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Guilt In The Scarlet Letter Essay, Research Paper
Guilt in The Scarlet Letter
Generally, guilt would be expected to weaken one s character; however, in some cases, it can actually strengthen one s character. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester and Dimmesdale both experience guilt for their sin of adultery. An illegitimate child results from their sin, and since Hester s husband has been away for years, the members of the community know she is an adulteress, but they do not know who her partner in sin is. Hester takes the full blame for their sin, so over time she is able to conquer her guilt and gain back the community s respect. Dimmesdale goes on with his normal life, keeping his guilt to himself, and eventually he has to break down and confess. In contrast to Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne develops Hester to prove that guilt may strengthen one s character rather than weaken it.
Adultery is a sin that tends to result in a lot of pain and suffering for the small amount of happiness that goes with it. Hester and Dimmesdale realize this fact too late to prevent these consequences. Carpenter posits that according to the traditional moralists, Hester Prynne was truly a sinful woman. Although she sinned less than her hypocritical lover and her vengeful husband, she nevertheless sinned; and, from her sin, death and tragedy resulted (285). Hester and Dimmesdale could not predict that a pregnancy would come out of their sin, making it punishable by the community, and they could not anticipate the problems their sin could cause. They acted out of love, without thinking about the situation thoroughly. Although it [the love which unites Hester and Dimmesdale] is disastrous in that it wrecks all possibilities for happiness in their lives, it matures them morally and spiritually; under its influence they grow to a tragic height of character which they otherwise would probably not have reached (Sandeen 303). Hester is able to show her strength of character, and Dimmesdale breaks down, showing his weakness of character. Their adultery occurs because of their deep love for each other, and it is therefore unavoidable.
Since Hester is pregnant with an illegitimate child, it is impossible for anyone to deny that she has committed adultery. There is no way for the community to know who the father of her child is unless one of them comes forward, so Hester is obligated to take the complete denouncement for their sin. [It was Puritan asceticism] which fixed the scarlet letter to the breast of Hester Prynne, and which drove Arthur Dimmesdale into a life of cowardly and selfish meanness, that added tenfold disgrace and ignominy to his original crime (Loring 273). The community s treatment of Hester is harsh because of the Puritan belief system. They punish her for her sin, and since Dimmesdale is too cowardly to confess and ruin his life in the community, he just lets his guilt for allowing Hester to take all the blame grow privately. Hester has the opportunity to share her punishment with Dimmesdale, but she refuses to give his name, because she would prefer to suffer for both of them. All in all, Hester Prynne seems at once to share the community s judgment upon her, yet to accept herself with her past and her destiny intact (Wagenknecht 65). She realizes that she has sinned and does not look for a way out of her punishment. Hester accepts the community s judgment of her, because she knows it is true, and she goes on to repent for her sin and regain her place in society.
As the punishment for her sin, Hester is forced to wear a scarlet A on her chest to identify her as an adulteress, and she is basically ostracized from the community. She must accept this punishment, so she tries to at least keep her pride. Hester s story is one of penance, it is clear. She accepts the role as the outcast, the revulsion of society and the insults from even those unfortunates whom she succors, but she does this out of pride rather than humility (Warren 310). Hester is strong, so she is able to endure the criticism of the entire community. Even though she experiences guilt, she makes it work in her favor, and eventually she is strengthened by the experience. Hester suffers alone for her sin, but she uses her pride to get through it:
From the beginning of her exposure to public view, Hester bears her ordeal with haughty agony. Undeniably she flaunts the letter; yet Hawthorne seems to sympathize with the emotional understanding shown by the youngest matron outside the jail when she says that the pang of the letter will be always in Hester s heart. Alone in the world with the symbol and consequence of her sin, Hester dons an armor of pride that is also a mantle of suffering. (Martin 111)
The community tries to force her to go through life alone, but she is able to work through it. With Pearl standing by her, Hester is able to start over and get through her experience as an outcast from society.
