It’s been 50 years since I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in my high school American literature class. What I vaguely remembered was a story about a woman named Hester Prynne in Puritan New England, with a baby born out of wedlock, and the narrowminded colonists who took great pride in displaying their superiority over the sinful, fallen woman.
As I started reading the book in May, it took me all of the first two chapters to realize that what I remembered, and what had seeped into my head about the book in the past half-century, was superficially right but substantially wrong. It is much more than what I remembered.
The biggest surprise so far has been the two significant male characters, the Reverend Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale and the man who shows up and calls himself Roger Chillingworth but is actually Hester Prynne’s long-absent husband. (You have to love the names Hawthorne gives his characters, as descriptive as those of Charles Dickens, but then, Hawthorne was writing and publishing about the same time).
Hawthorne describes Dimmesdale as “a young clergyman,” whose “eloquence and religious fervor had already given the earnest of high eminence in his profession.” In other words, he’s highly respected, something of a boy wonder. He’s also the unnamed father of Hester Prynne’s baby. She refuses to name him; he declines to name himself. He finds himself forced by the official tribunal examining Hester’s case to attempt to publicly convince her to name the father. And it’s a most curious speech that he gives, loaded with a double meaning.
He demands that she name the father, so the father can share in her guilt and shame, which is what the good people of Boston expect, and in the same words pleads with her to do what he himself is unable to do – relieve his own guilt by naming him publicly. What he’s doing is transferring all of the responsibility for disclosure to Hester.
The second character, Mr. Chillingworth, is Hester’s considerably older husband and known as a scholar. He returns to Boston accompanied by an Indian (we would say native American today), who’s seeking a ransom for the man’s return. He’s temporarily lodged in the prison, where he has the opportunity to meet with Hester privately. He acknowledges that he shares some of the blame himself, in being much older (and wanting a young wife) and then disappearing for a considerable period of time. He also demands to know the father’s identity, which Hester refuses to declare.
So, rather than disclosure, he demands that she keep his identity secret, because he’s determined to find out who the father is, and it will be easier if no one knows he’s the wronged husband.
That’s Hester’s situation – her lover asking her to name him publicly because he can’t do it himself and her husband demanding she keeps his own identity secret. She refuses Dimmesdale’s plea to name him and accepts Chillingworth’s demand to keep his secret.
One man is afraid of losing face and position; the other accepts his part in what’s unfolded but only thinks of finding the unnamed father. Dimmesdale wants to be exposed to assuage his guilt; Chillingworth wants his identity to remain hidden to enable him to identify his wife’s lover. At this point, neither man is exhibiting a stellar character. In different ways, both are using Hester.
What is striking about the two men is how recognizable they are. It’s a novel written more than 150 years ago, but the two men seem almost contemporary. One is too afraid to take responsibility but is wracked by guilt; the other wants control. We know people like this, people who have committed a wrong but are afraid to say what they’ve done, even if others suffer, and people who have both been wronged and committed a wrong themselves but want someone to pay.
What Hawthorne did with these two characters was to capture flaws inherent in all human beings. We make mistakes, we experience guilt, we’re afraid to admit our responsibility because of our position, but we hope to be resolved of the weight we’re carrying. Or we’re wronged by someone else, and even though we might have had a part in what happened, we want revenge, and we’ll disguise who we really are to get it.
Perhaps Hawthorne is demonstrating the reality that human nature doesn’t change.