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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gripping tale, The Scarlet Letter, a revered Puritan minister suffers from cowardly guilt and hypocrisy after he commits adultery in this novel staged in the seventeenth century. Arthur Dimmesdale, who hides himself in the shame of his lover, Hester Prynne, protects his reputation among the Puritan people. The scaffold, a public symbol of disgrace, contrasts with the pastor’s silent sin of adultery. When Hester became a symbol of sin among the people and wore the scarlet letter as punishment, Dimmesdale bears a sinner’s masked mark in his heart.
As a result of his concealed sin, Dimmesdale suffers from guilt and hypocrisy. Over the course of the three scaffold scenes, Dimmesdale changes from cowardly guilt and hypocrisy, to desperate guilt and hypocrisy, and finally to repentant hope.
In the first scaffold scene, Dimmesdale is aware of his guilt and hypocrisy when he questions his lover, Hester Prynne, but is too cowardly to confess his sin. Questioning the adulteress from a balcony alongside the spiritual and political leaders of the Puritan colony, the author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, correlates Dimmesdale’s elevated position among the Puritan colony and shows Dimmesdale’s reputation at stake.
Placing pressure on the young woman, Dimmesdale pleads, “Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life.
”1 Wordlessly relieved by her silence, Dimmesdale cowardly withheld his sin from the public.
The significance of Dimmesdale’s cowardice parallels with the shame and fear of the scaffold and the mockery it brings. Seven years later, in the second scaffold scene, Dimmesdale is desperate to confess because his guilt and hypocrisy have only increased, but he manages only a cowardly private rehearsal of his confession. In the still of the night, Dimmesdale desperately climbed the scaffold and shrieked aloud, “It is done!”2 It was not so. Shrieking aloud like those suffering souls who turn away from the face of God, Dimmesdale felt little relief from the iron chains of guilt and hypocrisy. Longing to free his guilty soul, Dimmesdale stood on the scaffold imagining Hester’s disgrace. Illustrating his inner conflicts, Dimmesdale had expressed himself by screaming aloud. Immediate horror encompassed him because he is afraid of being discovered by the town. Alone in the abyss of darkness, upon the pedestal of shame, Dimmesdale found little relief in his private confession in the second scaffold scene.
Finally, a few days later, Dimmesdale confesses his sin publicly in the third scaffold scene, showing his repentance and thereby finding relief from guilt and hypocrisy. Allowing his sin to fester in his heart for over seven years, Dimmesdale, now a dying man from sin, decided to ascend the scaffold. Dimmesdale, understanding that he, a dying man, sought mercy and forgiveness, and climbed the pedestal in guilty remorse. “Ye that have loved me!—ye, that have deemed me holy!—behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last I stand upon the spot where seven years since, I should have stood!”3 Beckoning Hester and their child, Pearl, to his side, Dimmesdale’s voice strengthened. As he confesses, the people recognized Dimmesdale bore the same stigma that marked Hester. Dimmesdale asks for forgiveness, therefore completing his necessary duty to receive the benefit of redeeming grace and hope and releasing himself from the devil’s clutches.
A dramatic character, Dimmesdale changes through the course of three scaffold scenes as a result of his hidden sins. Arthur Dimmesdale acknowledges his sin in the last scaffold scene as he realizes his cowardice when Hester is punished and acknowledges his sufferings caused by his hidden sins seven years later. Driven by the realization that his offences dictate his life, Dimmesdale’s sins choked him from a deeper spiritual life. At first without success, Arthur Dimmesdale tried to free himself, but doesn’t do so until the third scaffold scene when he finally confesses. In conclusion, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of The Scarlet Letter, reminds the reader to be wary of cowardly guilt and hypocrisy as demonstrated in Arthur Dimmesdale’s character: “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred.”4 Free of guilt and hypocrisy in his public confession, Dimmesdale died in hope of God’s mercy.
1-4 Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Scarlet Letter (Dover Thrift Study Edition: The Complete Work + Comprehensive Study Guide: Copyright 2009 by Dover Publications) p. 47, p. 102, p. 127, p. 174
Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved. This work belongs to Ashlyn R. Thomas and may not be reproduced without consent. If found plagiarizing and/or using this work, you will be prosecuted. This is only to be used as inspiration, and not taken as someone else’s own work.
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