Since Pearl is an illegitimate child, she is automatically made an outcast. She is completely innocent at birth, but she is still forced to suffer for her parents sin:
Little Pearl was a token more scarlet than the scarlet letter of her [Hester s] guilt; for the child, with a birth presided over by the most intense conflict of love and fear in the mother s heart, nourished at a breast swelling with anguish, and surrounded with burning marks of its mother s shame in its daily life, developed day by day into a void little demon perched upon the most sacred horn of the mother s altar. (Loring 273-274)
Pearl is punished based on her association with Hester. She is called an elf and made fun of by the other children for something she took no part in. As Hawthorne puts it, The truth was, that the little Puritans, being of the most intolerable brood that ever lived, had got a vague idea of something outlandish, unearthly, or at variance with ordinary fashions, in the mother and child; and therefore scorned them in their hearts, and not unfrequently [sic] reviled them with their tongues (81). The other children will have nothing to do with Pearl. They do not understand what she has done wrong, because they do not even understand Hester s sin, but since they can tell there is something different about her, and they see the way the adults in the community treat her and her mother, they follow along. Pearl is forced to go through life ostracized from society, without ever having experienced a normal childhood.
Since Dimmesdale does not come forward as Pearl s father, the community does not know he should be punished. They continue to respect him as their minister. The irony is even more pronounced in their [the community s] attitude toward the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, for his edifying sanctity and his moving eloquence, which cause the town to regard him as a pillar of the theocracy, have their source in the passion which the town would outlaw (Sandeen 303-304). The qualities Dimmesdale has that gain him the community s respect are qualities that he has because of his sin with Hester. He over-exerts himself in his work as minister in order to compensate for his sin. Dimmesdale s guilt eats away at him, so he is forced to punish himself while his life seems to remain consistent to the members of the community:
Self-condemnation, self-abnegation, and self-loathing are the stimulants of Dimmesdale s psychic life; they constitute, as well, the price he must pay if he would not abdicate the self reverenced by the public. And that self formed out of a communal wish to admire a young, pious, and learned minister he cannot bring himself to renounce. That his private suffering contributes to the public mask of spirituality is a kind of masochistic dividend for him. Weak and proud, false and efficacious, the minister thus stumbles ever deeper and ever more self-consciously into thickets of hypocrisy. (Martin 122-123)
Dimmesdale knows he deserves to be punished for his sin and he cannot live with his guilt for not being punished, but he does not want to give up his status in the community. Instead of confessing, he tries to punish himself so that his life will not change.
Hester and Dimmesdale are effected by their guilt in different ways because of the way each deals with it. Hester faces the community and Dimmesdale hides behind his image:
Without deceit before the world, she [Hester] stands forth the most heroic person in all that drama. When, from the platform of shame, she bade farewell to that world, she retired to a holier, and sought for such peace as a soul cast out by men may always find. This was her right. No lie hung over her head. Society had heard her story, and had done its worst . How far behind her in moral and religious excellence was her accredited religious teacher, who was her companion in guilt! Each day which bound her closer and closer to heaven which was now her only home, drove him farther and farther from the spiritual world, whose glories he so fervently taught others. (Loring 274)
Even though the community outcasts Hester, her penance does not go unnoticed. Her place in heaven becomes more definite as she deals with her guilt in the moral and religious way. At the same time, Dimmesdale s place in heaven stretches farther out of his reach, because he refuses to confess and share his guilt. He preaches about religion and morality, and then he goes against his teachings when he deals with the guilt in his own life. Hester and Dimmesdale s dealings with guilt also contribute to something deeper than simply their own lives and futures:
To submit your guilt to the direct judgment of society, as Hester did, is to participate in the saving ethic of society. To submit it to a merciless traditional judgment apart from the live sympathy of mankind merely to evade an original and proper relationship toward men, as Dimmesdale did, is to bring upon your head all the punitive force of morality with none of its regenerate faculties. (Hall 172)
By taking responsibility for her actions, Hester adds to the good and ethical part of society. By denying his sin and acting hypocritically, Dimmesdale brings himself shame. He contributes to the negative, unethical area of society, even though he is preaching goodness and holiness to the community.
