Система Orphus

The Natural and the Supernatural
in N.Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter:
Reading as an Act of Moral Choice

Alexey V. Axyonov

Axyonov A. The Natural and the Supernatural in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: Reading as an Act of Moral Choice // Through Each Others Eyes: Religion and Literature. Moscow, Rudomino, 1999, рp. 154-170.
© A.Axyonov, 1999.

Even a cursory study of the history of critical response to The Scarlet Letter (1850) reveals that with all the differences in approaches, opinion and individual emphasis, the majority of the novel’s critics can be divided into two groups. Some critics tend to ascribe greater importance and give their whole-hearted sympathies to Arthur Dimmesdale, others to Hester Prynne. Respectively, the personality and experience of the other of the novel’s two major characters tends to be de-emphasized, neglected, and often degraded. Such polarization of opinions, which in some assessments finds a most striking and consistent expression, suggests that a kind of moral dilemma is embodied in the two major characters of the novel. The present paper tries to outline this dilemma which invites a moral choice on the part of the reader. But before we turn to the novel itself, let us make a few remarks of a more general nature.


As the body of Reader Response Criticism has been at pains to demonstrate, a literary text is realized only in the process of its interaction with a particular person, the reader. Such “personal” emphasis is important for us, for it allows to realize how deeply moral judgment can be involved in literary interpretation.

Indeed, the ultimate understanding which a work of art harvests does not come from outside as a ready-made item (in the form of a formulated moral, for instance) but is reached by the reader in the course of inward work, an effort for understanding. Textual strategies (structures of indeterminacy, shifts in the “point of view”, etc.) serve to make this inward work possible. Understanding is always the result of the choice of meanings, of reader’s cognitive participation in the aesthetic act. In so far as a work of literature deals with issues of ethics and morality, moral choice becomes the condition for understanding of a work of art.

Nathaniel Hawthorne belongs to the culture which inherited Christian moral values. The moral dilemma in The Scarlet Letter largely amounts to acceptance or rejection of these values by the two major characters, Dimmesdale and Hester. The consequences of their different decisions are depicted in the novel. The novel thus artistically probes into a particular set of moral values, it tries out their ontological validity in the field of human experience.

Events depicted in the novel relate to the ultimate fundamental issues of human existence. The book expects the reader to define his or her position on these issues. The reader’s ultimate choice leads him or her to an identification with, or a partiality to, one or the other of the two protagonists. However, through a consistent vicarious moral involvement in the divergent experiences of the protagonists, the reader might be brought to realize the limits of his or her own perspective. The meanings communicated in the book, which involve the deeper issues of human existence, can be fully grasped within the larger context of Christianity.


As we said above, in many instances critics of The Scarlet Letter tend to grant their full sympathies to either one or the other of the novel’s major protagonists. We will adduce but two examples. As early as 1879 Anthony Trollope wrote: “The reader is expected to sympathize only with the woman, - and will sympathize only with her. [...] With the man, the minister, ... the reader finds that he can have nothing in common, though he is compelled to pity his sufferings. ... [the minister] can not bring himself to [confession], though he struggles hard to do it, and therefore we despise him”. <1> The more we advance into the twentieth century, the more apologies of Hester and deprecations of Dimmesdale we find. However, there are other assessments. Darrel Abel believes, for instance, that Hester “typifies romantic individualism, and in her story Hawthorne endeavored to exhibit the inadequacy of such a philosophy”. <2>Whatever be the judgments, the energy with which some of them are worded suggests that some deep existential issue is involved here. Let us look closer at Dimmesdale and Hester and see why their destinies provoke such marked polarization of opinions.

But first I would like to single out a formal feature of the novel, which is typified by the image we encounter at its very threshold. It is a rosebush by the prison door. Here is the relevant passage. “This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed it, or whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson as she entered the prison-door, we shall not take upon us to determine” (46). <3> Here for the first time in the novel we encounter Hawthorne’s significant alternative which, as in many similar instances, pose a choice between a natural and a supernatural explanation of events. Our choice of meaning in this zone of hermeneutic uncertainty is a crucial choice, for it determines the direction of our further understanding and our future choices at similar semantic crossroads. Let us therefore look closer at the alternative suggested in this passage.

