Exploring Guilt Through the Novel "The Scarlet Letter"

Through the motif of guilt, these passages pose the question of to what extent should a positive public identity be strived for to better fit in society? Two of the main characters in the novel, Reverend Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, are relentlessly battling the public’s view on their morals as both understand they’ve made questionable decisions in the past. When Hawthorne adds, “owing to the pellicular effect of this convex mirror, the Scarlet Letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance”, he is putting the focus on how the enlarged presence of The Scarlet Letter on Hester’s body implies the letter ultimately overwhelms her identity and appearance as a whole. This being the case, it's clear this guilt that is following Hester is coming from the lasting effect of the Scarlet Letter she carries around with her. In society, Hester has been looked at as an outcast ever since her adultery case was opened up to the public which has resulted in this build-up in guilt that has affected her attitude towards herself and others quite negatively. On the other hand, Reverend Dimmesdale is viewed almost like a saint through the eyes of the public based on his respectable and upraised working position, but also because of his truthfulness, the people of the town feel through their relationship with him. The buildup of guilt is once again recognizable when Hawthorne states, “it is inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration tortured him!” In this moment, the agony Dimmesdale feels towards his untruthfulness and struggling personality plays a part in the defeating torture he feels through how he is viewed publically while few understand his complex relationship with Hester. When looking at the character makeup of both Dimmesdale and Hester, it is evident that both feel a loss of personal identity when their own self-guilt overtakes their everyday interactions with others.

In the Puritan Society in Boston, both of the main characters struggle to overcome their feelings of guilt as Hawthorne is successfully able to illustrate that people can lose control of their physical well-being if overtaken by guilt. As Dimmesdale travels to Governor Bellingham’s mansion upon his request, he is asked to discuss in further detail the livelihood of Hester’s improper child, Pearl, who causes him to feel agony from their evident long-lasting connection. When arguments about the custody of the child were surging at the mansion, Dimmesdale was seen to be “quite pale and holding his hand over his heart”. At this moment, Pearl, the forefront figure responsible for Dimmesdale’s guilt, causes him to go white and clutch in pain caving in on his heart because the pain he feels overtakes his physical welldoing. Being that Dimmesdale is a key reverend in the community, he feels as if he’s failing to follow his sacred devotion to God which therefore leads him to notice the pure hypocrisy of him committing adultery as being someone in his position. The magnitude of this hypocrisy results in the reverend for the long haul refusing to confess, fearing the likely consequences and embarrassment that would follow if he acted in doing so. This being said, Dimmesdale never finds the right opportunity to alleviate his guilt to help release his inner pain. After being psychologically impaired by the pain that has caught up to him, Dimmesdale whips himself repeatedly with “a bloody scourge”(160) in an effort to relieve his extent of guilt. This proves to be an unsuccessful effort, as Dimmesdale just causes himself physical discomfort while his real truth still eats at him. As the novel is hitting its final stride, Dimmesdale overcomes his fears and addresses his sin to the public on the infamous scaffold, fully admitting to the adultery he had committed in the past. Confessing his sins leads Dimmesdale to a final feeling of purity, letting go of his one-lasting burden and relieving the guilt that took over his character.

Another key illustration that Hawthorne is able to create is the dominant effects on one’s general emotions. At Bellingham’s mansion as Pearl’s fate is being argued upon, Dimmesdale concedes to his emotions of guilt when his eyes are described as, “in their troubled and melancholy depth”. Starting to feel regretful for his sin, Dimmesdale forms an emotional connection with Pearl and Hester as his relationships with them become a priority he values. As Dimmesdale’s mental state continues to decline, Doctor Chillingworth moves in with him which ultimately escalates the degree of emotion the reverend has with his sin. Soon after, Chillingworth is questioning Dimmesdale about his mental misfortunes which proves to be too much on Dimmesdale as he suddenly breaks into, “an unseemingly outbreak of temper”. Based on his reaction, it can be depicted that Dimmesdale’s guilt forces him to lose handle of his emotions when his desperate sin is voiced. Later in the novel, as Dimmesdale is walking in the forest, he approaches Hester coincidentally and it leads to a confrontation where they, “are coldly shuddering in mutual dread”. This experience serves to both of them as a reminder of their own wrongdoings, and how the resulting guilt will forever negatively impact any relationship between the two.

In conclusion, the impactful motif of guilt that is felt by Dimmesdale and Hester in several moments of the novel articulates into the desired question of to what extent should one generally strive to better their public identity in order to feel more in place in society. Through the feelings of one’s guilt, examples like Dimmesdale and Hester show the changes in personality, relationships, emotion, and truth that occur when in this jeopardous scenario.  

07 July 2022
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