A person’s morals and beliefs are the structure for which their life is built upon. Once you have defied these ‘morals’; there is no greater punishment than having to live within oneself. The Scarlet Letter, a Nineteenth Century novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, raises the question of what is worse is worse; A sin that has been allowed out in the open, or one that has been concealed. Hawthorne chooses a character, Arthur Dimmsdale, to demonstrate that. Dimmsdale, an ordained minister, is a man that is revered within his Puritan society for not only his quiet and effective sermons, but also for his kind hearted ways.
A young clergyman coming straight from a university, Dimmsdale brought with him new ideas about religion as well as a renewed passion for the sermons which he gave. The Reverend is described as a ‘person of very striking aspect, with a white, lofty, and intending brow, large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth which, unless when he forcibly compressed it, was apt to be tremulous, expressing both nervous sensibility and vastpower of self restraint.
Though as the chapters go on it becomes apparent that Dimmsdale is in fact not quite the man that he had been perceived as. Though thoughtful and honest, Dimmsdale did not have the restraint as thought. He in fact, was the father of Hester Prynne’s illegitimate daughter Pearl. Rather than having to face the public damnation as well as the detriment to his place within society, Dimmsdale choose to conceal his own guilt, allowing Hester to take the shame and scrutiny alone. Though it may seem that Dimmsdale is cold hearted, in fact the opposite is true.
While it is true that Dimmsdale refused to publicly announce his sin, withholding it within himself turned out to be much more punishment than any other could have given. This carnal sin, moreover the concealment of it, in fact is what ultimately becomes this man’s demise. A once vibrant man was literally eaten alive by the guilt for which he carried within his heart. The Reverand’s vibrant eyes became dark, his rosy cheeks pale and hallow. His once young body now emaciated as if he was trying to purge the sin from within it.
Yet if that was still not enough, Dimmsdale walked with a hand covering his heart. His own token reminder that though he himself is no longer an esteemed preacher of God, but simply a man living within a life of sin. Dimmsdale’s life was consumed with thoughts of the child, the lover, the life in which he had to keep in secrecy. Dimmsdale once said, ‘;Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years’, to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am!
Would Reverend Dimmsdale truly have been happier had the entire congregation known that he was the father of a child born out of an adulterous affair? Would he have been content to keep his sins to himself had the threat of Chillingsworth not been so overwhelming? I do not believe so. I do believe that Dimmsdale was on some level jealous of Hester for being allowed, or forced, to publicly claim her sins. Hester was able to acknowledge her sins, and thus she was able to seek redemption for them. Dimmsdale was never able to do either.
I believe that this novel would not have been nearly as effective without the presence of Dimmsdale to be used in contrast with the other characters. We are able to see two lives take totally different courses from the same set of circumstances. Hester Prynne is able to rise above the pain and humiliation, while Dimmsdale becomes encompassed by it. Having the ability to mirror these two characters, lends to a much better understanding of each, and therefore allows Hawthorne’s words to come to life in the way in which he intended.