Both explanations offered to us by the narrator are improbable from the common-sense point of view. But The Scarlet Letter is not a realistic fiction, but a parable, an allegory. Its realism is of “the highest sense”, as Feodor Dostoyevsky put it, which aims at “discovering the human being in a human being,” i.e. the spiritual being of man. To this very end the choice is offered in Hawthorne’s novel. This particular point of ambiguity, as well as others that follow it, can be viewed as an artistic posing of an important philosophical question. It provokes the reader to the decision and value judgment on the issue of primacy of the natural or of the supernatural principles, of matter or of the spirit. A delicate rose-bush blooming long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks is an emblem of the inexhaustible power of nature, a sign of triumph of one element over the other in the natural world where man is not yet present and where his presence is inessential. The rosebush is a gift of the eternal and indifferent nature to a late comer, man.

It is worth noticing, however, that the delicate rosebush possesses in this interpretation a truly supernatural vitality: the ephemeral rose that outlives gigantic trees represents, as it were, the triumph of the weak over the strong - not a “Darwinist” law at all. Here it is implied, therefore, that in the natural organism, the rose, there is some higher power at work. What we have here, therefore, is not a positivist view, but a spirituality of a kind - a religion of matter.

The alternative to it is presented in the Ann Hutchinson story. The rosebush, the narrator suggests, “had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson as she entered the prison-door”. Here nature is not primary nor self-sufficient, but appears, as the rose-bush, “out of nothing” - for the sake of a human being, for her glorification, to witness to her election and saintliness. (Of course, here we put completely aside the historical Ann Hutchinson and regard her figure as an archetype). The “sainted Ann Hutchinson”, whose footsteps bring forth flowers, exemplifies a human being who through her volition becomes a partaker in the supernatural, and who thus serves as a co-creative agent in the life of nature.

And lest we evade the choice we are offered, the narrator picks a flower from the bush and presents it to the reader, and adds: “It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow”(ibid.). Hawthorne maintains his dichotomy even further: the effect of the flower will differ according to the previous choice. Reader’s readiness to accept the “Hutchinson version” reveals that type of perception which would allow ultimately to draw a fragrant moral lesson from the story. Whereas to the reader of a different disposition of mind and heart the story will disclose only its earthly plane and will appear as a sad tale of human frailty and sorrow. The flower would be most appropriate then as a natural consolation to the reader’s sensibility depressed by the darkening close.

(It is interesting to observe here that there is a peculiar difference of opinion among critics as to the overall mood of the story. Some (in fact, most) deem the novel to be depressingly somber. Others perceive a dazzling celestial light illuminating the final scaffold scene and, retrospectively, the whole story).

Thus, the ultimate meaning of the novel depends upon the hermeneutic decisions the reader makes while reading, upon the inclination of the reader’s heart towards one or the other of the suggested alternative views.

It should be noted that when we speak of the choice of meaning we do not mean a literal belief in one or the other version of, say, the rosebush story. Very few readers of our time are capable of such naive perception. We have here an artistic device, but this device has a serious purpose, namely the reader’s self-identification through selection of meaning. The effect of this choice, enhanced manifold at further similar hermeneutic crossroads, will be manifested in full by the end of the act of reading as one or the other perception of the novel’s overall artistic message. Therefore we are speaking not of a direct acceptance of an explanation suggested by the narrator, but rather of a certain intuitive inclination towards a particular world view that supports each respective explanation.

However, the reader has a third real possibility: to elude the choice. That is, to treat this and all other alternatives only as an artistic device, to turn the novel into a sophisticated game, to read it from an ironic distance. Hawthorne who wrote in the age of romantic irony allows for such reading as well, which in our century has mostly taken shape of various forms of deconstruction. To evade the choice is also a kind of choice, but it seems to be the least fruitful of the three, both from the cognitive and the moral points of view.

Examples of ambiguities which amount to a dilemma between the natural and the supernatural interpretation of events may be multiplied. It is, for instance, the various interpretations of the light Dimmesdale and others perceive in the midnight sky (Chapter 12), or of the final and major “revelation” of the novel. In every instance, the reader is free to select from a polyphony of meanings the one which contributes to his or her general idea of the story’s message.

These “structures of indeterminacy” (W. Iser) are consistently employed by Hawthorne to make “the act of choosing” an integral part of “the act of reading”. Reader’s minor choices accumulate to determine the direction of his or her understanding at the crucial semantic knots. And with all the complex variety of meaningful nuances which the novel carries, the major choice we are offered is most consistently embodied in the novel’s two main characters. Let us therefore look now at the two protagonists and at the way in which they represent the moral dilemma of the novel.


