In Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”, the quote “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 true.” stands true in many forms. Both Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, prominent characters in the novel, convey this two-faced nature in the countenance of an overbearing Puritan society. It is this inner conflict, existing within all humans, that eventually brings about the downfall of these characters and to a large degree sheds light upon the human condition.
Dimmesdale, the personification of “human frailty and sorrow,” is young, pale, and physically delicate. An ordained Puritan minister, he is well educated, and he has a philosophical turn of mind. There is no doubt that he is devoted to God, passionate in his religion, and effective in the pulpit. He also has the principal conflict in the novel, and his agonized suffering is the direct result of his inability to disclose his sin. In Puritan terms, Dimmesdale’s predicament is that he is unsure of his soul’s status: He is exemplary in performing his duties as a Puritan minister, an indicator that he is one of the elect; however, he knows he has sinned and considers himself a hypocrite, a sign he is not chosen.
Dimmesdale’s struggle is dark and his penance is horrifying as he tries to unravel his mystery. He struggles with his knowledge of his sin, his inability to disclose it to Puritan society, and his desire for penance. He knows his actions have fallen short of both God’s standards and his own, and he fears this represents his lack of salvation. In an attempt to seek salvation, he fasts until he faints and whips himself on the shoulders until he bleeds. But these punishments are done in private rather than in public and do not provide the cleansing Dimmesdale seeks and needs.
For Dimmesdale, his effectiveness as a minister betrays his desire to confess. The more he suffers, the better his sermons become. The more he whips himself, the more eloquent he is on Sunday and the more his congregation worships his words. Sin and agony have enabled the intellectual scholar-minister to recognize and empathize with other sinners. In the long run, Dimmesdale has not the strength or honesty needed to overcome this sin. He cannot stand alone to confess and this is the reason for his downfall. His sin blinds him from his family and from himself and in doing so leads him to death.
Hester is physically described in the first scaffold scene as a tall young woman with a “figure of perfect elegance on a large scale.” Her most impressive feature is her “dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam.” Her complexion is rich, her eyes are dark and deep, and her regular features give her a beautiful face. In fact, so physically stunning is she that “her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.
Contrast this with Hester’s appearance after seven years of punishment for her sin. Her beautiful hair is hidden under her cap, her beauty and warmth are gone, buried under the burden of the elaborate scarlet letter on her bosom. Hester travels through the story becoming only a shadow of her former passionate loving self. She is an outcast, living in practical isolation from the rest of the world, however, this beauty still lives within. This visage that she conveys on the exterior is the result of Puritan society and its overbearing views. Because of Hester’s obeyance to this moral structure she can be seen as powerless in a society that can’t help but persecute the weak. It is this very rejection of her “true self” that can be viewed as Hester Prynne’s downfall.
Through the analysis of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”, the quote “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 true.” is shown to be evident. It is Dimmesdale’s inability to disclose his sin with Puritan society as well as Hester’s rejection of her “true self” that form the basis for this argument as well as the basis of human nature. Through this inner conflict, the downfall of both of these characters came about, along with the depletion of the very self values that held them together in the first place. In finally giving in to moral structures, these characters lost what was nearest to them, and lost themselves in the process.