Guilt is one of the many factors that helped shape today’s society to what it is today, and the same goes for the society of the 17th century. Guilt is the state of being responsible for the commission of an offense and the only cure for the feeling of being guilty is confessing to whomever you have harmed or wronged. In The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathanial Hawthorn; there is a young woman named Hester Prynne who has been accused of committing adultery, she is being showcased for the entire town to witness her in her shame. Hester’s husband, who is thought to be dead, returns to the town to discover that she has cheated on him with another man that no one but Hester knows who he is. Dimmesdale, the man Hester cheated with, is a minister and does not want to be exposed for what he has done. This scenario leads to a large amount of guilt building up in people, and it shows how the different ways of dealing with guilt will either help you or destroy you.
Hester Prynne was forced to take a walk of shame and stand on top of a scaffold in order to atone for the sin of adultery that she had committed with Dimmesdale. The crowd’s reaction to seeing all of Hester’s sins revealed caused the woman to speak poorly of Hester. “Goodwives, said a hard-featured dame of fifty, I’ll tell ye a piece of my mind. It would be greatly for the public behoof, if we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute, should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne” (5). Not only was Hester looked down upon in the town but also she was forced to wear a scarlet letter on her breast. This scarlet letter was placed on her in order to show and make sure that everyone Hester came into contact with was aware of what she had done. Hester, unlike Dimmesdale, faced her guilt head on and tries to embrace the blame that has been placed on her. “In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbors. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.”(10). Facing guilt head on is one of the many different types of ways that may try to deal with guilt.
Dimmesdale was, for lack of a better term, “The other man.” He is the man that Hester cheated on Chillingworth with and the reason that Hester is up on the scaffold holding a baby and wearing a scarlet letter on her breast. No one except for Hester and Dimmesdale himself knew that he was the man that caused all of this and Hester refused to tell anyone it was him no matter how hard Dimmesdale begged her too. “Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life."(26). Dimmesdale longed to take the punishment with Hester but he just could not confess himself to the public and thus the guilt began to slowly eat him away. Not only did this guilt impair Dimmesdale’s mind but it also began to affect him physically. “Poor, miserable man! What right had infirmity like his to burden itself with crime? Crime is for the iron-nerved, who have their choice either to endure it, or, if it press too hard, to exert their fierce and savage strength for a good purpose, and fling it off at once!”(Pg.2). Bottling up your guilt and trying to hide it is another way to deal with guilt. Although for Dimmsdale this method of guilt did not come without consequences.
Hester dealt with the guilt and consequences of her sins in many different ways. One of the main ways that Hester dealt with this was by practicing her needlework and using it for the better good of everyone around her. “Women derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle.”(6). Another consequence of wearing an “A” on your breast was that when you would walk thought the streets everyone you walked past would judge you, including woman, men, and even small children. Even though Hester went through all of this torment and hate, people eventually began to see her true colors and seeing who she truly was underneath the scarlet letter. “She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to decide their fate.”(2). All of Hester’s hardships taught her many important life lessons. Once people understood that Hester was a good honest woman, she used all of her wisdom and became a saint who helped woman with their problems. Eventually leaving the town and all of her troubles and memories were left behind.
Dimmesdale’s guilt towards the end of the novel begins to overflow. This is due to the fact that the praise from the public is making me feel even guiltier for lying to them. The only thing that was able to make him feel better even for a second was being with Hester and Pearl on the scaffold. “The moment that he did so, there came what seemed a tumultuous rush of new life, other life than his own, pouring like a torrent into his heart, and hurrying through all his veins, as if the mother and the child were communicating their vital warmth to his half-torpid system. The three formed an electric chain.”(17). Finally Dimmesdale could no longer take the guilt and he revealed the secret that he had been dyeing to tell for the longest time. "Is not this better," murmured he, "than what we dreamed of in the forest?" "I know not! I know not!" she hurriedly replied. "Better? Yea; so we may both die and little Pearl die with us!"(18). Even though it was killing Dimmesdale not to reveal his secret, when he finally did his body and mind could not take it anymore and he died. Dimmesdale proves that bottling up your guilt can only lead you down one path.
Guilt and confession are two things that go hand and hand. Without confession, guilt will slowly consume you until you are a fraction of the person you used to be. But, with confession, your guilt can lead you to a road paved with strength and honor. Both Hester and Dimmesdale were faced with guilt, but thanks to Hester’s head on approach she came out on top, but as for Dimmesdale his backdoor approach left him without a single breath left in his body. Feeling guilty is an emotion that will never leave you no matter how much tried to forget it. The only way to be purged of this feeling is to confess and remember the sooner the better.