It has been noted by many critics that The Scarlet Letter is not a story of sin, but of its consequences. The plot is simple and hardly needs to be reminded. The transgression against the Seventh Commandment has been committed. Of the two culprits one, the woman, suffers the legal punishment of the Puritan court while her partner completely evades it. Such scheme allows Hawthorne to explore the relationship between the outward and the inward consequences of sin. These consequences depend as much upon the external circumstances as they do upon the moral decisions each character makes under the burden of sin.

Let us first look briefly at Hester Prynn’s path. As she emerges from the prison door in the beginning of the novel, her appearance is marked by a striking natural dignity and beauty, strangely enhanced by the trial she is enduring: “Those who had before known her... were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. It may be true, that, to a sensitive observer, there was something exquisitely painful in it” (50-51). The word ‘halo’ here imparts a religious connotation to Hester’s ambiguous beauty, which is further developed in the comparison of her, if only by contrast, with an image of the Virgin Mary.

Hester wears the letter “A” on her bosom, gorgeously decorated. Such rich decoration of the letter, as one of the unsympathetic female spectators shrewdly remarks, expresses Hester’s attitude to what the letter signifies - an attitude which is very far from penitent rejection. She regards the letter - and what it stands for - as a part of her deepest nature. “The letter is too deeply branded”, - Hester tells the magistrates. “Ye cannot take it off” (64).

Subsequently Hester undergoes unbearable daily sufferings as the wearer of the scarlet letter. She is completely alienated from other people. The law that condemned her made her a ready object of people’s ridicule and contempt. But what is her inward state? How effective is the punishment towards its supposed aim - repentance of a sinner? Hawthorne gives us several intimations of Hester’s moral state.

In spite of her suffering, some strong ties keep Hester in the Puritan settlement. “There dwelt, there trod, the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage-altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution” (74). This is a dreadful anticipation, formulated in genuinely theological terms, - an expectation not of eternal life, but of death that is to unite her finally with her beloved. This preoccupation, sinful as she recognizes it to be, arises out of Hester’s inmost self. Any other scheme of her life is but an artificial rationalization, something that does not touch her heart: “What she compelled herself to believe... was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself ... the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost: more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom” (ibid.). This can only be a “half-truth” because the soul is purified by sufferings only if they are recognized and accepted as a just and inevitable consequence of sin. Without this contrite acceptance conducive to inner change, sufferings can only harden the soul, they become an unbearable burden, as they indeed were for the unfortunate Hester Prynne.

She applies herself to needlework, with an idea of penance, mostly to making coarse garments for the poor. But this again becomes an external toil not potent to produce the inner transformation. It betokened, the narrator remarks, “no genuine and steadfast penitence, but something doubtful, something that might be deeply wrong beneath” (77). Hester bears insults inflicted upon her by her heartless neighbors with a stoic patience. “She was patient - a martyr, indeed but she forbore to pray for her enemies; lest, in spite of her forgiving aspirations, the words of the blessing should stubbornly twist themselves into a curse” (78). Hester’s external self-restraint does not correspond to inner peace and forgiveness born of genuine repentance. This is a repressive self-restraint, as is the law that necessitated it; it is not a liberating struggle waged by love, against the sinful self.

To the undiscriminating eyes of society, however, the scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom is gradually transformed into a sign of virtue instead of shame. Being an outcast, Hester nevertheless performs works of mercy and charity. “Hester's nature showed itself warm and rich - a well-spring of human tenderness, unfailing to every real demand, and inexhaustible by the largest... So strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength” (148). It is from Hester’s rich nature that these good deeds proceed. But the “natural” goodness of the fallen human being, no matter how practically effective, always retains a tragic element of moral ambiguity and deception. Hester’s behavior, we are told, might have been inspired by “pride, but was so like humility, that it produced all the softening influence of the latter quality on the public mind” (ibid.). Good deeds, it turns out, can be misleading, for in fact, the narrator remarks, “society was inclined to show its former victim a more benign countenance than she cared to be favored with, or, perchance, than she deserved” (149).

