One of the major themes in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” is the idea of the public self as distinguished from the private self. This leitmotif encompasses much more than the idea of an individual versus society; it also contains the themes of hidden thoughts versus candid speech, staying true to self versus meeting social expectations, and freedom through self-actualization versus restriction through self-denial. The story develops three characters that represent different schools of thought regarding the contrast between the public and private self. Understanding the mindset and the approaches of each of these characters, as well as how they reconcile their two personas, is paramount in discerning Hawthorne’s message.
The first character, Hester Prynne, has the most consistency between her public and private persona. From the opening of the book to the closing, her public image mirrors her private thoughts and actions. Having already failed society’s expectations, she is altruistic, reserved, and free to think about life in unorthodox ways. In the public setting, she does not retaliate against the masses’ derogatory opinions of her nor try to change their feelings; she instead accepts people, ideas, and attitudes at their face value. She conducts herself similarly in private.
This aspect of Hester’s character is seen in her relationships with Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth. First, Hester does not place harsh restrictions upon Pearl; she generally lets her daughter do whatever the child wants. Hester only steps in to correct Pearl when Hester believes her daughter is behaving inappropriately. Hester takes Pearl at face value, and acts accordingly in response; she does not try to govern Pearl to produce a desired outcome.
This aspect of Hester reveals that she is not the type of person to dogmatically assert her own beliefs and opinions on others. She is content to accept the world and the people around her for what they are and make the best of them, regardless of her feelings. This approach to life can be seen in her public persona when she readily submits to her punishment of wearing the ignominious scarlet letter: accepting her fate and society’s viewpoint. She does not agree necessarily with them, but she is willing to put her own emotions aside to appease others. This desire to appease others may also be noted in the extensive amounts of time Hester took to take care of the marginalized of society.
Hester’s private behavior with Dimmesdale is different than in public, but she still stays true to herself in both scenarios. Her thinking is the same; however she voices her opinions in private while keeping quiet about them in public. Publicly, she does not try to sway Dimmesdale in either direction as redemption is sought for his transgressions: she leaves him alone. In private, however, she expresses her concerns and suggestions to him. Hester’s approach is governed by her desire to appease Dimmesdale. She sees that Dimmesdale does not want to discuss their affair before the community, so she stays taciturn. However, when she sees his private turmoil, she follows suit by talking to him about it privately. This further demonstrates Hester’s kind, reserved, and accepting nature: both clandestinely and publicly.
Even with her abhorred husband, Roger Chillingworth, Hester shows a degree of submission and altruism. She abides by Chillingworth’s request to not reveal his true identity to the public. The only time she privately confronts him is to demand that he stop torturing Dimmesdale. Even this action had nothing to do with Hester’s prior disgust with Chillingworth; it was simply to ameliorate Dimmesdale’s suffering. This once again shows Hester’s desire to appease people.
Hester’s character is a testament to the good that comes from staying true to self, regardless of setting. In public, she appeases the people by honoring her punishment and helps them by caring for the sick and making garments. In private, she still strives to appease others and assist them. By staying true to self and not vacillating between two separate modi operandi, covertly and openly, she attains the greatest level of enlightenment and redemption out of all Hawthorne’s characters.
Roger Chillingworth’s character demonstrates the atrocities that occur when a person’s public self is completely divergent and illegitimate to his private self. He presents himself as a kindly old man who is there to assist the town with their illnesses, namely Dimmesdale’s illness. However, in private, he is a maleficent angel of death who is there to twist the knife already placed in Dimmesdale’s heart. In public, he puts on the facade of caring about Dimmesdale’s medical condition and wanting to make it better; he appears to be ignorant of the exact cause of Dimmesdale’s suffering. This public display is completely fraudulent. In private, Chillingworth knows that Dimmesdale is Hester’s lover, and the vengeful old man’s only reason for assisting the young reverend is to further Dimmesdale’s suffering. Revenge is the poison that pervades all of Chillingworth’s actions. However, he hides these motives from the town. This concealment of his private self from the outside world devolves his initial drive for reconciliation and justified anger into unhealthy, corrupted animosity. Hester confronts Chillingworth about the matter, but Chillingworth denies the opportunity to end the downward spiral, which marks his full transformation into wickedness. Perhaps if Chillingworth had made known his identity and his intentions to the public, then he could have ended his personal rage before it consumed him.
The character of Dimmesdale is defined by his piety; it is his greatest asset, and yet it is his undoing. His affair with Hester, in his mind, forever broke his own sense of piety and righteousness. However, he strays from his new self-assessment of himself and still participates in the religious activities of a reverend. This alone constitutes a discrepancy between private self-esteem and public image. Furthermore, by vaguely claiming to the public he is indeed a sinner, the population further reveres him. This provides an even starker contrast between Dimmesdale’s public image and his own private view of himself, which feeds him the idea that his private self is the truer, more confidable side. Ergo, when he decides that he has to declare and atone for his sins, he opts to do so in a private setting. His own judgment then becomes impaired because he is only exposed to his own view and bias, without any empathy or alternate counsel from anyone else.
Because Dimmesdale has rejected all public opinions of him as false and uneducated, the alternate view that Hester finally does present him with warrants no credibility. While Dimmesdale is somewhat consistent because he acts miserably in both public and private, and says that he is a sinner in both settings, the two are weighted differently in his mind. Dimmesdale’s character exposes that it takes more than just acting the same in private and public; one must also balance and value the two equally. He invested too much time, energy, emotion, and faith into the private, which ultimately sapped him of all the liberation that could have come from a public reckoning.
From the three aforementioned characters, it becomes apparent that Hawthorne wanted to reveal personal peace and growth come through reconciliation and alignment of an individual’s private and public self. Chillingworth, who did not do this, became so depraved that Hester noted the ground where he stood seemed to swell with darkness, and Pearl started calling him “the Black Man”, which was synonymous with the devil’s name. Dimmesdale, who only left a meager amount of his private self open to the public, went into decline because he did not let the meditations of his heart equally permeate and resound through both the private and the public. In juxtaposition to Chillingworth and Dimmesdale is Hester Prynne. She stayed true to herself and let that be the guiding force for all her actions. Subsequently, she matured throughout the story and became a revered figure, despite the initial stigma she inherited with the scarlet letter. Through these three characters, Hawthorne wanted to show the imperative of refraining from deceiving the public about whom one truly is. He wanted to show that humanity’s nature is essentially corrupt and malignant, and the way to overcome this innate malice is not to hide it, but to share it publicly so that one may be liberated through the consistency and accountability that come along with being open with society and with self.