Private Guilt Versus Public Shame In The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne
One of the main purposes of The Scarlet Letter is to distinguish the difference between public shaming and allowing one to suffer their unjust acts in private. Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale are the main examples of this in the text. Hester’s private guilt affects her less than that of Dimmesdale’s. Although Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale commit the same crime, Dimmesdale feels more remorse than Hester because of his private guilt.
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is a well-educated Puritan minister who committed adultery with Hester Prynne. The first example of Dimmesdale feeling guilty about his sin appears when Pearl asks Hester, “Mother!- Mother!- Why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?”. This tendency of Dimmesdale’s symbolizes his guilt and the suffering he endures. He fears public shame. This could be because he is a Reverend, or because he fears the wrath of Hester’s husband. His fear of public shame becomes evident when Hawthorne writes, “All the dread of public exposure, that had so long been the anguish of his life, had returned upon him”. This line reveals the fear that Dimmesdale experiences for not being able to take responsibility for his actions.
Deep down, Dimmesdale wants to be honest about his past, but he desires public approval so greatly and is terrified of public shame. Hester cannot hide her sins like Dimmesdale can because she has the burden of a child that she must care for. He sees Hester bravely live with public shame and desires her confidence, but struggles to match her without cowering in fear. Dimmesdale even has a way to hide his scarlet letter because it was burned into his skin. Hawthorne does not directly say this, but he hints at it when he says, “In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge”. Dimmesdale has a disturbing amount of self-hatred. Hawthorne continues, “Oftentimes, the Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders, laughing bitterly at himself the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly because of that bitter laugh”. Dimmesdale’s private self-loathing has a greater effect on his mental health compared to Hester, who endures relentless public shaming.
Hester Prynne is a town member in Colonial America who had been imprisoned and convicted of adultery. She constantly endures being publicly shamed on the scaffold and somehow has a better state-of-mind than Dimmesdale. She still feels extreme guilt for her sins though. Hester’s shame becomes influential in her life, making her unable to express herself freely. She tries her best to act confident while in public, but internally feels judged and unaccepted. Hawthorne writes, “Hester Prynne might have repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful smile. But under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to endure, she felt at moments as if she must needs to shriek”. Even though Hester has stronger mental health than Dimmesdale, she still experiences influential guilt that affects the way she interacts with people.
Hester feels her peak amount of guilt when she sees what Dimmesdale has experienced. She wants to relieve her guilt by admitting who her husband is. She confesses, “Then I consented to a deception. But a lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side! Dost thou not see what I would say? That old man! — the physician! — he whom they call Roger Chillingworth! — he was my husband!’. Hester believes this would make Dimmesdale feel less guilty, but it only upsets him further. This is the judgment she receives from other townspeople. She wants to take revenge on everyone for judging her, but she fears feeling guilty about it later on.
It may seem that Hester can live with the consequences of her sins, but she is slowly isolating herself from the rest of the world. She treats others kindly to avoid confrontation, which proves she is trying to hide from her sins. This fear that Hester endures is part of the reason she feels so much guilt, but the ultimate reason she feels this way is caused by her daughter. Pearl forces the most guilt on Hester because she is the consequence of her sin. She has to raise this child, so she is reminded every time she sees Pearl that she has committed a serious crime and will never be forgiven for it. Hester loves her child but hates her sin.
Even though Dimmesdale and Hester committed the same sin, Dimmesdale feels more guilt because he has nothing to live for. He does not have a family or someone who needs him. Dimmesdale tells Chillingworth that “he could be well content, that his labors, and his sorrows, and his sins, and his pains, should shortly end with him, and what is earthly of them be buried in his grave”. Dimmesdale’s suffering is greater than his happiness, which leads him to believe that his death would end his suffering. He feels as if he needs additional punishment because he has to conceal his sin. Hester has the love of her child which prevents her from falling in a suicidal mental state just as Dimmesdale has. Dimmesdale possesses only his suffering and his life revolves around this.
The only truth, “that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth, was the anguish in his inmost soul, and the undissembled expression of it in his aspect”. While Dimmesdale and Hester’s lives both change because of their sin, Dimmesdale finds that he has nothing to live for. Hester has Pearl, who requires her affection and happiness. Dimmesdale has an undying conscious that follows him everywhere he goes. He finally realizes that the extra guilt on concealing his sin would vanish if he admits to committing the crime. He also feels ashamed that he has the town’s love and adoration because he knows he is unworthy of it. Hawthorne writes that “the agony with which this public veneration tortured him’. The townspeople believe that he is a saint while Dimmesdale knows of his horrible sin and lies. Hester does not feel this pressure and conflict that he does because she has nothing to hide. Dimmesdale wants to admit and say, “I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie”. His guilt mentally tortures him and drives him to insanity while Hester pushes to overcome her guilt.
Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale both commit the unforgivable sin of adultery. They are both in unfortunate states of mind, but Dimmesdale is driven to madness. He feels as if he has nothing to live for and his life has become pointless. Hester keeps her sanity for the sake of her child while Dimmesdale becomes suicidal. Regardless of the fact that Hester and Dimmesdale are both convicted of the same crime, Dimmesdale experiences greater guilt than Hester because of the challenging situation he places himself in.
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