Honors American Lit. 4
March 9, 2008
Isolation within The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne, an American author who lived from 1804-1864, could be characterized as “an imaginative genius gifted with considerable linguistic skill” (Perkins 1 of 3). Hawthorne’s most famous works included The House of the Seven Gables and The Marble Faun, both novels portrayed the essence of sin and guilt and their emotional effects on mankind. One of Hawthorne’s most famous works The Scarlet Letter, takes place in Boston during the Puritan era. This novel tells the tale of Hester Prynne, the bearer of the scarlet letter “A”, and the Reverend Dimmesdale, the man who commits adultery with her, and their struggles with guilt, sin, and atonement. Hester and the minister Dimmesdale must remain secretive in order to protect one another, while her vengeful husband Chillingworth remains secretive in order to torture Dimmesdale. These secrets cause the group to experience much pain both physically and emotionally and also create a figurative distance between themselves and their peers. By keeping the secrets of their sins between one another, Hester, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale isolate themselves from their Puritan society within Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
Hester Prynne, one of the protagonists of the novel, withholds the secrets of both sides of the spectrum. While she swears to keep the secret of Chillingworth’s true identity, she also decides to keep the secret of her affair with her clandestine lover Dimmesdale: “‘I will keep thy secret as I have his [Dimmesdale]’” (Hawthorne 69; ch. 4). Because of these secrets, Hester finds herself in a dilemma in which she must maintain a balance. This dilemma causes Hester to become a conflicted person who has relatively fixed decisions. For example, when Chillingworth continuously questions her about the identity of the father of Pearl, she stays persistent with her answer: “‘Ask me not!’” replied Hester Prynne, looking firmly into his [Chillingworth’s] face. ‘That thou shalt never know!’” (Hawthorne 69; ch. 4). In addition to the scarlet letter, Hester’s duty of keeping these secrets slowly causes her to become more isolated from her society. Her refusal to profess the name of her fellow adulterer causes her to lead a rather solitary life. “Her own loneliness and isolation, especially for one of so warm and rich a nature, was a constant sorrow and reminder of her guilt” (Sewall 3 of 4).
Chillingworth wants to reap revenge on the person who commits adultery with his wife Hester; however, the secrets involved with his revenge isolate him from his newfound society: “In short, Chillingworth symbolizes that force within the Christian pilgrim which prompts him to conceal his sin from the world” (Granger 2 of 5). When he first arrives in Boston, he makes himself known as a physician and becomes accepted by the Puritan society quite rapidly. The townspeople eventually trust him enough to allow him to cure their revered Dimmesdale. As time passes, the townspeople notice his effects on Dimmesdale and begin to isolate this newcomer from their society; however, for some unknown reason, they do not try to separate him from their minister. Because of Chillingworth’s isolation, he no longer worries about his surroundings and devotes himself entirely to his revenge. Although Hester swore, she cannot watch Chillingworth torture her Dimmesdale. In order to ruin Chillingworth’s plans, she tells Dimmesdale the secret that she had kept from him for so long: “‘Dost thou not see what I would say? That old man! – the physician – he whom they call Roger Chillingworth! He was my husband!’” (Hawthorne 177; ch. 17). After this occurrence, Chillingworth observes Dimmesdale and notices “in spite of this outward show, the latter was almost convinced of the old man’s knowledge, or, at least, his confident suspicion, with respect to his own interview with Hester Prynne” (Hawthorne 205; ch. 20). Shortly after hearing this news, Dimmesdale confesses to the people and dies on the scaffold. After Dimmesdale’s death, Chillingworth can no longer determine a reason to live. He dies alone because “this unhappy man had made the very principle of his life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of revenge…” (Hawthorne 238; ch. 24).
Dimmesdale maintains his honorable status by keeping the secret of his sin of lust to himself. By doing so, he isolates himself from his own society because he “must have his faith tested by undergoing a lonely, dark, spiritual journey before he can discover the way to responsible action” (Granger 2 of 5). While enduring this journey, Chillingworth tortures him mercilessly. Within the novel, Chillingworth’s method of revenge remains a mystery; however, his method can be assumed to cause Dimmesdale a tremendous amount of pain based on the quote, “Better had he died at once! Never did mortal suffer what this man has suffered. And all, all in the sight of his worst enemy!” (Hawthorne 155; ch. 14). Since Dimmesdale does not enlighten his society about his immoral sin, the lack of his penitence severely affects his health. He becomes tired of keeping his secret and since he no longer cares about the punishment, he plans to unveil it: “Of penance I have had enough! Of penitence there has been none!” (Hawthorne 175; ch. 17). After he exposes his secret to the entire town, he finds himself once again a part of his society and in a state of tranquility which allows him to peacefully pass on to the afterlife.
Evidently, most of the main characters must face isolation within Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This isolation spawns from their sin and guilt that becomes shrouded by their secrets. As the secrets unveil, their society becomes more apt to acknowledge their contributions and allow them to rejoin the society once more. In one of today’s societies, would the members act as merciful to a person who has committed such a ghastly sin? Works Cited
Granger, Bruce Ingham, [pic]Arthur Dimmesdale as Tragic Hero,[pic] in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 2, September, 1964, pp. 197-203. Reprinted in Novels for Students Vol. 1. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Perkins, George, "Nathaniel Hawthorne: Overview," in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994. Sewall, Richard B., [pic]The Scarlet Letter,[pic] in The Vision of Tragedy, new edition, Yale University Press, 1980, pp. 86-91. Reprinted in Novels for Students Vol. 1.