The badge of shame on Hester’s dress, “in the eyes of ... men... had the effect of the cross on a nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness” (ibid.). Here we have the same motif of the transformation of the profane into the sacred in the eyes of men, who are easily deceived by appearances. But this very symbol which for men has come to signify virtue, at the same time deprives its wearer of the inner substantial qualities which form the natural ground for virtue. “All the light and graceful foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and had long ago fallen away, leaving a bare and harsh outline, which might have been repulsive had she possessed friends or companions to be repelled by it” (149-150). Hester experiences no human love which might have taught her of God’s love. In order to survive in her alienation, she suppresses tenderness and affection in her heart and as a result turns to unrestrained erratic speculation.

Due to her long seclusion from society, Hester becomes “little accustomed to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself” (146). In her present isolation, her mind inevitably feeds upon the notions collected in the past. And Hester, we are told, is a child of her age, the age of revolt. “It was an age in which the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a more active and a wider range than for many centuries before... Hester Prynne imbibed this spirit. ... Thoughts visited her... that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door” (151). In this passage we are given an insight into the reality of Hester’s mind and heart. Spirit of the time had been her teacher, she had carried the seeds of her tragedy from her native land, Europe. And had it not been for her daughter Pearl, who was her only providential link to the human world, Hester would have doubtless acted upon suggestions of these dangerous visitors, her thoughts. “Then she might have come down to us in history ...as the foundress of a religious sect. She might... have been a prophetess. She might, and not improbably would, have suffered death from the stern tribunals of the period, for attempting to undermine the foundations of the Puritan establishment” (151). She speculates even broader, becoming a precursor of modern feminism. A “dark question often rose into her mind with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth accepting even to the happiest among them? ... As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down and built up anew...”, etc. (152). “Thus Hester Prynne, whose heart had lost its regular and healthy throb, wandered without a clue in the dark labyrinth of mind...” (ibid.). She even entertains suicidal thoughts, which, forming the marrow of her speculations, reveal the dark spiritual source inspiring them all.

All this allows the narrator to make an important conclusion: “The scarlet letter had not done its office” (ibid.). Indeed, the punishment has not brought its wearer to repentance, but, it seems, made repentance even more difficult for her by denying her human love and sympathy and leaving her alone with her sin. An earlier critic George Woodberry writes: “Hester’s punishment is visibly from the law, and illustrates the law’s brutality, the coarse hand of man for justice, the mere physical blow meant to hurt and crush; it is man’s social way of dealing with sin, and fails because it makes no connection with the soul; the victim rises above it...”. <4>

And though strong in the human plane, Hester turns to be weak and helpless in spirit, for without the supporting framework of society she looses all moral guidance, her inner ties with her Creator being too weak and too easily choked by the contemporary destructive ideas that fill the air. That is why her suffering have brought her no purification, but only despair. “There is no good for him, no good for me, no good for thee.” - Hester tells Roger Chillingworth. - “There is no good for little Pearl. There is no path to guide us out of this dismal maze” (159).

The unfortunate state of Hester’s heart is further revealed in her hate towards her former husband. “Be it sin or no,” said Hester Prynne, bitterly, as she still gazed after him, “I hate the man!” (161). Hester’s “natural religion” teachers her that it was her crime “most to be repented of” that she ever showed signs of affection to her wedded husband, just because the latter was unfortunate enough to find afterwards a rival in his wife’s heart. Hester believes herself justified in her unfaithfulness. This provokes the narrator to a question, “Had seven long years, under the torture of the scarlet letter, inflicted so much of misery and wrought out no repentance?” (162).

The moving force of Hester’s life still remains her love towards Arthur Dimmesdale, her passion “once so wild, and even yet neither dead nor asleep” (165). This passion makes her unable to see what is truly good not only for herself, but also for her beloved, however well she wishes him.

By his continuous hypocrisy in the course of seven years Arthur Dimmesdale is reduced almost to the state of non-existence. By this time Hester realizes her partial responsibility for his miserable condition, in her own timorous submission to Chillingworth’s plan of revenge. But what way out of this state does her love suggest to Dimmesdale now? Their interview in the forest contains some very telling passages. Here the core of Hester’s position is revealed in one striking sentence, which is unfailingly quoted in every interpretation of the novel. “What we did, - she tells Dimmesdale, seven years after their mutual transgression, referring to it, - What we did had a consecration of its own” (179). Such is the creed of the “natural religion” Hester professes. Consecration comes not from God, but from nature, and the ultimate value, the object of worship, as it were, is man in his fallen state. Within such framework the concept of sin is meaningless, and repentance hardly possible.

