And thus, while standing on the scaffold, in this vain show of expiation, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, from The Scarlet Letter, Chapter XII
All sin involves guilt, and the sinful soul itself demands penalty, so that all will ultimately go where they most desire to be. All the great masters in literature have recognized this. The inextinguishable thirst for reparation constitutes the very essence of tragedy. Here in Chapter 12 of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter we find Dimmesdale filled with the sorrow of unredeemed guilt, climbing the scaffold upon which Hester was condemned at the beginning of the story.
In his commentary on this chapter, Dr. Leland Ryken writes
Hawthorne carefully structured his story in such a way that the first, middle, and final scenes of the book have as their common setting the scaffold or platform of the town pillory. We are now in the middle of the story. The previous chapter had ended with an effective bit of suspense, as we are told that Dimmesdale had a sudden thought, “stole softly down the staircase, undid the door, and issued forth.”
Dimmesdale’s idea is to make a confession of his adultery, cowardice, and cover-up, so he mounts the scaffold by night. Because “there was no peril of discovery,” the vigil (as Hawthorne terms it) is of course ineffectual in relieving Dimmesdale’s guilt. Nonetheless, it is one of the most vividly realized scenes in the whole book. As Rev. Wilson passes by after attending the governor on his deathbed, Dimmesdale imagines that he greeted his fellow clergyman. Then Dimmesdale fantasizes a scene in which he becomes paralyzed on the platform and is viewed the next morning by the townspeople.
For vivid descriptive writing, it is hard to beat this chapter. Hawthorne’s visual imagination was working overtime as he composed it. An aura of defeat hovers over the action in this chapter. Dimmesdale undertakes his experiment in high hopes, but the venture is doomed from the start. “There was no peril of discovery,” we read. For that very reason, the “confession” is, in the words of the text, a “mockery of penitence.” A good strategy for working one’s way through the chapter is to list the items that make the action a litany of things that doom Dimmesdale’s attempt to find relief.
The literature of the world, from the story of Cain in Genesis 4 to the latest television crime drama, is laden with the motifs of an attempted cover-up of a crime and the criminal’s return to the scene of the crime.
What other examples from literature can you think of?
L E A R N M O R E
The Scarlet Letter
Author. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
Date of first publication. 1850
Approximate number of pages. 250
Available editions. Probably no work of American literature is more widely available than this work; paperback editions include those by Bantam, Dover Thrift, Norton, Penguin, and Random House.
Genres. Romance novel (with the adjective romance here meaning that elements of the supernatural or marvelous are mingled with the prevailing realism of the story); historical fiction
Setting for the story. Boston in Puritan times (mid-seventeenth century)
Main characters. Arthur Dimmesdale, the Puritan minister of the town; Hester Prynne, a married woman with whom Dimmesdale produced an illegitimate daughter named Pearl, also a leading character; Roger Chillingworth, husband of Hester who arrives belatedly in the town and seeks to destroy Dimmesdale as an act of revenge; the Puritan community as a group. No one of these dominates the story more than the others, but inasmuch as Dimmesdale’s salvation on the scaffold resolves the action, by the story’s end he has emerged as the protagonist.
Storyline. The story opens with the public exposure of Hester Prynne, holding an infant daughter whose father she refuses to identify. In punishment, she is ostracized by the Puritan community and forced to wear a scarlet letter A on her bosom. The father of the girl is the town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is too weak-willed to shoulder his share of responsibility for the sin of adultery. Eventually Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, arrives in Boston and takes up residence with Dimmesdale. He inflames Dimmesdale’s sense of guilt, and Dimmesdale undergoes a long physical and mental decline. In the climax of the story, Dimmesdale, on the verge of death, mounts the scaffold and confesses his sin, experiencing God’s forgiveness as he does so.
