Puritanical religious hypocrisy, the beauty of free love, the oppressive nature of socially imposed guilt trips.
On a cursory reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter: A Romance, you may come away thinking that these are the modern-day truths that Hawthorne was arguing for.
But you would be wrong.
I am convinced that Hawthorne was very aware of the foolishness of Romanticism and that through brilliant portrayals of the characters in his novel he highlights the pitfalls of romantic philosophy and the real solution to guilt and shame.
Romanticism is at the heart of our current culture’s mindset. The essential idea of Romanticism is that feeling is everything, but more on that later. Let’s turn our attention to Hawthorne’s colourful characters.
Early on in the story we get a magnificent glimpse of one of the main characters, Hester Prynne:
“The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was lady-like, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days…”p 55
The ”misfortune and ignominy” of her state – being caught out as having committed adultery – did not put a cloud over her appearance. In fact, her “beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.” (p 55)
This woman, this picture of beauty and womanhood, who had committed so great a sin – what would become of her? What effect would the shame of bearing the scarlet letter A upon her breast for the rest of her life have on Hester?
As Hester settles into her life of eternal shame, we find her appearance start to change.
“The effect of the symbol – or rather, of the position in respect to society that was indicated by it – on the mind of Hester Prynne herself, was powerful and peculiar. All the light and graceful foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and has long ago fallen away, leaving a bare and harsh outline, which might have been repulsive, had she possessed any friends or companions to be repelled by it. Even the attractiveness of her person had undergone a similar change… It was a sad transformation, too, that her rich and luxuriant hair had either been cut off, or was so completely hidden by a cap, that not a shining lock of it ever once gushed into the sunshine… there seemed to be no longer any thing in Hester’s face for Love to dwell upon; nothing in Hester’s form, though majestic and statue-like, that Passion would ever dream of clasping in its embrace; nothing in Hester’s bosom, to make it ever again the pillow of Affection.”p 169
These are stark and shocking descriptions. The effect of the Scarlet Letter “or rather, of the position in respect to society that was indicated by it” was to destroy and remove all of the beauty and womanliness that characterized Hester when first she took the Letter upon her breast.
We must leave Hester Prynne for a moment and turn our gaze to her fellow sinner – Reverend Dimmesdale.
Reverend Dimmesdale is introduced to us with these words: “He was a person of very striking aspect, with a white, lofty, and impending brow, large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth which, unless he forcibly compressed it, was apt to be tremulous, expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast power of self-restraint.” (p 68-69)
This description is one of a respectable man. A little shy, perhaps. And not without a large spoonful of irony – Hawthorne loves his irony. The man who is doomed to regret a moment of passion (spoiler alert: Rev. Dimmesdale is Hester’s fellow adulterer) is first described as having “a vast power of self-restraint.”
As the story presses on, we are next given a portrait of the guilty man, Rev. Dimmesdale, at the Governors house when the Reverend defends Hester’s right to keep her daughter, Pearl. Here “He looked more careworn and emaciated than as we described him at the scene of Hester’s public ignominy; and whether it were his failing health, or whatever the cause might be, his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth.” (p 117)
As the story goes on, his cheeks became pale, he looked like he was going to die, “his form grew emaciated”, his voice gained a “certain melancholy prophesy of decay” (p 123), and he grew “paler and thinner” “every successive Sunday” (p 125).
The problem for Rev. Dimmesdale was that he was eaten up with guilt. He longed to publicly confess his sin. Rev. Dimmesdale even tells his congregation how he “was altogether vile, a viler companion of the vilest, the worst of sinners, an abomination, a thing of unimaginable initquity.” (p 149) But his congregation heard this and reverenced him the more because of his saintly ability to discern sin “in his own white soul.” (p 149).
Rev. Dimmesdale doesn’t know what to do with his guilt. He can’t bring himself to confess it clearly. And when he confesses it in general terms he is viewed as more saintly.
Dimmesdale even tries purging his guilt through fasting, introspection and scourging himself. But alas, he “could not purify himself” (p 150).
