A great deal of blood has been shed and many wars have been fought during the history of civilization; however, man’s greatest battle and most formidable enemy is only himself. Humans like to think of themselves as faultless, but sin is inevitable. Mankind is a sinful race; therefore, everyone has sinned. This has been made only more evident with the passing of time and the development of the human character. Not every person has the ability to address the concept of sin and also display it in a way that causes others to look at their lives through critical eyes.
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However, one factor that has remained constant in the human character through this development is conscience. As conscience continues to consume all that is his very essence, the struggling Arthur Dimmesdale, illustrates Hawthorne’s theme of the negative affects of a sin-stained conscience and a life of secrecy in The Scarlet Letter. In this story, an anguished Arthur Dimmesdale struggles to pacify his conscience and withhold the secret of his sin from being known. He did not reveal to anyone the revenge he felt in his heart, and he tried to keep anyone from realizing that his revenge was slowly taking over his life.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was successful in writing a novel that accentuated sin and guilt interchangeably, while revealing to the readers the consequences of living with sin as a guideline. The letter A proved to be the primary focus because it had direct influence on every person in the novel. His characters lived interchangeable but distinct lives with different joys, loves, sins, and morals. Arthur begins to feel that if he confesses to the crime he has committed he will end the personal stress on his soul.
Feeling full well the torment of his own secret, Arthur proclaims that those who hold such “miserable secrets will yield them up that last day with a joy unutterable” (Hawthorne 91). By this expression, Arthur offers a glimpse into his tortured heart and shows how heavy a burden his secret is. This is where the novel begins to delve into the heart and conscience of Arthur Dimmesdale when Roger Chillingworth questions him about his thoughts on sinners and their secrets. When Chillingworth further inquires about such sinful secrets, Arthur holds his hand to his breast, a motion that he performs frequently (Hawthorne 91).
The reader is presented with the thought that this gesture possibly is not done as much out of physical suffering as spiritual suffering. It almost shows a red stigma or burden on the life of Dimmesdale. Not only is the health of Arthur’s body in question, but also the condition of his heart, his soul, is dubious. The engraving on Arthur’s chest suggests that the burden of his sin had seeped so deeply within him, it has now forced its way outside. Although Hawthorne lets this aspect of the novel remain ambiguous, we as the reader now know that Arthur’s sin has begun consuming him.
His conscience was now stained with sin, and its weight will soon become too much to bear. When Chillingworth uncovers the secret Arthur had tried to keep intact, the scarlet letter A upon his chest is clearly visible (Hawthorne 95). With this new knowledge obtained by Chillingworth, he can now initiate another affect of a life of secrecy which will eventually lead to misery, pain, and tormenting. Chillingworth can now examine the life of Arthur Dimmesdale and make his it a nightmare for him. Later in the book when Dimmesdale and Hester were in the woods, Dimmesdale said to Hester, “Thy heart must be no longer under his evil eye… were far worse than death” (Hawthorne 135).
This shows how bad Chillingworth eventually torments Dimmesdale. Arthur begins his progressive moral revolution and self-hatred. He despises the hypocrisy of such a vile scoundrel, as himself preaching from behind the pulpit, yet can never bring himself to admit his corruption before his congregation. From this undesirable spiritual weight he seeks freedom. He had striven to find forgiveness in admitting his guilt at the pulpit, but he ended up only feeling more shamed when the masses viewed his confessions as only more proof of his saintliness.
His inner turmoil led him to find other methods of penance: the scourge, fasting, and vigils. Arthur would whip his shoulders senselessly, fast rigorously to the point of where his knees trembled, and sit in either the darkness, the light of a single lamp, or while gazing into a mirror on the occasion of a night (Hawthorne 99-100). Conscience can be man’s saving grace or his damning affliction; its presence may simultaneously purify and mar. On one such night, Arthur found temporary solace.
The guilt of seven years caused him to steal swiftly to the scaffold, the same scaffold Hester Prynne was publicly shamed years ago – the same scaffold he should have been on. Climbing atop this structure and later being joined by Pearl and Hester, an electrical charge pulsed through his body and he was reawakened (Hawthorne 106-107). However, he still refused to admit his crime in front of the town, and when he returned to the trappings of society, he was greeted again by his familiar hypocrisy. These acts of penance failed in purifying him, and only caused him to lapse further in his distortion of the world and its realities.
Concealing sin and converting to a life of secrecy has forced Dimmesdale to lead a very depressing life. With his last steps, he ascends the scaffold and completes something he feels he should have completed seven years earlier: he accepts his sin, he accepts Hester, and he accepts Pearl. He reveals to the world his humanity and in so doing, forgives himself and is himself forgiven. His conscience and the truth, which had been agonizing him before has purified him, and he is free to achieve the peace he was in search of. Arthur Dimmesdale’s embrace of his conscience and truth lead to a decisive victory in the battle against himself.
In the novel, Arthur Dimmesdale proved to be an effective character in illustrating the theme of conscience and redemption through truth. Through Arthur’s change from merely feeling the pains of his human weakness while being interviewed, to his attempts at relieving his pain through scourging, fasting, and vigils, to his ultimate acceptance of the truth at the final scaffold scene, Nathaniel Hawthorne succeeds in showing that redemption can be achieved through truth alone. Complete atonement comes only with complete truth.