November, 2011

Scarlet Letter

November 7th, 2011 November 7th, 2011
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“Good Master Dimmesdale,” said he, “the responsibility of this woman’s soul lies greatly with you. It behooves you, therefore, to exhort her to repentance, and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof.” At this point, the reader is not yet aware of Mr. Dimmesdale’s identity as Hester’s lover. But in light of the truth, Dimmesdale’s “responsiblity of this woman’s soul” is even more haunting: in fact, as minister he does bear responsibility for the spiritual states of his community. And in particular, he bears responsibility for the tainted condition of Hester’s soul, of Hester’s fall in the eyes of her society. That Governor Bellingham, who is unaware of the irony of his commands, tellls Dimmesdale that “it behooves you… to exhort her to repentance… as a proof and consequence” is chillingly appropriate.  It would cut Hawthorne’s story incredibly short if Hester did repent right then, but it would also save Dimmesdale a lot of suffering, possibly even his early death.  (Reread as: it is worth it for you, worth avoiding the forthcoming self-inflicted torture, to get Hester to tell the truth now, as a proof and consequence of your own sinful behavior.)

But Hester stays mum. We are also given ample description of Dimmesdale: “Therefore, so far as his duties would permit, he trode in the shadowy by-paths, and thus kept himself simple and childlike; coming forth, when occasion was, with a freshness, and fragrance, and dewy purity of thought, which, as many people said, affected them like the speech of an angel.” It is interesting how Dimmesdale is able to hold onto this deceivingly pure public persona, one that drives him almost to the point of madness because it is so incongruous with his own self-perception, while Hester  is clothed, against her will, in a villanous and sinful public persona, but one that she attempts to incorporate somehow into her life. Hester doesn’t run away from the scarlet A, and from the novel’s opening we hear about how beautiful the letter itself is, how Hester has attempted even her branding to be a reflection of actual self, one that is more beautiful than sinful. While Dimmesdale pays lip service and spouts inspiring sermons  by whose precepts he himself does not live, Hester becomes an authentic “living sermon against sin.”

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