Benjamin Lewis American Lit/AP Comp & Lit Heidkamp 2 December 2010 The Advantages of Public Shame in The Scarlet Letter Imagine a world in which everyone believes it is in their best interest to suppress their feelings. Most people in the modern world would undoubtedly find this prospect awful and depressing. After all, our phenomenon of instantaneous communication was conceived with the belief that humans desperately want and need to share their emotions and ideas. The widespread popularity of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking websites seem to affirm this assumption.
If one was to compare the Puritan setting of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter with this hypothetical world, they would soon realize the two are eerily similar. The characters and events of The Scarlet Letter reveal that the concealment of guilt, shame, regret, or passion is not natural or healthy for the human body or spirit and can lead to self-torture, the loss of all self-consciousness, and ultimately, destruction. Arthur Dimmesdale’s agonized suffering is the direct result of his inability to disclose his sin.
As a Puritan minister, he struggles with the knowledge of his adulterous act and his desire for penance. It eats at him and his already “peculiarly nervous temperament” (78). Dimmesdale knows that he has fallen short of both God’s principles and his own, and he fears this means he is not a part of the “elect. ” In an attempt for salvation, Dimmesdale whips his shoulders to shreds, fasts until “his knees trembled beneath him” (99), and keeps nightly vigils, but all in his “secret closet, under lock and key” (99). This private torture does not provide the cleansing of a public confession.
His effective power as a minister deceives his desire to confess and he soon loses track of what he is—a human, a sinner. The more he suffers, the more eloquent his preaching is on Sunday and the more the congregation regards him as a “miracle of holiness” (98). Hawthorne finally condemns these circumstances when he states, “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true” (148). Dimmesdale is virtually bound for ruin. Hester Prynne’s ability to sustain her stability and strength of spirit is the xpress result of her public guilt and penance. She was Arthur Dimmesdale’s partner in adultery, but she is used by Hawthorne as a complete foil to his situation. Unlike Dimmesdale, Hester is both strong and honest. Walking out of prison at the beginning of the novel, she decides that she must “sustain and carry” her burden forward “by the ordinary resources of her nature, or sink with it. She could no longer borrow from the future to help her through the present grief” (54). Hester openly acknowledges her sin to the public, and always wears her scarlet letter A.
In the forest scene, she explains to Dimmesdale that she has been truthful in all things except in revealing his part in her pregnancy. “A lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side” (133). Even Dimmesdale himself realizes that Hester’s situation is much healthier than his own when he states, “It must needs be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it all up in his heart” (92-93). This life of public shame and repentance, although bitter, lonely, and difficult, helps Hester retain her true identity while Dimmesdale seems to be losing his.
The final scaffold scene, in which Dimmesdale is transformed then dies, justifies and affirms the meaning of The Scarlet Letter. Tottering feebly and nervously in the Election Day procession, Dimmesdale’s face has taken on the pallor of death, and he can scarcely walk. His inner pain and grief has reached a breaking point. He makes it up to the scaffold where Hester and Pearl await him. Then fighting back “the bodily weakness,—and, still more, the faintness of heart,—that was striving for the mastery with him” (174), he confesses his sin to the people of Boston.
With this action, the reader senses that whether chosen or earned, Dimmesdale’s salvation has become a reality. After having opportunities to confess, without success until this scene, certainly true to his nature rather than his ministry, he asks for God’s forgiveness not only for himself, but also for Chillingworth, who confirms the minister’s success when he proclaims, “Thou hast escaped me!… Thou hast escaped me! ” (175). It is sin and its acknowledgement that ultimately humanizes Dimmesdale and allows the reader to feel a sense of tragedy and sorrow at his death.