The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne unfolds its plot during the era of Puritanism, not less than two centuries ago, in Boston, Massachusetts. One’s attention is drawn to the character of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. As the father of a child, born out of wedlock to Hester Prynne, Dimmesdale is portrayed as a character who, though consumed with guilt for his part in an action which brings ignominy to Hester, is unable to publicly announce his culpability as a partner in this scandal.
Thus, the Reverend begins to lead a double life – a life which brings him torment. To the outside world, he is the model Reverend. He assumes the posture of one totally innocent regarding such misdeeds; in fact, he condemns them. As his parishioners note, “he took it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.” (Hawthorne). When Hester is forced to stand upon a scaffold in public view as atonement for her sin, The Scarlet Letter A (for Adulteress emblazoned upon the bosom of her garment, it is Dimmesdale who self-righteously implores her: “I charge thee speak out the name of thy fellow sinner and fellow-sufferer!” (Hawthorne 73). When the clergy elect to take the child, Pearl, away from Hester, considering her unfit to raise the child, Dimmesdale does nothing to stand in the way of proceedings to this end until Hester beseeches him to speak on her behalf. Only then does he come to her defense, saying: “This child of its father’s guilt and its mother’s shame hath come from the hand of God . . . It was meant for a blessing . . . for a retribution too. . . .” (Hawthorne 114). It was due to his persuasive argument that Hester was allowed to keep the child.
One is amazed by the fact that Dimmesdale can utter words of condemnation with such passion, yet keep his identity as the child’s father concealed. However, as a direct result of his guilt, the Reverend becomes increasingly ill. Those best acquainted with him attributed his decline to a too earnest devotion to study and fulfillment of parochial duties. Yet the Reverend is aware of the fact that the “poison of one morbid spot was infecting his heart’s entire substance. . . .” (Hawthorne 137). Knowing his public venerated him caused him agony: he knew he was being deceitful. Thinking of his grave, he wondered whether grass would ever grow on it, “because an accursed thing must there be buried!” (Hawthorne 139).
Thus, although he longed to speak out and tell the people who he was: “I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!” (Hawthorne 140), he could not. His own stance to the world was revealed when he stated those that are guilty go about “looking pure as new-fallen snow; while their hearts are all speckled and spotted with inequity of which they cannot rid themselves.” (Hawthorne 130). However, he realized that admission would be a great relief: “It must need be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it all up in his heart.” (Hawthorne 132).
It is through the character of Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s ex-husband who, while symbolically representing the Devil, acts as the Reverend’s physician and friend, that Dimmesdale’s character is revealed: his inability to step forward publicly and act in...
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A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be?
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This introduction provides a frame for the main narrative of The Scarlet Letter. The nameless narrator, who shares quite a few traits with the book’s author, takes a post as the “chief executive officer,” or surveyor, of the Salem Custom House. (“Customs” are the taxes paid on foreign imports into a country; a “customhouse” is the building where these taxes are paid.) He finds the establishment to be a run-down place, situated on a rotting wharf in a half-finished building. His fellow workers mostly hold lifetime appointments secured by family connections. They are elderly and given to telling the same stories repeatedly. The narrator finds them to be generally incompetent and innocuously corrupt.
The narrator spends his days at the customhouse trying to amuse himself because few ships come to Salem anymore. One rainy day he discovers some documents in the building’s unoccupied second story. Looking through the pile, he notices a manuscript that is bundled with a scarlet, gold-embroidered piece of cloth in the shape of the letter “A.” The narrator examines the scarlet badge and holds it briefly to his chest, but he drops it because it seems to burn him. He then reads the manuscript. It is the work of one Jonathan Pue, who was a customs surveyor a hundred years earlier. An interest in local history led Pue to write an account of events taking place in the middle of the seventeenth century—a century before Pue’s time and two hundred years before the narrator’s.
The narrator has already mentioned his unease about attempting to make a career out of writing. He believes that his Puritan ancestors, whom he holds in high regard, would find it frivolous and “degenerate.” Nevertheless, he decides to write a fictional account of Hester Prynne’s experiences. It will not be factually precise, but he believes that it will be faithful to the spirit and general outline of the original. While working at the customhouse, surrounded by uninspiring men, the narrator finds himself unable to write. When a new president is elected, he loses his politically appointed job and, settling down before a dim fire in his parlor, begins to write his “romance,” which becomes the body of The Scarlet Letter.
This section introduces us to the narrator and establishes his desire to contribute to American culture. Although this narrator seems to have much in common with Nathaniel Hawthorne himself—Hawthorne also worked as a customs officer, lost his job due to political changes, and had Puritan ancestors whose legacy he considered both a blessing and a curse—it is important not to conflate the two storytellers. The narrator is not just a stand-in for Hawthorne; he is carefully constructed to enhance the book aesthetically and philosophically. Moreover, Hawthorne sets him up to parallel Hester Prynne in significant ways. Like Hester, the narrator spends his days surrounded by people from whom he feels alienated. In his case, it is his relative youth and vitality that separates him from the career customs officers. Hester’s youthful zest for life may have indirectly caused her alienation as well, spurring her to her sin. Similarly, like Hester, the narrator seeks out the “few who will understand him,” and it is to this select group that he addresses both his own story and the tale of the scarlet letter. The narrator points out the connection between Hester and himself when he notes that he will someday be reduced to a name on a custom stamp, much as she has been reduced to a pile of old papers and a scrap of cloth. The narrator’s identification with Hester enables the reader to universalize her story and to see its application to another society.
Despite his devotion to Hester’s story, the narrator has trouble writing it. First, he feels that his Puritan ancestors would find it frivolous, and indeed he is not able to write until he has been relieved of any real career responsibilities. Second, he knows that his audience will be small, mostly because he is relating events that happened some two hundred years ago. His time spent in the company of the other customhouse men has taught the narrator that it will be difficult to write in such a way as to make his story accessible to all types of people—particularly to those no longer young at heart. But he regards it as part of his challenge to try to tell Hester’s story in a way that makes it both meaningful and emotionally affecting to all readers. His last step in preparing to write is to stop battling the “real world” of work and small-mindedness and to give himself up to the “romance” atmosphere of his story.
The narrator finds writing therapeutic. Contrary to his Puritan ancestors’ assertions, he also discovers it to be practical: his introduction provides a cogent discourse on American history and culture. Hawthorne wrote at a time when America sought to distinguish itself from centuries of European tradition by producing uniquely “American” writers—those who, like Hawthorne, would encourage patriotism by enlarging the world’s sense of America’s comparatively brief history.