The Scarlet Letter is romantic novel that was written in 1850 by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The story commences in Boston in the 17th century with Prynne’s condemnation and humiliation by the Puritan community for adultery. She is forcefully marched through the market place carrying her baby in her arms plus scarlet letter “A” on her breast (Literature Resource Center 115-125). A man within the crowd mentions to an old onlooker that Prynne is being reprimanded for committing adultery. Roger Chillingworth, Prynne's husband, seemed to have been lost at sea on his way to Boston. While Prynne waits for him, she falls in love with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and their extramarital affair leads to the birth of their daughter Pearl. When asked to reveal her lover’s identity, she declines to talk, and consequently the townspeople compel her to wear a scarlet letter on her bosom all the time as punishment for her secrecy and sin (Literature Resource Center 115-125). Dimmesdale, on the other hand, decides to keep his act in a secret, and ends up psychologically traumatized, which leads to deterioration of his physical and mental health. In the end, Dimmesdale dies after confessing his adultery publicly. Chillingworth also dies a year later frustrated from not being able to take revenge on the Dimmesdale and Prynne. This paper compares two characters: Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, and examines how symbolism and representation helps to create meaning in the text. The analysis focuses mainly on (1) the scarlet letter, and (2) Roger Chillingworth as a representation of the “Black Man.”
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Comparison between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale
The way in which Prynne and Dimmesdale deal with guilt from their sinful act also varies. Both characters are guilty for committing adultery, but the ways they are punished are different (Abbott, 135-148). While Prynne is punished publicly by wearing a scarlet letter, “A”, showing everyone that she is an adulteress and being marched through the city streets, Dimmesdale, on the other hand, decides to condemn himself internally, which led to the physical and mental suffering (Abbott, 135-148). Prynne and Dimmesdale are two characters involved in a similar offense and live in the same town. However, Dimmesdale is a minister of a church, while Prynne is a seamstress residing in the town’s outskirts. In dealing with her guilt, Prynne decides to devote herself to helping the poor in the society (Abbott, 135-148). We are told that she sewed garments for the less fortunate in the society, and gave out all of her income to them. Her hard work is so significant that instead of her scarlet letter “A” standing for “adulteress”, it stood for “able” (Nathaniel 141). By glancing at her brilliant letter, everyone knows who she is, and therefore, she decides to accept her past mistakes and move on with her life. Though her act is gross, she believes that she deserves to be forgiven. Her pride enables her to walk with confidence amidst sneering people. To Prynne, her past deed is spilt milk that she has no control over, and she does not to allow it to prevent her from moving forward to a better life.
In contrast, Dimmesdale refrains from admitting his sins and conceals his secret for 7 years, dealing with his guilt in private for fear of being punished via death if he reveals his secret. Because of his religious background, Dimmesdale inflicts severe punishment upon himself, starving and whipping himself, as a way of dealing with the guilt that is weighing on his shoulders (Abbott, 135-148). Failing to publicly confess his sins causes him constant mental torture that leads to developing physical health problems. In addition, being a minister who is revered by his congregation with the highest respect, he feels hypocritical while preaching to them. That is why when he finally confesses his sins, he is joyful and elated. The heavy burden that he carried on his shoulders for a very long time is finally lifted, and shortly after his confession he passes on (Abbott, 135-148).
From the novel it is seen that both Prynne and Dimmesdale wear red letters but they wear them in different ways. Prynne’s red letter is a clothing piece, with the letter “A” that is beautifully embroidered and is shining on her bosom (Hawthorn 51). Prynne proudly wears her red letter for the public to see it, and consequently, she is criticized and despised. The public’s condemnation of her is evident in the statement of a woman talking about Prynne in the market place. She says, “This women has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die” (Hawthorn 49). However, Prynne is strong woman and she manages to cope with difficult situation she has to go through. Contrary to Prynne, Dimmesdale’s scarlet letter is engraved in his chest. The letter is exposed to the public during his confession of being Pearl’s father, in which he tears away the ministerial band on his chest revealing the scarlet letter (Hawthorn 232). Unlike Prynne whose strength increases amidst her difficulties, Dimmesdale, on the other hand, loses his strength with time. Loring (186) describes Dimmesdale as, “neither growing wiser nor stronger, but, day after day, paler and paler, more and more abject”.
It is worth noting that both characters are terrified of the public’s perception of them. For instance, Prynne declines to tell anybody regarding her lover, Dimmesdale or about Chillingworth, the real husband of hers who is alive. Both Prynne and Dimmesdale are cowards. Prynne’s cowardice is evident when she agrees to escape to Europe with her lover Dimmesdale (Granger 7), as well as, when she attempts to take off red letter during her meeting with Dimmesdale in the forest. Her plan was to never again put on scarlet letter, as evident in her statement in Hawthorne (193) when she says, “The mid-ocean shall take it from my hand, and swallow it up forever!” Despite displaying courage wearing the scarlet letter while in Boston, Prynne’s behavior and statement in the forest show that she lacks courage to be seen in public with red letter when she goes to Europe. However, her daughter, Pearl, makes her put up with the letter when she tells her in Hawthorne (193) to, “Come thou and take it up!” Dimmesdale’s lack of courage is seen in a major part of the novel when he fails to confess his sin publicly and take responsibility for his actions by acknowledging Pearl as her daughter. However in Hawthorne (231- 232), Dimmesdale’s courage is boosted in his confession when he refers to himself as, “the one sinner of the world! … There stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!” Finally he admits his long kept secret, and soon after his life ends.