Hester is punished and ostracized, but she conquers her guilt and actually becomes stronger because of it. The way she deals with her guilt shows her strength of character. Though Hester, to, might have made the same rejection by running away to a land where she was unknown and could live under false pretenses, it is testimony of her strength of character that she refused to turn herself into a moral impostor (Hall 168). Hester has the opportunity to take an easier path for dealing with her punishment. She could just leave town and start over in a new place; however, Hester chooses to stay in her community and deal with her problem instead of running from it, because she has a great deal of strength of character. When Hester first experiences her punishment it is not easy for her and her guilt is overbearing. We see her humble, meek, self-denying, charitable, and heart-wrung with anxiety for the moral welfare of her wayward child. But anon her humility catches a new tint, and we find it pride (Abbott 271-272). Hester is able to conquer her guilt and show pride in herself, her daughter, and her life. Once Hester has gotten over her guilt, she is able to recreate her life by making herself a new place in society. Although the pariah of the community, Hester performs good works: she nurses the ill, sews burial shrouds, feeds the poor, becomes a self-ordained sister of mercy. The attitude of the people thus gradually changes towards her and her scarlet letter (Donahue 50). Hester s strength of character enables her to create a prestigious job for herself so that she can fit back into society. Eventually Hester regains the respect of the other members of the community. After seven years of disgrace, Hester has won the unwilling respect of her fellow-townsmen by her good works and respectability of conduct (Fogle 145). Hester works hard to be forgiven for her sin by the members of the community so that she can regain their respect. Because of Hester s strength of character, she is able to make something positive come out of her guilt and punishment.
Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is a victim of weakness of character. His only punishment for his sin is self-punishment, because he is too weak to live with guilt. Thus early Dimmesdale whose ethical perceptions are always greater than his courage to live up to them realized which way salvation lay for him, but lacked the strength of will to take it (Hall 171). Dimmesdale knows that he needs to confess his sin, but he does not want to give up his status in the community and have everyone turn against him, because he does not have the strength of character to regain the community s respect as Hester does. Dimmesdale forces himself to keep his guilt to himself, so it conquers him and begins to make him break down:
Dimmesdale attempts to hide his guilt, but the acknowledgment of it is still there, ingrown, Hawthorne would have us believe, on his very flesh. In this manner Hawthorne symbolizes the great difference between the minister and Hester. The world does not recognize him for what he is. But that very fact renders his own consciousness of his state more morbid than ever, until concealment of the guilty condition of his true self secretly destroys his moral tissue. As a result his suffering is far more intense and sickly than Hester s (Hall 168).
Dimmesdale suffers by himself and has no one to share his guilt with, so it weakens him to a point where he can no longer handle it. Finally he confesses to save his soul and release some of his guilt. He dies after the sermon, but not before announcing himself a as the one sinner of the world (in an ultimate example of spiritual pride) and as saved, a proclamation which makes him, by his own Puritan standards (and most likely Hawthorne s) a victim of both hubris and damnation (Donahue 37). Dimmesdale s pride is too extreme, and since he cannot bear to confess and lose his place in society, he ends up waiting and confessing right before his death so that he can have salvation. His weakness of character makes it impossible for him to keep his sin to himself, because he is unable to live with the guilt he experiences.
Through The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne shows that guilt can effect people in different ways, depending on how it is handled. In Hester s case, she conquers her guilt and moves on with her life, becoming stronger in character than she was originally. Dimmesdale s guilt conquers him, and he breaks down and confesses his sin, because he cannot live with his guilt when he has no one to share it with. In his mind, his self-punishment does not compensate for the community s punishment of Hester, so eventually he has to make himself share in the community s condemnation with her.
Abbott, Anne W. The Scarlet Letter, a Romance. NCLC. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris et al. 73 vols. Detroit: Gale, 1982. 10: 271-272.
Carpenter, Frederic I. Scarlet A Minus. NCLC. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris et al. 73 vols. Detroit: Gale, 1982. 10: 284-287.
Donahue, Agnes McNeill. Hawthorne: Calvin s Ironic Stepchild. Kent: Kent State UP, 1985.
Fogle, Richard Harter. Hawthorne s Fiction: the Light and the Dark. 2nd ed. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1964.
Hall, Lawrence Sargent. Hawthorne, Critic of Society. 1944 Gloucester, MA: Yale UP, 1966.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1998.
Loring, George B. Hawthorne s Scarlet Letter. NCLC. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris et al. 73 vols. Detroit: Gale, 1982. 10: 272-274.
Martin, Terence. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.
Sandeen, Ernest. The Scarlet Letter as a Love Story. NCLC. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris et al. 73 vols. Detroit: Gale, 1982. 10: 302-304.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Characters in The Scarlet Letter. Readings on The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Bruno Leone et al. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1998. 58-72.
Warren, Robert Penn. Hawthorne Revisited: Some Remarks on Hellfiredness. NCLC. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris et al. 73 vols. Detroit: Gale, 1982. 10: 310-311.
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