Obviously unaware of the ontological reality of sin, Hester cherishes utopian hopes for unrepentant happiness, which she believes will result from a mere change of place. Hester invites Dimmesdale to flee. “So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast been most wretched, to one where thou mayest still be happy! And what hast thou to do with all these iron men, and their opinions? They have kept thy better part in bondage too long already!” (181). In Hester’s view, the cause of Dimmesdale’s deep misery is not his crime against God and human nature, but his too great dependence upon opinions of some “iron men”, the Puritans, who supposedly employ the notion of sin to repress man’s “better part” and to maintain their social system. It is therefore possible (in Hester’s view) to free oneself from the consequences of sin simply by an external change - of place, of name. “But thou shalt leave it all behind thee! ... The future is yet full of trial and success. There is happiness to be enjoyed! There is good to be done! ... Up, and away!” (181-182).

This superficial solution, like her speculations previously described, proceeds from the moral state engendered by Hester’s long estrangement from other people and by her previous misleading development. “For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church. ... Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers - stern and wild ones - and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss” (183). Again it is reiterated that the inhumanely severe punishment of the Puritan law rather corrupted than corrected Hester’s nature and left her morally confused, though strong in the human plane.

Hester attempts to free herself from her past - not through repentance, but by an external mechanical gesture. “Let us not look back,” she says. “The past is gone! ... See! With this symbol I undo it all, and make it as if it had never been!” So speaking, she undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves” (185). This act works a miraculous transformation upon her, in which her nature triumphs. “Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable past, and clustered themselves with her maiden hope, and a happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour” (186). But this happiness, not born of a cleansed conscience, lasted no longer than an hour. Pearl refuses to recognize her mother without the scarlet letter. Hester has to put it on again, and thus their desperate project of escaping from the past comes to an end: their doom in the person of Roger Chillingworth is going to follow them in their flight, and Arthur Dimmesdale, though being unaware of their plan’s failure, after his glorious Election Sermon, unexpectedly confesses his sin and dies before the eyes of all people. It is only after his repentance that the burden is lifted from them all and the past lets them go.

But many years later Hester again returns to Boston and resumes wearing the scarlet letter of her own free accord. There can be different reasons for such act, but it seems that Hester still cherishes her former sentiment and will not separate herself from it. What happened to her is not to be repented of, but rather to be preserved as a model for the future. In fact, Hester shares her “eschatological” hopes with women who come to her seeking relationship counciling. “She assured them, too, of her firm belief that, at some brighter period, ... in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness” (239). Thus Hester believes the Christian revelation to be inefficient to ensure human happiness, and therefore a more satisfactory gospel should be hoped for and expected. This humanistic eschatology is a part of the religion Hester professes. As we can see, throughout her long life full of tribulations Hester does not change inwardly, but remains true to her passion and to the natural religion which endorses it.

It was perhaps this lack of inner development that allowed Henry James to regard Hester as a secondary character in The Scarlet Letter. In his book on Hawthorne, Henry James writes: “The story, indeed, is in a secondary degree that of Hester Prynne; she becomes, really, after the first scene, an accessory figure; it is not upon her the dénouement depends. It is upon her guilty lover that the author projects most frequently the cold, thin rays of his fitfully-moving lantern”. <5> Let us, then, look now at Arthur Dimmesdale to see how his path is different from that of Hester Prynne.


From the very start Dimmesdale, too, is depicted as suffering, but his suffering is inward rather than outward. In spite of his secure and prominent station in the world, his physical frame deteriorates under the hidden burden of guilt. “His form grew emaciated” (110); “his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth” (104). In this he is contrasted to Hester, whose natural beauty in the first scene is only made more prominent by the ordeal she passes through. All Hester’s sufferings have their cause outside of her, so to speak, they are mostly of the psychological (shame, solitude) and physical nature. Spiritual sufferings, those of the unclean conscience alienated from God, are almost unknown to Hester. Dimmesdale’s sufferings are exactly of the latter nature.