The destruction of this man continues until we meet him in the forest returning from visiting the Indians “haggard and feeble” “leaning on a staff” as he walked (p 195). All of the life has been sucked out of this poor man.
“There was a listlessness in his gait; as if he saw no reason for taking one step farther, nor felt any desire to do so, but would have been glad, could he be glad of anything, to fling himself down at the root of the nearest tree, and lie there passive forevermore.”p 195
The picture is of a man devoid of life, miserable, weak, a walking dead man. And the cause of this transformation is his guilt and shame.
So, we have in these two characters a great contrast.
Both Hester and Dimmesdale are guilty of great sin. Both are guilty of the same sin. Hester, however, is publicly guilty; Dimmesdale carries a private burden.
We see this guilt symbolized in what they carry on their bosom.
Hester carries her scarlet letter on the outside of her chest. It is stuck onto her clothes. It could be removed if she so wished (and she does remove it at one point). It is visible.
Rev. Dimmesdale also has something over his heart. For most of the story we can’t see anything there – but we know something is there because throughout The Scarlet Letter there is a constant refrain when Hawthorne describes Reverend Dimmesdale – “hand over his heart”. I didn’t count them but there must have been dozens of repetitions of this phrase – always in relation to the Reverend.
The phrase should always make us think of Hester and the Scarlet Letter that was fixed over her heart – the letter which “oftentimes, she could scarcely refrain, yet always did refrain, from covering the symbol with her hand.” (p 89)
Hester never covered her guilt, but Dimmesdale always did.
Hidden Sins and Hypocrisy
This idea of hiding sin and guilt is a strong theme in The Scarlet Letter. Rev. Dimmesdale certainly spends most of his time walking around with his hand over his heart covering his guilt and shame. But in this seemingly-perfect Puritan town, is anyone else struggling with hidden guilt? Hester finds out the answer to that question:
“Sometimes, once in many days, or perchance in many months, she felt an eye – a human eye – upon the ignominious brand, that seemed to give a momentary relief, as if half her agony were shared.”p 89
The Scarlet Letter gave her a “sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts.” (p 90)
Hawthorne gives several examples of what this was like for Hester:
“Sometimes, the red infamy upon her breast would give a sympathetic throb, as she passed near a venerable minister or magistrate, the model of piety and justice, to whom that age of antique reverence looked up, as to a mortal man in fellowship with angels. ‘What evil thing is at hand?’ would Hester say to herself.”p 90
While Hester suffers public shame for her sin, it seems that many others in the pure community have secret sins that they keep carefully hidden away lest any should know.
Hawthorne may appear to be pouring contempt on the puritan ideals, but he is actually displaying distain for religious hypocrisy, not morality in general.
And so, the community that Hester and Dimmesdale live in is painted as religious and hypocritical. No one in this community knows how to deal with sin and guilt. They just become very good at hiding their own wickedness and self-righteously judging others, like Hester Prynne, as guilty sinners.
So, what is the solution to this hypocritical religiosity?
One idea that was gaining traction in Hawthorne’s day was Romanticism. This philosophy is at the root of many of our troubles today.
Roughly 100 years before Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) argued that mankind is born intrinsically good but society corrupts him. The inner self, according to Rousseau, is where we need to look to find truth and goodness. Our goal in life should be to ensure that our “outward countenance were always the image of the heart’s dispositions.” (p 39, Strange New World).
This idea is Romanticism. And it is this philosophy that Hawthorne interacts with in The Scarlet Letter predominantly through the characters of Hester and Pearl.
Pearl is the ideal of the Romantic. She is natural, wild, unrestrained by society. She does whatever she wants and is unable to be told what to do. As a result, we find that she is a picture of beauty and always smiling, laughing and dancing. She is a joyful nymph, an elf-child.
Hester tries to discipline Pearl but finds that she is “ultimately compelled to stand aside, and permit the child to be swayed by her own impulses” (p 95). Pearl is all passion, and yet is described as having “no physical defect. By its perfect shape, its vigor, and its natural dexterity in the use of all its untried limbs, the infant was worthy to have been brought forth in Eden; worthy to have been left there, to be the plaything of the angels, after the world’s first parents were driven out. The child had a native grace.” (p 93)
Hester also embodies something of Romanticism, but where Pearl seems to be free from the influence of society, Hester is not. Instead, Hester Prynne is greatly impacted by society due to their condemnation of her sin through the symbol of the Scarlet Letter on her breast.