Prynne and Dimmesdale also contrast with regard to guilt and shame. According to Nathanson (150), guilt is a state of committing an offense willfully, or taking responsibility for one’s actions, while shame refers to the painful emotion which comes from the awareness of something disgraceful in the behavior or situation of a person that offends one’s decency or the quality of an individual. From the latter definition, it is obvious that shame is associated with negative emotions and pain. How two characters react to their sin, shows that Prynne feels guilty while Dimmesdale feels ashamed. The fact that Prynne proudly wears the scarlet letter everywhere she goes means that she has accepted her mistakes and is taking responsibility for her actions. According to Nathanson (142), Prynne’s elegant personality fades gradually under influence of cruelty of the society. The guilt she feels coupled with public ridicule gnaws at her soul, taking away the passionate being she once was. According to Nathanson (142-143), the vitality of Prynne fades under the guilt of scarlet letter she is wearing, and there is no longer anything in her face or form for love to linger on. It is important to note that while Prynne willingly accepts her punishment and feels guilty of her misdeed, she is however not embarrassed of her own person.
This is in contrast to Dimmesdale, whose conduct implies that he is emotionally ashamed of his sin. According to Pattison (164), shame negatively affects one’s character when it is allowed to dominate, and the shamed individual becomes depressed, trapped and self-rejecting. This is very true for Dimmesdale, whose shame makes him feel miserable and internally tormented to the extent that his suffering reflects on his physical health. The persistent torment of his inner soul brought about by shame of his past actions makes him loose motivation to go on living. According to Nathanson (150), defense mechanisms against shame include withdrawal and avoidance. From The Scarlet Letter we see the Reverend isolating himself from the people close to him, which consequently led to depression (Pimple 257-271). In dealing with his shame he also resorts to self-deceit and deceit of others (avoidance) regarding his true nature, by delivering powerful sermons against sin to draw people’s attention away from his flawed self (Pimple 257-271).
Symbolism and Representation in The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter
The scarlet letter “A” which Prynne is forced to wear every day as a punishment for her adultery, symbolizes sexual sin and is a day-to-day reminder of shame that jeopardizes Prynne’s soul. Since the symbol “A” showed up so many times, as repetition bias, people associate the letter A immediately to committing adultery. The letter was originally meant to mark Prynne as an adulterer, but with time, its meaning changes to “Able,” as stated by the narrator, “They said that it meant ‘Able’; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (Literature Resource Center 117). She sewed garments for the less fortunate in the society and gave out all of her income to them. Prynne’s hard work and generosity became so significant that instead of her scarlet letter people saw her as a person of high status and importance. Just like Pearl, the scarlet letter is physical reminder of Dimmesdale’s affair with Prynne, thus signifying the Puritan community’s system of punishment and judgment. According to Hawthorn (51), Prynne’s scarlet letter is a clothing piece with the letter “A” that is beautifully embroidered and is shining on her bosom. The scarlet letter in this context symbolizes Prynne’s artistry, talent and skills, which enable her to make a living as a single parent. It shows her strength and independence. In addition, the letter symbolizes guilt and cowardice of Dimmesdale, curiosity of Pearl as well as betrayal and revenge of Chillingworth.
Roger Chillingworth as a Representation of the “Black Man”
Chillingworth represents evil in The Scarlet Letter, as implied by Hawthorne throughout the novel. From the novel we are told that the “Black Man” in the forest carries leather book that is black in color and has clasps (Literature Resource Center 120). He hangs out in the forest at night and lures people to sign away their souls in his book. Similarly, Chillingworth also has large leather book with clasps, which he uses to reference plants and herbs he collects in the forest to create the medicine. His physical transformation suggests that he is the “Black Man”. Initially, when he arrived in Salem, he was seen as an old kind physician; however, as the novel ends, he changes into ugly, dark and crooked version of himself; a representation of wickedness (Hawthorne 255). Chillingworth’s association with secular and illicit knowledge, as evident in his medical practices and chemical experiments, points out that he may be practicing witchcraft. Though some people may view love affair between Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale as evil, Chillingworth’s careful plot aimed at causing deliberate harm and revenge to Dimmesdale represents evil in its most wicked forms.
In conclusion, The Scarlet Letter is a very interesting book that is worth reading and learning from. Though Prynne and Dimmesdale both commit adultery, they however respond differently to their sinful act. While Prynne chooses to stay positive and continue with his normal life despite being subjected to public scorn, Dimmesdale, on the other hand, condemns himself internally, leading to the deterioration of his mental and physical health. This is a lesson to all of us to take responsibility for our mistakes, learn from them and move on with life, just like Prynne did.
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