As we have seen, the Puritan magistrates had but in vain hoped, subjecting Hester to cruel punishment, that sheer repression would affect her repentance: it did not. Dimmesdale has enough of the same legalistic spirit in him to act upon an illusion that some physical sufferings, which the circumstances spare him, might bring him peace. So he keeps long vigils and severe fasts and even resorts to flagellation. We remember that Hester was trying to cleanse herself doing works of charity, which, however, though they changed people’s opinion of her, did not soften her heart. Dimmesdale, in his turn, is hoping to redeem his falsehood and lack of courage by (an illusion of) effective ministry to the people. In his important discussion with Chillingworth he is trying to justify those who, like himself, persistently demur at confessing their faults. He either appeals, in a positivist deterministic fashion, to the constitution of such people’s “nature”, or tries to justify their non-repentance by alleged “zeal for God's glory and man's welfare”, to which the shameful revelation can be seen as a detraction. Roger Chillingworth refutes those self-justifying arguments. First of all, he doubts that “love for man, and zeal for God's service” can coexist in the human heart with guilt and deliberate falsehood. Indeed, a passion when it is allowed to grow in the heart, gradually suppresses all its noble impulses, or admixes to them enough of self-love and hypocrisy to make them only a show of goodness. “These men deceive themselves,” said Roger Chillingworth, with somewhat more emphasis than usual. “But, if they seek to glorify God, let them not lift heavenward their unclean hands! If they would serve their fellowmen, let them do it by making manifest the power and reality of conscience, in constraining them to penitential self-abasement!... Trust me, such men deceive themselves!” (122).

And so does Dimmesdale, effectively serving his flock to the detriment of his own soul. Out of hypocritical fear to “bring infamy on his sacred profession” he remains “utterly a lie” and without fear lifts his unclean hands to his Creator. This legalistic rational religion of good works and external righteousness is something that is most readily prompted to the failing clergyman by his fallen nature. Dimmesdale’s inward experience, however, illumined by what of God’s truth he still retains in his soul, attests utter spiritual insolvency of such “service”. He tells Hester in the forest: “As concerns the good which I may appear to do, I have no faith in it. It must needs be a delusion. It is cold and dead, and can do nothing for me! ...It is all falsehood! - all emptiness! - all death!” (176). And so it is for Hester, who wears a garment of repentance but remains unrepentant. Both for her and for Dimmesdale their martyrdom is meaningless and hopeless, and as such seems to typify eternal sufferings. Indeed, both are close to despair, to a state of non-being. In Dimmesdale’s words, “To the untrue man, ...he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist” (134).

Repentance is the only escape from such annihilation. Dimmesdale knows it, for he remains a Christian, and his conscience stays alive, even under the burden of guilt. His, “had been a sin of passion, not of principle, nor even purpose” (183). But his continuous non-repentance and self-delusion make it very difficult for him to repent. From such unfortunate condition he acquiesces in Hester’s spontaneous proposal to flee. “Now - since I am irrevocably doomed - wherefore should I not snatch the solace allowed to the condemned culprit before his execution? - he asks himself. ...O Thou to whom I dare not lift mine eyes, wilt Thou yet pardon me?” (184). In spite of his obvious despair, Dimmesdale yet attempts to pray, which shows that some bond with his Creator is preserved even in the midst of all alienation. This circumstance, we might suppose, will affect Dimmesdale’s ultimate destiny.

Yet now he resolves to flee, and feels a strange joy “of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of an unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region” (184-185). He begins to view Hester as his better angel. But returning home from the forest where the fateful decision had been made, he experiences strange things. The whole world looks unfamiliar, and he experiences persistent temptations to blaspheme, to curse, “to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional; in spite of himself, yet growing out of a profounder self than that which opposed the impulse” (198). Here we have Hawthorne’s insightful comment on the dialectic of free will and a compelling spiritual power, be it good or evil. Hawthorne writes: “The minister's own will, and Hester's will, and the fate that grew between them, had wrought this transformation” (ibid.). Thus, man’s free volition allows a spiritual power to work in and through him, which decides his further destiny. After his interview in the forest Dimmesdale shows every sign of the demonic possession, and the reason is told us: “Tempted by a dream of happiness, he had yielded himself with deliberate choice, as he had never done before, to what he knew was deadly sin” (202-203). However failing a servant Dimmesdale had previously been of his merciful God, he now betrays Him completely to embrace Hester’s religion of earthly happiness, and as a result becomes “a lost and desperate man” (200).

