The Advantages of Public Shame in the Scarlet Letter

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Benjamin Lewis
American Lit/AP Comp & Lit
Heidkamp
2 December 2010
The Advantages of Public Shame in The Scarlet Letter
Imagine a world in which everyone believes it is in their best interest to suppress their feelings. Most people in the modern world would undoubtedly find this prospect awful and depressing. After all, our phenomenon of instantaneous communication was conceived with the belief that humans desperately want and need to share their emotions and ideas. The widespread popularity of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking websites seem to affirm this assumption. If one was to compare the Puritan setting of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter with this hypothetical world, they would soon realize the two are eerily similar. The characters and events of The Scarlet Letter reveal that the concealment of guilt, shame, regret, or passion is not natural or healthy for the human body or spirit and can lead to self-torture, the loss of all self-consciousness, and ultimately, destruction. Arthur Dimmesdale’s agonized suffering is the direct result of his inability to disclose his sin. As a Puritan minister, he struggles with the knowledge of his adulterous act and his desire for penance. It eats at him and his already “peculiarly nervous temperament” (78). Dimmesdale knows that he has fallen short of both God’s principles and his own, and he fears this means he is not a part of the “elect.” In an attempt for salvation, Dimmesdale whips his shoulders to shreds, fasts until “his knees trembled beneath him” (99), and keeps nightly vigils, but all in his “secret closet, under lock and key” (99). This private torture does not provide the cleansing of a public confession. His effective power as a minister deceives his desire to confess and he soon loses track of what he is—a human, a sinner. The more he suffers, the more eloquent his preaching is on Sunday and the more the congregation regards him as a “miracle of holiness” (98)....
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