This is why Hawthorne’s description of Hester’s degraded state is so important. He doesn’t say that her guilt destroyed her, instead he points to the way in which society treated her as destroying her. If you recall: “the effect of the symbol – or rather, of the position in respect to society that was indicated by it – on the mind of Hester Prynne herself, was powerful and peculiar” (p 169).
Hester has no problem with her sin. She feels no guilt because of it. She says as much to Rev. Dimmesdale: “What we did had a consecration of its own” (p 202). We see instead that Hester’s shame comes from society, and not from her own sense of sin and guilt. When the Reverend asks her if she has found peace, she says nothing but simply “smiled drearily, looking down upon her bosom.” (p 198). For Hester, it is the scarlet letter worn outside that hinders her from finding peace.
This is why we find a great transformation take place when Hester removes the scarlet letter:
“’With this symbol, I undo it all, and make it as it had never been!’
So, speaking, she undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves…
The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sign, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom! By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her features. There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale. Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable past, and clustered themselves, with her maiden hope, and a happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour.”p 211
Hawthorne goes on, detailing how even nature responded to Hester’s freedom from the repression of society. The sun, that had been hidden, came bursting forth from the sky like a flood. The trees and the brook became bright and joyful.
“Such was the sympathy of Nature – that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illuminated by higher truth”p 211
And with one movement – the casting off of the social ‘stigma’ of the Scarlet Letter – Hester recovers the womanhood and the beauty that society’s shame had removed from her.
This is the hope of Romanticism – that by removing social stigma, by removing all guilt and shame imposed by societal rules, laws and norms, we can free people to be their true ‘authentic’ self. We need to just enable people to ‘be who they are’ without judgement or condemnation.
Does this all sound familiar?
The question for us, though, has still not reached its conclusion.
If Hawthorne is saying that Puritanical religious hypocrisy is not the answer to guilt and shame, is his conclusion that Romanticism is the answer?
Not at all. We will find the answer to the question of guilt and sin and shame in the life of Rev. Dimmesdale.
The Rev. Dimmesdale, as we have seen, spends most of the story wasting away because of the hidden guilt and shame he has tucked away in his heart.
In the forest, Hester Prynne tries to convince the Reverend to become a romantic. Hester makes an impassioned plea to Rev. Dimmesdale to pick up and run away from his enemy who has been torturing him for many years – Roger Chillingworth.
Now, a struggle takes place as Dimmesdale wrestles over whether or not to run away with Hester. To run with her will be to give in to the sin that has plagued him these 7 years. To run with her will be to give in to the passions of his heart. To run with Hester would be to seek to make the world align with his inner desires. The struggle didn’t last long.
“The decision once made, a glow of strange enjoyment threw its flickering brightness over the trouble of his breast.”p 209
A great transformation takes place in Arthur Dimmesdale. “His spirit rose, as it were, with a bound.”
Once he had given himself over to this romantic philosophy, the Reverend finds that he struggles to control all sorts of other passions and impulses – the desire to speak blasphemies to a deacon, the impulse to tell a widow that the soul is not immortal, to whisper evil to a young recent convert.
But Hawthorne wants us to know that the Romantic ideal is false. Despite giving himself to his desires, we find the minister to be a “wretched minister! … Tempted by a dream of happiness, he had yielded himself with deliberate choice, as he had never done before, to what he knew was deadly sin. And the infectious poison of that sin had been thus rapidly diffused throughout his moral system. It had stupefied all blessed impulses, and awakened into vivid life the whole brotherhood of bad ones. Scorn, bitterness, unprovoked malignity, gratuitous desire of ill, ridicule of whatever was good and holy, all awoke, to tempt, even while they frightened him.” (p 230)
Hawthorne even subtly makes this point about the failings of Romanticism in the final chapter of the book. Hester ends her life back in the town that brought about her suffering and pain. She returns after travelling with Pearl and adorns herself with “a grey robe” together with “the scarlet letter on her breast” (p 271).