In such state, however, he reaches the climax of his earthly glory and prominence. He writes a brilliant Election Sermon and delivers it with the greatest moving force, gaining the utmost power over people’s hearts. Then he marches in the procession of the venerable magistrates, greeted by the cheers of the admiring crowd, to the banquet at the Town Hall. This was the epoch of his life “more brilliant and full of triumph than any previous one, or than any which could hereafter be” (227). Wearing such halo of earthly glory he passes by the scaffold on which Hester had stood... “The minister here made a pause; although the music still played the stately and rejoicing march to which the procession moved. It summoned him onward - onward to the festival! - but here he made a pause” (229).

In the climactic scene that follows, Dimmesdale ascends the scaffold, confesses his sin before all people, and dies. Never in his previous life were the circumstances less favorable for his confession. Never his earthly position held him more surely within its grasp. His confession is inexplicable, and yet there seems to be the deepest truth in its very improbability. Hawthorne is often called a psychological writer, for he shows the interior of the human heart with unfailing skill and subtlety. He follows most minutely the logic and the dialectic of sin. But here he did not attempt to show the “logic” of repentance. We are not told what Dimmesdale thinks and feels throughout the whole celebration scene, we view him only through the eyes of Hester and of the people. His repentance remains a mystery that it ultimately is. Psychology, art, and logic as it were step aside at this moment and leave room for the inexpressible mystery of Grace which touches the human heart and works a miracle of regeneration. The veil of silence cast over this mystery is probably but partly removed by Dimmesdale’s last words: “God knows; and He is merciful! He hath proved His mercy, most of all, in my afflictions... Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be His name! His will be done! Farewell!” (233).

A direct manifestation of the supernatural power and of the power of human conscience resolves the conflict in Hawthorne’s novel. But this is not a deus ex machina of the ancient tragedy: here human will becomes a vehicle of God’s power, and the story ends in a triumph of human freedom. Dimmesdale’s confession breaks a spell that bound himself and Hester and Pearl and Chillingworth in an indissoluble knot of evil and guilt. Pearl ceases to be an elfish child, a messenger of anguish to her mother. Chillingworth, now that the victim of his revenge has escaped him, soon dies, bequeathing all his property to Pearl - a feature that carries a wonderful stroke of Hawthorne’s “spiritual realism” which allows him to perceive God’s own image even in a most dehumanized mortal. And Hester... Let us quote Darrel Abel. “It is one of the truest touches of Hawthorne’s art that Hester was not reclaimed to piety by the edifying spectacle of Dimmesdale’s death in the Lord but that even as he expired in her arms breathing hosannas, she insisted that her sole hope of happiness lay in personal reunion with him - in heaven, if not on earth”. <6> In this last scene, therefore, the difference between the natural and the supernatural ideals, between deceptive earthly hopes and latent heavenly aspirations, actualized at the hour of death which they turn into the hour of triumph - the distance between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, now separated by death, - is again brought home to the reader. And just as the protagonists’ ultimate views of their own lives, expressed in this concluding scene, are different, - so, and for similar reasons, are reader’s assessments of their lives.

We shall conclude this paper with a quotation from a critical essay by Theodore Munger, written in 1904. The critic writes: “Strangers in Boston still search the burial ground of King’s Chapel for the grave of Hester Prynne: so true a story, they think, must be true in fact. If it had been found they might have asked, What does the armorial device mean?


Does the scarlet letter stand for sin or for cleansing? Is the epitaph a word of despair or of hope? In what direction did Hawthorne intend to lead our thought? If asked, he would have said, Read out of your own heart”. <7>


1. Anthony Trollope, “The Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne” (North American Review, 129, September 1879; Cit.: The Critical Response to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, ed. by Gary Scharnhorst, Greenwood Press, 1992, p. 71). back to text
2. Darrel Abel, “Hawthorne’s Hester” (College English, 13, March 1952; Cit.: Ibid., p. 167). back to text
3. All quotations from The Scarlet Letter are according to: Four Great American Classics, Bantam Classic edition, 1986. back to text
4. George Woodberry, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston, 1902, Cit.: Gary Scharnhorst, ed., Op. cit., 112). back to text
5. Henry James, Hawthorne (NY, 1880; Cit.: Gary Sharnhorst, ed., Op.cit., p.78).back to text
6. Darrel Abel, Op. cit., p.173. back to text
7. Theodore T. Munger, “Notes on The Scarlet Letter,” (Atlantic Monthly, 93 (April 1904); Cit.: Gary Sharnhorst, ed., Op.cit., p. 131) back to text

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