Five misconceptions about The Scarlet Letter. (1) Hawthorne paints a historically accurate picture of the New England Puritans. Hawthorne’s portrayal of the Puritans is part of his satiric design, and writers of satire exaggerate to make their points. Hawthorne’s Puritans have little in common with the original Puritans of Old and New England, and nothing in common with the picture of the Puritans that emerges from their own writings. (2) The fact that Hawthorne portrays the Puritans negatively demonstrates his rejection of Christianity in this book. We need to make a distinction between the behavior of the Puritan community and their doctrine. The book ultimately affirms Christian and Puritan doctrine, while exposing the behavior of the religious community portrayed in the story. (3) This is a completely gloomy book. The spectacle of sin and guilt is, indeed, a sad one, but the story moves toward a celebration of Christian salvation, and the characters win other victories along the way. (4) Hawthorne really did run across a scarlet letter A while working in the local customhouse. The account that the narrator of The Scarlet Letter gives in the preface, entitled “The Custom-House,” of finding a scarlet letter is as fictional as the story that follows. Hawthorne never found such a letter. (5) The story is primarily about adultery. It isn’t. The word adultery does not even appear in the book. The adultery is a past event when the story begins. The focus is on the consequences of that past event. No adulterous passions or experiences are portrayed in the book. The story is not about adultery but about concealment of sin and the guilt it produces. It is also about consciousness of sin and guilt.
Cultural context. Hawthorne was a mid-nineteenth-century author. The dominant world view in the first half of that century was Romanticism, which elevated nature, feeling, freedom from restraints, and the autonomy of the individual to a position of primacy. Hester represents the Romantic worldview. The Christian worldview existed side by side with the Romantic. The central thematic conflict in The Scarlet Letter is the conflict between Romantic and Christian worldviews. We should note in passing that the book adds a third worldview to the mix—Puritan legalism, which elevates law and the moral code to the highest value.
Reception history. The Scarlet Letter is probably the signature book of American literature. Certainly no work of American literature is more famous. The book has been a cultural icon from the time of its first publication, when it was an instant best seller.
Tips for reading. (1) Settle down for a leisurely read. Hawthorne covers a relatively small amount of action, but what he does include is described in full detail. (2) Instead of reading for action, therefore, we need to relish characterization, relationships, settings, and interior psychological action (what is happening inside the minds of characters). (3) We need to keep revising our understandings and assessments of characters and worldviews. Through most of the story we would never guess that Dimmesdale and the Christian worldview that he represents would eclipse Hester and Romanticism as the view that Hawthorne endorsed. (4) A lot of what the book expresses about human experience is embodied in symbols.
The Author and His Faith
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) was born into a long-established New England family whose names dot the pages of American colonial history. An ancestor had been a judge at the Salem witchcraft trials, and Hawthorne spent a lifetime distancing himself from certain aspects of his Puritan heritage. Hawthorne was not part of the institutional or churchgoing scene in his day. When we speak in this guide of his faith, it is not a comment on his state of soul but on his belief system and (even more) the religious viewpoint embodied in his fiction.
The religious context. Two intellectual/religious systems of belief were candidates for Hawthorne’s allegiance. One was Transcendentalism, the American version of Romanticism. Hawthorne dabbled with it (even living briefly at a Transcendental commune called Brook Farm), but he did not share the optimism about human nature that Transcendentalism embraced. So he was left with Christianity as the belief system within which he operated. We can say unequivocally that Hawthorne was a theist with thorough familiarity with the Bible and Christian doctrine.
Hawthorne’s religion. Hawthorne’s notebooks are filled with references to God, leading a literary critic to say that Hawthorne was “innately religious” and “more than any other writer of his time . . . a God-centered writer” (Joseph Schwartz). His acquaintance with the Bible and reliance on it in his fiction were so thorough that his editor and publisher claimed that when he questioned Hawthorne about his use of a word, Hawthorne would almost always refer him to the Bible as his authority (James T. Fields). Selected Hawthorne scholars claim the following: as a writer Hawthorne was “freely at home in the Hebraic-Christian tradition” (Amos Wilder); Hawthorne’s theology was a “nameless and indisputatious” Calvinism or Puritanism, “arrived at by experience and insight” (Austin Warren); Hawthorne is a Protestant writer whose novel The Scarlet Letter is the nearest American equivalent to the Catholic novels of the French writer Francois Mauriac (Louis O. Rubin Jr.).
Religion in The Scarlet Letter. Any reader of Hawthorne’s best-known story can see at a glance that the entire frame of reference is Christian. The religious life of characters in the story revolves around practices like churchgoing, sermons, sin, confession, and catechism. Biblical allusions abound. Christian doctrines such as morality, sin, guilt, heaven, hell, and confession are the assumed frame of reference on virtually every page. It is indisputable that Hawthorne (a) knew Christianity well and (b) incorporated it into his fiction. The degree to which The Scarlet Letter moves beyond acquaintance to affirmation will be apparent in the commentary that follows.