The Fortunate Fall in Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” Essay
The Fortunate Fall in Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter”
Sin, according to the concept of Felix culpa or the fortunate fall, is necessary in human life. Its entire idea is based on the fact that, in order to achieve greatness, man must first “fall”. He who rises above his offense evolves both spiritually and morally. In The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne presents the character of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale in such a humane way that, instinctively, their suffering and pain becomes a strange object of interest and pity. The manners in which their distress occurs, however, are entirely different. While the reverend undergoes a deep torment of the soul, one that leads to his climatic revelation, the adulteress experiences misery through social estrangement. Either way, both the frail man and the misunderstood woman undergo a drastic metamorphosis that, by the use of a precise novel structure and three balanced scaffold scenes, bring the story to a full circle.
Arthur Dimmesdale; the dutiful minister who cannot admit his own humanity; the troubled lover who cannot expose his hidden adoration; the absent father who must publicly reject his daughter, is the central figure that demonstrates the concept of the fortunate fall. Throughout the entire novel Dimmesdale is the personification of human feebleness, sorrow, and ill-health. However it is not his corporal being that is most affected but his inner one. Hawthorne supports this when he admits, “Wherever there is a heart and an intellect, the diseases of the physical frame are tinged with the peculiarities of these [the intellectual thoughts].” In other words it is Dimmesdales internal turmoil that haunts his physical self and becomes the only apparent connection into his obscured past. His “bodily disease” is no more than a “symptom of some ailment in [his] spiritual part.” Being the bearer of such a dastardly secret is a burden in and of itself but, by being tortured constantly and so profusely by a seemingly trustworthy friend, his distress increases ten-fold.
It is this terrible toil he pays for a sin “of passion, not of principle, nor even purpose” that allows Dimmesdale, as a character and person, to develop. Since he has felt the touch of sin, Dimmesdale can now more effectively relate to the confessions he is endured to hear. He recognizes that in every person lies a dormant seed of evil, no-one is spared or excluded. After learning this fact Dimmesdale no longer feels as guilty or encumbered. He becomes aware that wherever he walks, be it near the shipyard or the church, some corrupted spirit walks beside him, seeking his counsel. But the advice that Dimmesdale formerly so readily gave has become, to him, a disgusting irony and mockery of his position. He cannot help but question his own motives, considering he has erred and continues to preach against immoral behavior. The insincerity of his ways coupled with Chillingworth’s solemn swear to “entice [him] into a bond that will prove the ruin of [his] soul” leaves Dimmesdale an “unhappy shell of a man.” It is in this fragile state that the priest becomes a revered deity whose words are carefully and gently gathered, a true rise to greatness.
Hester Prynne; the outcast adulteress who refuses to wallow in self-pity; the skilled worker who uses her tainted hands for good; the eternally concerned mother who cannot understand the fiendish ways of her child, illustrates the concept of the fortunate fall in a much different yet equally as significant manner. After years of public ignominy “there seemed to be no longer anything in [Hester’s] face for love to dwell on.” For Hester the only reason she has for living, lest “Death was too definite an object to be wished for or avoided”, becomes Pearl, her “only treasure.” She works to provide food and a home, but mostly she toils to give Pearl the life she herself had lost. The people of the village are skeptical about Hester’s true intentions and, in a desperate move, threaten to rip Pearl from her grasp.
In an act that demonstrates her indestructible love, Hester plunges into the society that so reverently despises her and speaks to Governor Bellingham, raising her voice almost to a shriek, ” God gave me the child…She is my happiness!- she is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life!” This brief yet vital statement confirms the idea that with Hester’s fall a new chance arrives, one for her daughter. And as time passes she receives one as well; for by laboring hard and keeping to her own Hester, who was once viewed as a blasphemous offender, is seen as the epitome of “a women’s strength”, her scarlet letter reading the word “Able”. But even though she has become accepted, she cannot help but feel ever more isolated. Hester, as hard as she tries, cannot repent; her penance is an intangible illusion.
She still lacks her former beauty, internal and external, and informs Pearl to, “Gather thine own sunshine. I have none to give thee.” Her dearth, caused by her fortunate fall, causes her to question herself and her sex. Her heart, which had “lost it’s regular and healthy throb”, “wandered without a clew in the dark labyrinth of [her] mind.” Her “individual existence” gave her a “tendency [for] speculation”, allowing Hester Prynne to examine the “very nature of the opposite sex”. But like too often occurs, “[the] persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society.” Hester, although she benefits from her fall and rises above it, is unable to take the final step into the hostile world, the main difference between her and her cowardly lover.
A main theme in literature is to question which ignominy, public or private, is the greater source of suffering. In this novel the two alternatives are embodied by Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, respectively. For the first six or seven chapters the answer seems to be that Hester, being the center of a horrible silence and the core of open criticism, is the obvious choice. The “burning letter” which many people claimed to have seen glowing under Satan’s command, is “made to sear” upon the unfortunate bosom. Yet the letter on her chest does not seem to destroy Hester’s hope fully. In fact she stills holds some hope that one day, “were [she] worthy to quit it”, “[the letter] would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that would speak a different purport.” Although the “mark of the Black Man” is a heavy burden on Hester, its effect on Dimmesdale is devastating. Since “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”, Dimmesdale becomes utterly confused in which course of action to take.
He cannot simply abandon his church, and he could also never dedicate himself fully to being a father. Thusly Dimmesdale, being a blind sufferer, did not know the intensity of what he endure[d]” until he felt “the pang that rankle[d] after it.” And it is this unsuspected onslaught of suffering that catches him with a blow from which he never full recovers. After seven long years of torment, he finally decides to bring himself “down from a higher place.” Unlike Hester, whose public agony was somewhat reduced by her gradual acceptance, Dimmesdales pardon can never be approved since he hides it like a festering sore.
And after being prodded and poked for too long Dimmesdale finally and climatically “bursts”. Upon the scaffold and in plain view of his beloved devotees he announces his violation of reverence of Hester’s soul, and her reciprocal action. And with a final act of piety he kisses Pearl upon the lips, breaking a spell of anguish and sorrow. As he lay dying, he feels the affects of the “ever-active tooth of remorse gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly”, something Hester cannot feel. He has come to terms with the fact that he shall never meet his lover “in an ever-lasting and pure reunion.” His private ignominy proves to be a tougher road than Hester’s public one.
Often the weight of a burden is not felt until its weight has been lifted. For both Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale the burden was a tremendous one, one that caused social, emotional, and physical changes. The “fortunate falls” both characters experienced allowed them to undergo a complete change that led to their eventual reconciliation with society, and most importantly, themselves.