Thursday, April 26, 2012

Guilt in the Scarlet Letter

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The Scarlet Letter is a book of guilt. Simply put, it revolves around the effects of guilt and confession. Through Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrates the torturous effects of societal guilt, and the newfound personal freedom through confession. This applies to Dimmesdale, as he is a part of society and to Hester as she has been alienated and lives in the outskirts of the forest. The two ideas of suppressing and openly admitting sin contrast each other. The book can be seen as large comparison of Hester and Dimmesdale or the comparison of the effects of suppressing or admitting to sin. Hester, who is free from guilt wishes that her sin were never put into the publicfs eye. She does not like attention that comes hand in hand with the Scarlet Letter. Ironically, Arthur, whom people do not know has sinned, wishes for the truth to be let out. He wants society to know of his sin. Guilt is only applicable in society, and cannot be seen in the forest. Indeed, society plays a major role in guilt, but in further detail guilt is only torturous if it is kept in secrecy.


Arthur Dimmesdalefs torture from his guilt surfaces from its secrecy. The pain from a secret guilt is a universal feeling. The guilty know their wrongdoing and the fact that they know their crime, eats them away. Society applies rules and laws that make people fear and make people feel guilt. With this, it is easy to govern a fearing society. This could even be the reason why the Puritans were a success in the colonies. Their strict ideals kept them working hard, otherwise they would be struck down by their Godfs wrath. Accordingly, if a crime is committed and not confessed one must live with the guilt. Dimmesdalefs obligation to the people, being a reverend, is to take responsibility for his actions and confess. However, his character is portrayed as a coward and cannot confess to his sins unless Hester does it for him, who is the stronger of the two. In turn, his guilt tortures him. Critic Sally Buckner says, gcDimmesdalefs secret guilt gnaws so deeply inside him that he views himself with scorn as a hypocrite, and he is unable to make his peace with his God or to feel at ease with his fellow manh (Magill 580). Indeed, he is a hypocrite. Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale has gone against his religion.


This guilt, however, is not all negative. With this experience, Arthur can now communicate to his parishioners more personally. He understands the common manfs pain and can give sermons that touch everyone. However, he is in constant torture. This is an invisible force that presses Dimmesdale constantly and is represented by him grasping his chest. It is seen in the beginning of the book where he had just interrogated Hester, and is now trying to defend her decision of not speaking the fellow sinnerfs name. gfShe will not speak!f murmured Mr. Dimmesdale, who, leaning over the balcony, with his hand upon his heart, had awaited the result of his appeal.h As Hester has her Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale also has a form of the letter upon his chest. Chillingworth stumbles upon this mark when Dimmesdale slumbers in his study. He observes what could only be proof of Dimmesdalefs sin. The only remedy for Arthur is to confess. In an attempt to do so, he goes to the scaffold in the middle of the night. There he wishes that someone would notice him but the only ones that notice him are Hester, Pearl and Chillingworth. And then with the passing of a comet in the shape of an gAh Arthur sees that he must confess. At the conclusion of the book, he finally struggles to confession. With his final lungful of air, he tells the world of his sin. After confession an unseen force has been lifted from the chest. .


Both of the sinners have the mark. The difference is that Hesterfs is already open to the public, thus it is in the shape of the patch on her bosom. Dimmesdalefs mark is internal with his guilt, until it came to a point of severity in which it came through to his chest revealing itself to Chillingworth. Hesterfs lack of guilt is from the forced public humiliation in which her sin is no longer a secret. Her guilt has now taken the form of the Letter itself, for her to wear for everyone to see. Frank Magill, editor of Masterplots, says, gHester Prynnefs pregnancy forces her sin to public view, and is compelled to wear the scarlet eAf as a symbol of her adultery. Yet although she is apparently isolated from normal association with edecentf folk, Hester, having come to terms with her sin, is inwardly reconciled to God and self; and she ministers to the needy among her townspeople, reconciling herself with others until some observe that her eAf now stands for eAblefh (58). Once the committed sin has been put into public attention, the guilt can no longer be seen. Hester now grows as a woman in the society, becoming more gAble.h In addition, Hester has also settled in the outskirts, away from the normal society where she can raise Pearl without society or guilt.


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Guilt is a creation from society. The rules and laws create the system of guilt that controls the actions of people. This intricate system was strong in the Puritan colonies. Overrun by God fearing citizens, the people kept strict rules and regulations. Although they believed in predestination, one must still be punished for the sins in the hope for the sinner to be relinquished from the sin. Perhaps the punishment from society is salvation, contrary to what most believe. If the sinner is not punished, then they must live their lives with guilt, which is the true punishment. Hester was able to live her life more freely with her sentence, but Arthur, who had no sentence, suffered. However, if society werenft in place to begin with, there wouldnft be any need for guilt. Pearl, having grown up outside the confines of society, is freer than anyone. She has no guilt whatsoever. The suppression of guilt leads to self-torture and inevitably destroys us unless we confess to our sins. However, confession isnft useful in order for salvation and a rightful path to heaven for the puritans believed in predestination. Confession is only valid to be at ease with oneself. It is personal salvation from the incapacitating effects of guilt.


Telgen, Diane. gGuilt and Innocence Sin.h Novels for Students. Vol. 1. Detroit 17.


Magill, Frank. gThe Scarlet Letter.h Masterplots. Vol. 10. Englewood Cliffs 176.


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