The Scarlet Letter is the masterpiece of the well known romantic novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne. In this book, by describing the tragic loving story between Hester Prynne and Mr.Dimmesdale the writer tried to dig out the human nature in American Puritan society in the 17th century when people were required to behave like God in every aspect of their life. Thus, characters in The Scarlet Letter are all “type” characters, rather than realistically presented human, which are created to reflect different sides of human nature. Among them, the characteristics of the heroine Hester and the hero Mr.Dimmesdale are most impressing and convincing.
What is human nature? It is said that human is a combination of God and devil, which means that goodness and self-discipline are forever co-existing with evil and self-indulgence deep in human’s soul. If one side of the human nature is unduly suppressed by society, the other side lurking in one’s heart will gather its power, waiting for a chance to break loose. In the book The Scarlet Letter, every person led a kind of solemn and saintly life as the puritan society and religion required. However, no matter how hard they tried to control themselves, their “sin” could still slip away. If they could accept their whole nature and set it free, they could gain a better understanding of the true meaning of life and survive. If they failed, they would be tortured severely even to death. Hester Prynne and her lover Mr.Dimmesdale respectively represented these two types of people. They yield to their desires and committed the adultery which was considered sinful at that time together, but later had different attitudes toward this event and led their life totally differently.
The heroine, Hester Prynne, had paid a lot for the adultery because what she had done was openly acknowledged by the public who held the idea firmly that adultery was forbidden by God. She was sent to prison after she got pregnant, and was punished to wear the scarlet letter “A” on the breast of her gown. She had to live lonely with her daughter for seven years in the countryside and suffer the contempt and condemnation of people in the town. However, Hester knew that her passions, and her love, were stronger than her respect for the moral code. As she says in Chapter 17, “What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other!” so although she did fully acknowledge her guilt, she just boldly displayed it to the world. She was trying to hide nothing, for she embroidered the letter “A” elaborately with “fantastic flourishes of gold thread” and wore it long after she could remove it. She had her own dignity, though people in the town looked down upon her, even on the scaffold when she was faced with the humiliation: “she was lady-like, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of these days; characterized by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate evanescent, and indescribable grace, which is now recognized as its indication.” It is her pride and dignity which sustained her, from that opening scene until she died, still wearing the scarlet A.
Hester Prynne showed her true feelings to everyone in the town. To Mr.Dimmesdale, she poured her unstinting love and passion. In order to protect her lover, she would rather bear the punishment of wearing the scarlet letter and raise little Pearl on her own than disclose the name of Mr.Dimmesdale to the public. Due to her strong love she chose to stay in the town where Mr.Dimmesdale stayed, and even after he died, she still decided to return to the cottage she had lived and took up her shame—the scarlet letter again, giving up the well-off life with pearl in other place in the purpose of accompanying her lover forever. To her daughter, Hester showed not only maternal love but her respect. She always dressed the girl in bright colors, as is described in chapter5: “the children’s attire, on the other hand, was distinguished by a fanciful, or, we might rather say, a fantastic ingenuity”. Besides, unlike other mothers in those days who nurtured their children by means of physical compulsion or restraint, Hester just stood aside and permitted pearl to be swayed by her own impulse. To Mr.Chillingworth, she showed her betrayal and resistance. Having married the old physician without love, she had no regret to give up her loyalty to her husband and commit the adultery. Her resistance is clearly illustrated in her conversation with Roger Chillingworth. Faced with his threat, she tried hard to defend for Mr.Dimmesdale and strongly condemned his revenge. “There is no good for him—no good for me—no good for thee! There is no good for little Pearl! There is no path to guide us out of this dismal maze.” She clearly pointed out what would become of if he continued the revenge. To Governor Bellingham, she showed her defiance. When she heard that the governor and some leading inhabitants had designed to deprive her of her child and to make Pearl really capable of moral and religious growth, she came to the magistrate’s house and urged to teach her child herself. “See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so with a millionfold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall not take her! I will die first!” Thanks to her firm determination, she got Pearl back at last. To other people in the town, she gave her generosity and kindness. In the Chapter13 the writer writes: “Hester’s nature showed itself warm and rich; a well-spring of human tenderness, unfailing to every real demand, and in exhaustible by the largest.” Because of her helpfulness, many people refused to interpret the scarlet letter A by its original signification and instead, they regarded it as a symbol of ability and angel.
There was no doubt that Hester had the “evil” side in her nature at least according to the moral standard of that society. She got married precipitately with a man she didn’t love, and then broke the rule by committed adultery with a preacher because she her desire for love. Yet when her sin was disclosed she didn’t make an attempt to deny it or to escape her punishment. Instead, she learned from her sin, and grew stronger by accepting her punishment. With seven years’ loneliness and suffering, her life had turned from passion to thought. She formed an ambiguous idea of feminism gradually and began to think about the defects of the whole system of society, and it was according to her instinctive principles that she decided she, Dimmesdale, and Pearl should flee to Europe.