There is a hopefulness in Hester as the Scarlet Letter “ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.” (p 272)
Perhaps Hester’s Romantic ideals will work after all! Hester does become a teacher, perhaps even a prophetess, encouraging sinful women that there will come a time when “sacred love should make us happy.” A time when “a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.”
However, in the midst of this hope, we are still found looking at a woman in grey, with a scarlet letter on her breast, who has returned to the place of her sorrow in order to continue her penitence or her atonement.
Hester is not at peace, her sin is not dealt with, her guilt remains upon her.
You see, the problem with Romanticism is that it is not realistic. It doesn’t align with reality. In short, it isn’t true.
Hester can seek to accept her sin all she likes, but she is still stuck with it. She can even seek social change to remove the stigma, and yet even as the stigma is removed, the scarlet letter remains. And it remains even in her death where she is buried next to her fellow sinner, Rev. Dimmesdale, but separated “as it the dust of the two sleepers had no right to meet” (p 273). The hope that Hester had expressed of being with Dimmesdale in the next life seems to not have come to fruition because her sin was never dealt with.
And yet, his sin was. Which brings us to the final point of our discussion and back one chapter to the actual solution to the problem of guilt and shame.
The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter
It will not be possible to do justice to the incredible chapter that is “The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter” but we shall try.
It is here, in this chapter, that Reverend Dimmesdale is converted and saved. After hiding his sin and being consumed by his guilt for so long, with no way to be free from it, Dimmesdale finds peace in this chapter.
As he walks out of the sermon of his life, in front of a huge crowd of people who have gathered in the town square, Dimmesdale suddenly lets out a shout. “Never, from the soil of New England, had gone up such a shout!” (p 259)
The honour and energy of the moment turns quickly into a picture of Rev. Dimmesdale staggering around, “with such a deathlike hue”, making his way towards the scaffold and Hester and Pearl. As he speaks to Hester and ascends the scaffold of shame with her and Pearl, Rev. Dimmesdale does what Hester never does, he calls on God’s mercy and repents of his sin.
For Dimmesdale, taking his shame upon himself is “better than what we dreamed of in the forest”. But with this, Hester can not agree “I know not! I know not!” she says. (p 263)
As the Reverend turns to address the crowd, it is with “anguish and repentance” that he “stood out from all the earth to put in his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice” (p 263). He explains his guilt to the watching crowd and tears open his ministerial band to reveal (I think) a scarlet ‘A’ engraved on his chest. Where Hester’s Scarlet Letter was external to herself, the minister says that “his own red stigma is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart!” (p 265) The Reverend knows that his sin is not just a social stigma – in fact, society never even knew about it – instead, his sin is a matter of the heart. It is not just skin deep, it is a stain on his inner man.
Here we see the tragedy of the story as Arthur Dimmesdale wishes farewell to Hester.
“’Shall we not meet again?’ whispered she, bending her face down close to his. ‘Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!’
‘Hush, Hester, hush!’ said he, with tremulous solemnity. ‘The law we broke! – the sin here so awfully revealed! – let these alone be in my thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God, – when we violated our reverence for the other’s soul, – it was thenceforth vain to hope we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be his name! His will be done! Farewell!”
Look at the stark contrast of Hester and Dimmesdale. His hope is in the mercy of God. Hers is in the payment of her own suffering. He knows that his guilt goes all the way down into his heart and bears his shame deeply. She wears her shame on the surface and feels no pangs of guilt in her heart. She views her sin as something consecrated! He views it as a breaking of the law. She resents and pushes against the sufferings that her sin brought upon her. He rejoices and thanks God for the sufferings his sin brought upon him because it led to his repentance and salvation.
And this is the answer that Hawthorne is giving us to the problem of sin and guilt and shame.
The answer is not Puritanical legalism.
The answer is not a Romantic reveling in sin.
The answer is a humble repentance before God, an owning of our sin before him, and casting ourselves on God’s mercy to forgive.
To help us on this path, Hawthorne gives us this advice as a moral from his tale:
“Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”p 269