Many novels, especially those written in the 19 century, were organized around clear lessons designed to instill moral behavior in the readers, usually by warning of the consequences of deviating from socially sanctioned behaviors. Other writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel The Scarlet Letter, take a more nuanced approach, exploring the psychological effects of immoral behavior to uncover universal truths about the human soul that extend beyond the moral teachings of a particular community. The primary lessons to be drawn from The Scarlet Letter are not particularly about avoiding sin or striving for moral purity. In fact, the adulterous affair between Prynne and Dimmesdale occurs before the novel even opens, so the sin is, in a way, a foregone conclusion. Hawthorne’s focus is on how each of the characters handles their respective burdens of sin and how the approaches of Prynne, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth toward forgiveness affect them. Prynne’s acceptance of her penance, and eventual adoption of it as a point of pride, sends her into isolation where she becomes mentally and spiritually stronger, while Dimmesdale and Chillingworth both hide their sin behind facades of respectability, to disastrous effects for both.
In The Scarlet Letter’s opening scene, the townswomen are discussing the punishment handed down to Hester Prynne, finding it too lenient and relishing the thought of what they, themselves, would have done. They revel in coarse speculation of branding Prynne’s forehead with a hot iron or even having her executed. The crude moral legalism of the Puritan community is not, Hawthorne is telling us through his descriptions that the sentiments of these people are probably not reliable guides for discerning correct behavior so, even though Prynne is being punished for a crime she certainly committed, the moral of the tale lies outside the ethical understandings of the community. In fact, when the women see that she has fancifully embroidered the scarlet “A” she is forced to wear, they are mildly outraged that she has taken the punishment and made it her own, rather than bearing it in the fashion they desired. When Reverend Wilson and Dimmesdale attempt to force Prynne into condemning her fellow adulterer, she states confidently that the forgiveness of the community is not enough to expatiate her sin: “it is too deeply branded,” she says. The fact of her sin has already separated her from her past and become her reality.
Prynne says several times through the novel that the community itself has no relation to the mark of shame Prynne wears, and that they do not have the power to take it off, even when she earns the respect of the townspeople through her various good works. Her isolation from the community, enforced in the beginning by public scorn, makes her into a complete outsider, a role Prynne readily accepts as the most acceptable use of her position in society. While Prynne’s public shame and self-imposed isolation makes her cold and joyless, save the connection with Pearl, it also gives her the freedom to think freely about the role of women and society and the true nature of God, thoughts in which she would probably not have indulged if she had never been cast out, or if her crime had gone undiscovered.
Prynne’s proposal to Dimmesdale is inspired by her long solitude, which has given her the freedom to consider the laws and institutions of the Puritans with “hardly more reverence than an Indian would feel for the clerical band.” The result of her public acceptance of her guilt has been intellectual and spiritual freedom, and a commitment to truth. In fact, she says as much to Dimmesdale, when she exclaims that she has endeavored to live truthfully both to herself and to the love she still feels for him. Her proposal to leave together comes from her hard-won knowledge that a truthful life lived under a false name is better than a hypocrisy lived out under a true one.
Although Dimmesdale has managed to avoid the public consequences of his affair with Hester Prynne, he has suffered the torment of conscience, partly due to her highly visible punishment, but mostly as a result of the high esteem in which the townspeople hold him. At Hester’s public humiliation, he practically begs her to indict him as Pearl’s father and just as fallen as she is, seeming to understand the weight of the private shame he will have to endure. He does not have the courage to expose him, and she refuses, so he begins to wither away from the weight of his guilt. Dimmesdale’s inability to take ownership of his guilt publicly leads to physical symptoms of sickness. Furthermore, the guilt leaves him open to the manipulations of Chillingworth, who would not only have no target to seek out in private if Dimmesdale had publicly acknowledged his sin and deal with the consequences, but would also have no opportunity.
Furthermore, while the good opinion Dimmesdale seems to enjoy in the town seems preferable to the public shame from which Prynne suffers, Dimmesdale himself says that being upheld as a paragon of virtue has actually made his private suffering more acute. He must endure the sensation of seeing the smiles and hear the praise of those in his congregation, “meet so many eyes turned upward to my face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from it,” only to look inward and face the guilt of what he really is. Dimmesdale feels that his work toward improving the spiritual life of those in his church to be ineffectual because, he asks, “what can a ruined soul like mine effect the redemption of other souls?” As a result of his hypocrisy, he has lost what Hester has gained: confidence in his own work and his own thoughts. Hawthorne’s depiction of Dimmesdale is not that he suffers as a result of the bad reputation that would have been his if he had the courage to accept it, or even the guilt itself, but from the hypocrisy of not admitting the truth publicly and taking it for himself.
The poisonous effects of secrecy and dishonesty are also clearly demonstrated in the character of Roger Chillingworth. While he is not directly implicated in the sin shared by Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale, he is guilty of wrath, which leads to a pursuit of very personal vengeance. Chillingworth’s deception goes even further than Dimmesdale’s; rather than conceal a sin that would besmirch a spotless reputation, Chillingworth discards his identity entirely and adopts a new one for the sole purpose of discovering the identity of Pearl’s father and exacting revenge. If the lesson of The Scarlet Letter is honesty and ownership of one’s actions, Chillingworth may be the most immoral character in the novel because, in the end, he does not even really admit to the wrong he has done Dimmesdale and Prynne.
The terrible effects of Chillingworth’s hypocrisy, pretending to be a friend to Dimmesdale while actually working to increase his torment, also manifest themselves physically. Whereas he had once been a scholar, with calm eyes and a studious air, after his seven years of seeking revenge he has become a devilish creature, with derisive smiles and an “eager, searching, almost fierce, but guarded look.” If he had expressed his anger publicly, he would have remained the gentle-natured academic, but since he insisted on giving himself over to private fury, little of his true self remains.
In Hawthorne’s moral universe, characters who hide their true identities behind false personas, whether from malice or fear, face terrible physical and emotional consequences. Both Chillingworth and Dimmesdale enjoy respect in the community and a clean reputation, but both are wracked by private demons which create an unacknowledged barrier between themselves and society. Hester Prynne, meanwhile, takes on the very public punishment for adultery and makes even the symbol of her banishment from society her own. In so doing, she eventually gains not only the respect of the townspeople for her good works, but also earns a kind of freedom from the narrow Puritan moral concepts. This intellectual liberty gives her the freedom to escape when Dimmesdale and Chillingworth’s secrets eventually claim their lives. The lesson in The Scarlet Letter was best summarized by little Pearls’ rebuke to Dimmesdale on the scaffold: “Thou wast not bold,” she said. “Thou wast not true.”
This is a really beautiful and subtle examination of a very complicated book. You capture the strange, often paradoxical moral situation of each character very well. Moreover, you offer a clear and forceful interpretation. I do have further questions for you. At the beginning, you claim that many 19th century novels offer a clear moral lesson, unlike Hawthorne. But doesn’t Hawthorne, in your reading, also offer a clear moral? Be true to yourself. Own your actions. How is Hawthorne’s moralizing more subtle or more intelligent than that of others? And why is it that Hester, who acknowledges and accepts the judgment of her community, is somehow able to escape the value of system of that same community? Meanwhile Dimmesdale and Chillingworth try to evade the judgment of the community and thus become all the more beholden to it. This is a fascinating paradox, one that you might probe further.