The main problem for contemporary audience interpreting Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” is the need to abandon ethical conventionality peculiar to society, and to look at the book and its heroes through the eyes of Puritan author. This statement becomes indeed important in the analysis of Arthur Dimmesdale, the most controversial character in the novel. Indeed, opinions about Dimmesdale, his hypocrisy, and his revelation are very different. Some critics insist that Dimmesdale is the culmination of worthless existence, while others concentrate on the idea that he is an embodiment of Hawthorne’s universalistic ideas.
From the critical perspective, it is evident that no agreement on this dilemma is forthcoming. However, from contemporaneous standpoint, Dimmesdale can be interpreted as a tragic hero and just as another classical hero King Lear, Hawthorne’s character can proclaim that “I am more sinned against than sinning. ” The argument supporting Dimmesdale is based on the author’s opinion regarding sin. Through Hester Haw¬thorne affirms that sin is not a static quality, but is, rather, a state of being from which one can move into another state of being.
Moreover, as Hawthorne depicts good man’s struggle and his eventual victory over the guilt, he articulates three options that are available for the sinner. Dimmesdale may keep silent and suffer “eternal alienation from the Good and True, he may flee the scene of the crime and with it his responsibility, and he may make full and public con¬fession. Practically, it took seven long years for Dimmesdale to find the strength, face his responsibility and confess before he dies.
Dimmesdale’s sin of lechery with Hester can be inferred throughout the book as he is very defensive of Hester and always seems to side with her. There are various examples of such behavior. One of them is in the third chapter when Hester stubbornly refuses to speak out the sinner’s name, even after Dimmesdale lectured her on how she should, as was his duty. After she refused to tell, he gave up immediately and murmured, “She will not speak! Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart! She will not speak! ”(Hawthorne, 48) He praises her because she refused to reveal his sin.
Another example is in the eighth chapter when the town authorities were considering taking away Hester’s child because they claimed that the child can be better taken care of, and Hester told Dimmesdale to speak for her. Dimmesdale obeyed her appeal at once and eventually convinced the magistrates to permit Hester to foster her own child. Dimmesdale was obligated to speak as he was the father of the child and wanted the child to stay with her mother. There are other hints in the book which insinuate that Dimmesdale is the sinner.
For instance, at the first scaffold scene, “Even the poor baby… directed its hitherto vacant gaze towards Mr. Dimmesdale, and held up its little arms with a half-pleased, half-plaintive murmur. ”(Hawthorne, 47) The baby was Pearl, Hester’s daughter, who apparently had no father, but was certain that Dimmesdale was the father. Then, there is obvious evidence that Dimmesdale is the sinner. In the scene when Chillingworth opens up Dimmesdale’s shirt and the scarlet letter A on his chest is revealed, which one can easily assume is the result of self-inflicted torture.
Other unmistakable evidence includes Dimmesdale’s sermons. In his sermons, he often preached about how he was a sinner, but this produced more respect and sympathy from his listeners and the townspeople. Dimmesdale was still respected, admired, and liked by the townspeople, even though he committed a terrible sin. He is almost a saint to the townspeople. His, “freshness and fragrance, and dewy purity of thought… people said, affected them like the speech of an angel” (Hawthorne 46). People said that he was, “The godly youth! ” and, “The saint on earth! (Hawthorne, 99) They said to each other, “Alas, if he discern such sinfulness in his own white soul, what horrid spectacle would he behold in thine or mine! ”(Hawthorne, 99) Little did they know of his purport and the truth. Dimmesdale was a weak man because he didn’t have the courage to admit his sin. He was also selfish and hypocritical. He let Hester carry the burden of shame that is customary when a sin is revealed while he basked in the glory and praise of the townspeople. He was hypocritical because he told Hester to reveal the sinner’s name in the first scaffold scene.
He asked her, “What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him – yea, compel him, as it were – to add hypocrisy to sin? ”(Hawthorne, 47) By him, he meant the sinner, and the sinner was really him. Why, then, did he not speak out? Why did he add “hypocrisy to sin? ” His sin and his lack of a confession contradict with his profession. He preached about holiness, goodness, and purity, yet he himself did not abide by his preaching. By being the man of his stature – educated in an honorable English university – he felt that he had to maintain his reputation.
He craved the admiration he received from the townspeople. However he did punish himself and believed that this was sufficient to balance out the sin. Dimmedale often punished himself in the form of vigils. They usually took place at night, in a secret closet. The punishments included whipping himself with a scourge and rigorous fasting – to the point that his knees trembled. He also, “kept vigils… sometimes in utter darkness, sometimes with a glimmering lamp, and sometimes, viewing his own face in a looking-glass, by the most powerful light which he could throw upon it.
He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify himself. ”(Hawthorne, 99-100) One of his vigils, unlike the others, took place outside the privacy of his secret closet. His longest vigil, and riskiest on too, took place outside his home. One night, Dimmesdale attempted to reveal his sin to the town by standing on the scaffold. This is where he should have stood, in the beginning of the novel, with Hester and Pearl. His attempt was obviously a very weak one because it occurred at night, when almost everyone was asleep.
Mistress Hibbins, Governor Bellingham, Reverend Mr. Wilson, Hester and Pearl were all awake during his nighttime vigil but of these five people, only Hester and Pearl came to know of his presence on the scaffold because he called them up to stand with him. Once they joined him, he said to them, “Ye have both been here before, but I was not with you. Come up hither once again, and we will stand all three together. ”(Hawthorne, 105) Then Pearl asked him, “Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, to-morrow noontide? ”(Hawthorne, 105) He responded by saying, “Nay; not so, my little Pearl, not so, my child.
I shall, indeed, stand with thy mother and thee one other day, but not tomorrow. ”(Hawthorne, 105) This established the fact that Dimmesdale could not confess his sin to the world during the day. He feared the reaction of the townspeople and did not want his image to be spoiled. He wanted to stay the well-educated, highly respected, and admired Reverend. But this could not go on for the rest of his life and he realized this. Dimmesdale eventually decided to confess. When he leaves the forest, he leaves much of his former fear behind.
Dimmesdale enters the town, convinced that he is indeed a new man. The fact is, of course, that he is the same Puritan from beginning to end. He has simply been turned inside out. The moral core of his being is worm-eaten by his inordinate self-concern. He has been tainted, not so much by sin itself, as by his perverse consciousness o£ all the sin in the world with which he has as¬sociated himself through that act of love some eight years be¬fore. He confessed remorsefully saying, “People of New England! Ye, that have loved me! – ye, that have deemed me holy! -behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last-at last! – I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood, here, with this woman… ”(Hawthorne, 174)
He finally admitted that he should have stood up on the scaffold with Hester when she was being punished. “Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it!… But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!… He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast…
Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it! ”(Hawthorne, 174-175) At that moment, he revealed the scarlet letter and the crowd was in awe. He said that there was one impure being among the townspeople-him-and that the scarlet letter on Hester’s breast is a mere shadow to what is engraved onto his. He then fell to the floor and requested Pearl if she would kiss him now as she had hesitated and refused to before. “Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken” (Hawthorne, 175). Dimmesdale’s confession can be considered the act of a man who is tragically great.
From the Christian perspective, Dimmesdale is saved by grace, and the grace is Hester with whom he shares in an hour of tran¬scendental freedom. The trend characteristic for all tragic heroes is when they observe honestly the distance separating their ideals from their actual selves and observing this try to bridge the space. Dimmesdale says to Hester, “I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am! ” And as he gains insight in this critical hour, the audience contemplates not a small failed reverend, but a classical tragic hero for whom “God knows; and He is merciful. ”
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