In a society cherishing the rigid order of principles in religion, Hester was special not only because she wore the scarlet A but also because she accepted her hidden nature and showed her true self to everyone. By setting her soul free she learned about the essence of society and developed an understanding of a sort of “natural law”. Although it was impossible to realize her dream, she had finally won the respect of people in the town. Her tragedy was caused by society and weakness of her lover, and she had saved herself.
Compared with Hester Prynne who had courage to admit her sin and bear her suffering, Arthur Dimmesdale seemed much weaker to face his whole nature. The two sides of his nature could not stop conflicting against each other until he was tortured to death.
Reverend Dimmesdale was perfect and likely to become the most popular pastor in the town in public and in everyone’s heart. Coming from one of the great English universities, he appeared to be talented and knowledgeable with an air of gentility and solemnity. People fancied him the mouth piece of Heaven’s massages of wisdom, and rebuke, and love. Although he was educated to be devoted to his religion and required to behave like God, he was still a man with flesh and blood, and could not resist the temptation of natural human desire. Finally, he violated his belief and the rules of his religion. During those seven years when Hester was suffering the humiliation brought by the scarlet letter, he was still worshiped by others. However, the more respect he received, the more painful he felt, just as Hawthorne wrote: “It is inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration tortured him!” It was his genuine impulse to adore the truth, and to reckon all things shadow-like, and utterly devoid of weight or value, that didn’t have its divine essence as life within their life, but having committed the adultery he thought he was guilty and sinful. Many times he wanted to speak his sin out, but he dared not because the nearly hysterical fear he felt when he imagined his congregation seeing him on the scaffold was a remainder that he had not only himself but also his flock to consider. His public disgrace could harden his followers, or even lead them to astray. So he strove to put a cheat upon himself, but gained only another sin, and a self-acknowledged shame without the momentary relief of being self-deceived. He loved the truth and loathed the lie, but because of his fear he had to lie. In such a dilemma he could only hate his miserable self and make himself stuck in the anguish of his soul.
Since Hester was forced to wear the scarlet letter, the same letter had also been graved in his heart. It was sure that Dimmesdale loved Hester, but his education and religion told him that this kind of love was guilty. That’s the reason why he was so afraid to speak out his love and admit what he had done. As love and desire was true nature owned by every one, no matter how hard he tried to restrain he still longed for them. In the daytime he went to the pulpit and delivered God’s message to people who admired him, while at night he wandered on the scaffold or in the dark forest, confessing his love to Hester and his daughter Pearl. Seeing Hester suffer alone for the sin which he committed with her, he felt sorry and tried best to help her, while in the public he had to pretend to be as indifferent as others to the miserable mother and daughter. Struggling between natural human love and his mission as a clergyman, his sense of guilt and pain was increased.
Suffering from body disease, and gnawed and tortured by some black trouble of the soul, Dimmesdale did make efforts to purify himself or to relief himself. According to what he said to Chillingworth “It’s much better for suffer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than cover it all up in his heart”, he would like to lead a life like Hester’s. And during seven years’ physical and psychological torture, his acute awareness of the dichotomy between his public image and his private self led him to new levels of insight, enabling his preaching to become even more powerful and persuasive. He understood that the worst consequence of sin is separation from one’s fellow man rather than separation from God. However, though Dimmesdale saw the dangers of formulaic reductions in society and distortions of reality, he does little to overturn them, because he was too weak and coward to rebel his religion and totally be himself as a human being. Finally, he chose death as the ending of the struggle between the two sides of himself, confession what he thought was sinful and resisting to face the consequence.
The difference between the heroine and hero in this novel was that Hester could literally wear her pain on her chest, while Dimmesdale’s pain remained locked inside his body; Hester felt shame because of the community’s disapproval of her, while Dimmesdale suffered from guilt, which was the product of an internalized self-disapproval and thus was more toxic. Both of them had learnt something from their respective suffering of the adultery, Dimmesdale never fully recognized the truth of what Hester had learned: individuality and strength are gained by quiet self-assertion and by a reconfiguration, not a rejection of one’s assigned identity; Hester erased her guilt by showing her whole self to the world, while Dimmesdale could only die with the scarlet letter in his breast because of his self-denial.
In that puritan society which emphasized goodness while denied people’s desire as was described in this novel, the tragedy of the love between Hester and Dimmesdale was inevitable. Influenced by religion and education, there must be much more Dimmesdales than Hesters. People who are not able to admit the whole themselves and set their souls free can never get happiness they want. This is the reason why the world in The Scarlet Letter is always dim and gloomy. Through the tragedy and the dark world Hawthorne has indirectly but clearly expressed his heart-felt wishes— to break away from the manacle of religion and chain of rigid principles and set human nature free!