The Novel Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter is a novel written in 1850 by Nathaniel Hawthorne featuring Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale as the main characters. The story begins in Boston, where Prynne is condemned and humiliated by her community for having an affair that resulted in the birth of her daughter, Pearl. Consequently, Prynne is coerced to march through the entire town carrying her baby as evidence of her sin (James 15-20). Prynne’s loneliness following the absence of her husband (he seems to have lost his way while in the sea), Roger Chillingworth, pushes her to have an affair with Arthur Dimmesdale, a reverend, outside her marriage. In adherence to the customs of her community of punishing adulterers by humiliating them in public, Prynne is forced to put on “The Scarlet Letter” continually in her bosom. According to James (15-20), the town people also ordered Prynne to tell them, whom she had an affair with; a demand that she declined to obey, and instead decided to remain quiet. On the contrary, Dimmesdale decides to keep his act a secret because there is no outward sign showing that he is a co-partner in committing the affair. Instead, Dimmesdale allows his lover, Prynne, to be publicly scorned and humiliated on her own. Nonetheless, Dimmesdale suffers in silence because of the shame of indulging in such an immoral act (Literature Resource Center 115-125). This paper compares and contrasts the two characters: Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter.
Hester Prynne vs. Arthur Dimmesdale
One similarity between Prynne and Dimmesdale is that they both reside in the same town and are both involved in the same offense, adultery. The former character is a seamstress living within the outskirts of the town, while the latter is a Reverend in the church. It is worth noting that the above two characters react very differently in regards to the sin they committed together. In dealing with her guilt, Prynne decides to devote herself to assisting people in need within her community (Abbott 135-148). From the novel, we are told that Prynne sewed clothes for the underprivileged within her society, and even assisted them financially with all her proceeds. According to Nathaniel (141), Prynne worked so hard that instead of her community seeing her scarlet letter, “A” that stood for “adulteress”, the letter instead meant, “able”. Prynne’s scarlet letter announced to every person, who saw her, that she was an adulterer; however, instead of stressing herself over it, she learnt to accept her mistake and carry on with life normally. Her action may have been gross according to her community, but Prynne still believed that she should be forgiven. Being a proud and strong woman, Prynne is able to walk confidently amongst her sneering villagers.
On the contrary to Prynne, who faced the consequences of her mistakes, Dimmesdale, on the other hand, does not come out clean to confess his involvement in the extra marital affair. Instead, Dimmesdale decides to keep silent over the issue for nearly seven years fearing punishment via death in case he discloses his secret. Being a Reverend, Dimmesdale believes that he has betrayed God through his actions, and to deal with his shame and guilt that continually weighs on him mentally, he punishes himself brutally by whipping and starving himself (Abbott 135-148). With time, Dimmesdale develops health problems that take a toll on his life, coupled with the guilt of committing adultery. According to Abbott, Dimmesdale was filled with joy, when he eventually confessed his sins in public. Though he is finally freed from the burden that weighed on him for a long time, Dimmesdale, however, dies shortly following his confession.
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It is a fact that both Prynne and Dimmesdale are involved in committing a similar sin, adultery; however, there is a variation in the interpretation of the weight of the mistakes. Prynne, for instance sees their affair as a violation of normal order of the surroundings, and that is why, according to Abbott (135-148), she does not think that the affair she had with Dimmesdale should be considered evil. This, perhaps, explains why Prynne is able to continue with her life normally, despite being publicly condemned and disgraced. On the contrary, Dimmesdale interprets the weight of his sin as a violation of the law of God; a law that he is entirely devoted to. This explains the condemnation and self-torture he imposes on himself, because he feels that he has violated the same laws of God that he is supposed to uphold (Abbott 135-148). It is worth noting that Dimmesdale takes the adultery more seriously that his counterpart, Prynne. Other than acting against his personal self-consciousness, Dimmesdale also breaches the God’s law; an act, which he considers evil.
Another contrast between Dimmesdale and Prynne is in the punishment they receive for their shameful affair. From the novel, the Puritan Community compels Prynne to march through the entire town carrying her baby, at the same time putting on a scarlet letter in her bosom. This is to show the public that she is an adulterer, and her daughter is the evidence of that sin. While Prynne’s punishment is external, Dimmesdale, in contrast, punishes himself internally by whipping and starving himself; the actions, which severely and negatively impact his physical and mental health (Abbott 135-148).
Prynne and Dimmesdale also contrast with regard to guilt and shame. Guilt is defined by Nathanson (150) as an emotion that takes place, when somebody believes that he/she has committed a felony resulting in accountability for one’s actions. On the other hand, shame is the painful feeling following one’s awareness of committing a disgraceful act that offends the decency of an individual. It is vivid from this definition that shame is associated with negative feelings, as well as pain. The reaction of Prynne and Dimmesdale to their immoral act clearly indicates that the former is guilty, while the latter is suffering from shame. Prynne wears her scarlet letter with pride, and even walks with it everywhere she goes, which is a clear indication that she is being accountable to the consequences of her mistakes. According to Nathanson (142), Prynne’s elegant personality gradually fades, because of the society’s cruel treatment. Being constantly under tht public scorn, further adds to Prynne’s guilt, eventually taking away the passion that she once had. It is significant to point out that while Prynne willingly accepts her retribution and feels culpable for her crime, she is nevertheless not ashamed of herself as an individual. This is contrary to Reverend Dimmesdale, whose behavior indicates the emotional shame he is undergoing because of the sin he has committed. Pattison (164) states that shame negatively affects one’s character when it is permitted to take over, and as a result, the shamed individual feels trapped, depressed, and suffers from self-rejection. This is very true for Dimmesdale, whose shame makes him feel miserable and internally tormented to the extent that his suffering reflects on his health. Because of the Dimmesdale’s relentless agony resulting from his affair with Prynne, he looses motivation to go on with living. According to Nathanson (150), defense mechanisms against shame include avoidance and withdrawal. From the novel, Dimmesdale isolates himself from the people close to him; something that significantly contributes to his depression (Pimple 257-271). In addition, Dimmesdale deceives himself, as well as his congregation, with regard to his actual character (adulterer) by preaching sermons against sin in order to draw people’s attention away from his flawed self.
Prynne and Dimmesdale are both terrified of what the public thinks of them. For instance, when the crowd demands to know the name of her lover, Prynne declines to say anything. It can, therefore, be said that these two characters are both cowards. The cowardice of Prynne is apparent, when she consents to running way with Dimmesdale to Europe, as well as when she attempts to take off the scarlet letter during her meeting with her lover in the forest (Granger 7). According to Hawthorne, Prynne’s plan was to wear her scarlet letter never again as manifest in the declaration, “The mid-ocean shall take it from my hand, and swallow it up forever!” (193). Despite appearing brave in Boston, while wearing the scarlet letter along the streets, Prynne’s conduct while in the forest betrays this courage; she does not want to be seen publicly wearing the scarlet letter when she goes to Europe. Dimmesdale’s cowardice, on the other hand, is clear in a major part of the novel, when he fails to openly confess his sin and account for his mistakes by acknowledging Pearl as her daughter.
The Scarlet Letter is a very interesting book with numerous moral lessons to the reader regarding suffering. What happens in the lives of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale can be compared to the occurrences within the relationships in everyday life. One important lesson that stands out from the lives of these two characters is that nobody is perfect; we all make mistakes, whose consequences affect us in one way or another. It is evident from the novel that the way people deal with the consequences of their mistakes greatly determines the quality of the life they live afterwards. In my opinion, people should be ready to account for the mistakes they make, as well as to learn to continue with their lives afterwards, in the same way as Prynne did.