quick glimpse of freedom- [quote:1dfe683c90]”Dost thou know thy mother now, child? Wilt thou come across the brook, and own thy mother, now that she has her shame upon her—now that she is sad?”
“Yes; now I will! Now thou art my mother indeed! And I am thy little Pearl!” (19, 166, 3) –Pearl answered back.
Dimmesdale was the father of Pearl, lover of Hester, and foe of Chillingworth. Because Hester had repeatedly refused to bear the father’s name of her child, she was the sole person who knew how Dimmesdale ached to confess his sin to all of Boston. Because the Reverend could not shout out for what the flames burned inside him, he hurt himself severely, eventually resulting in his death. He psychologically was not a weak man, but a true and honest man who could not bear to keep such a secret and such shame. Hawthorne wrote, “…Hester Prynne was shocked at the condition to which she found the clergyman reduced. His nerve seemed absolutely destroyed. His moral force was abased into more than childish weakness,”[/quote:1dfe683c90] (13, 111, 1) when describing the state in which Dimmesdale had put himself through starvation and self-abuse. Hester was accusing Chillingworth of hurting her lover, not helping him heal as he proclaimed, and Chillingworth exclaimed,”Better had he died at once! Never did mortal suffer what this man has suffered. And all, all, in the sight of his worst enemy!” (14, 124, 5) Saying these words shows Chillingworth having a bit of compassion and sympathy for all Dimmesdale has put himself through.
Roger Chillingworth began loving Hester the best he could, not the most compassionate of all husbands, but a good one nonetheless. Throughout the novel, Roger grows increasingly into the figure of the “black man”, seeking revenge for his wife’s betrayal while destroying himself in the process. Nathaniel Hawthorne described his change by saying, [quote:1dfe683c90]“In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was striking evidence of man’s faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil’s office.
This unhappy person had effected such a transformation by devoting himself for seven years to the constant analysis of a heart full of torture, and deriving his enjoyment thence, and adding fuel to those fiery tortures which he analysed and gloated over.” (14, 122, 5) Dimmesdale said to Chillingworth,[quote:1dfe683c90] “May God forgive thee! Thou, too, hast deeply sinned!” (23, 210, 4) as their last words. In many ways, Chillingworth’s sins were counted far worse than what either Hester Prynne or Roger Dimmesdale had committed. He prayed for vengeance against the lovers; his heart grew cold with only the lust for revenge to keep it beating, and once lost, that beat was lost as well.
Overall, the scarlet letter itself caused much pain to these characters- more than their sins, more than the whispers of the townspeople, more than each other. The single piece of cloth had so much power, beaming shame into each of their eyes, blinding the three of what they believed was right for themselves. Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth literally “beat themselves up” over the humiliation brought upon them by their society. The psychological and social consequences of their sins have seemingly chalked up to if not death, complete and utter damnation in every sense of the word.
Word count- 1,296
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
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