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The Scarlet Letter and Guilt

The Scarlet Letter and Guilt

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will consider how the theme of guilt is represented in The Scarlet Letter, by discussing how it is portrayed and symbolised within the text. To do so it will be useful to have a working definition of guilt. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines guilt as being “culpability” and a guilt complex as “a mental obsession with the idea of having done wrong”. Obviously there are various levels of guilt depending upon the seriousness of the transgression. In the case of The Scarlet Letter the wrong, or sin, is adultery: a very serious breach of Christian morality. The way in which each of the parties, to the sin, deal with their guilt is different, the female, Hester, has no option; she cannot conceal the sin, for obvious biological reasons. Dimmesdale has a choice; however, his choice of secrecy is dependant upon the complicity of Hester. He chooses to remain quiet supported in this by Hester. Nonetheless, this sin causes Dimmesdale to suffer an immense guilt complex, consumed with guilt it becomes a “mental obsession” which ultimately destroys him. He does however seek to rationalise it. At one point in Chapter X Dimmesdale asks the Physician:

“Why should a wretched man, guilty, we will say, of murder, prefer to keep the dead corpse buried in his own heart, rather than fling it forth at once, and let the universe take care of it!” To be answered:

“Yet some men bury their secrets thus,” Dimmesdale then attempts to excuse this concealment:

“True; there are such men, but, not to suggest more obvious reasons, it may be that they are kept silent by the very constitution of their nature.”

He then continues to excuse his secrecy as being to the benefit of all, by allowing him to continue to preach, but it is clear it is causing him considerable internal conflict: a guilt complex.

Hester deals with her guilt in an open way, wearing elegant clothes when leaving the prison and embroidering a fancy letter ‘A’ to wear on her chest. She wears this letter on her chest long after she is required to do so. She is clearly not suffering from a “guilt complex”; she has confronted the transgression for which she has “culpability”. She does not suffer from a guilty conscience in the same way as Dimmesdale, so does not suffer the same physical and mental deterioration suffered by him.

To consider the way in which

Hawthorne intended to represent the power of guilt it is useful to consider his own beliefs. He was arguably considering a puritanical view of guilt and seeking to represent its different forms. The issue was considered in some depth by Herman Melville, in his essay, “Hawthorne and His Moses,” Melville describes

Hawthorne’s soul as “shrouded in a blackness” (Melville, H., 1994). Melville believes that the origin of this darkness and black mode of thinking derives from that:

“…Touch of Puritanical gloom… [which] derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity from Original Sin, from whose visitations,

in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always wholly free.” (Melville, H., 1994)

Melville’s view that

Hawthorne’s darkness is rooted in Puritanism is reasonable. The implication, by Melville, being that Hawthorne represents guilt in The Scarlet Letter as something from which no-one can be truly free, whether it is accepted head on, and confronted, or not.

Hawthorne arguably identified himself with the theories of John Calvin, which are fundamental to the to a Calvinist Puritanical faith. Henry James states that:

Hawthorne found the necessary darkness… in his Puritan heritage… and [would] capitalize on the darkness latent in

America’s Puritan history and heritage”.

It would be an error to argue that

Hawthorne was preaching a wholly puritanical message in the Scarlet Letter with guilt as a symbol for it. For while Puritans do believe that Original Sin effects the whole of society, and that we are all sinners, they nonetheless believe in the possibility of redemption from this Original Sin. That redemption is possible: with the appropriate behaviour and a sense of guilt, shame and conscience. However, they also believe that the method of expression of guilt is important in this regard.

Hawthorne, in the text, did not represent that all members of society can purged of the guilt of sin: even though Dimmesdale did eventually confess, and suffered from a deleterious guilt complex, the sin he committed is represented as being ultimately responsible for his death. This representation of the power of sin and guilt opposes the Transcendentalists view, with which Melville sympathised, that all members of society can be redeemed through the power that is innate within all individuals. (O’Toole, H., 2003). They do not believe in the ultimate power of evil, which is represented by

Hawthorne in the demise of Dimmesdale. The text represents a belief that evil, sin and guilt must be confronted head on. In the depiction of the differing effects that guilt have upon Hester and Dimmesdale, the text argues that the only way to deal with sin, guilt and a guilt complex is to confront it, but not all can do this, and even if done, not all are truly redeemed. In the depiction of Pearl as being a quirky individual, fond of the woods (a suggestion of evil) and in some way different is another representation of guilt and sin as being pervasive in the damage that it can cause. The message is that even third parties, who are themselves innocent of the sin but nonetheless products of it can suffer. It is represented in the same way that all humans suffer because of Original Sin. (Melville H., 1994)

It is clear that one of the main themes of the book is guilt and conscience. Furthermore hidden guilt is represented as more harmful than open guilt. Hester is labelled as openly guilty of a transgression, with a scarlet letter ‘A’ and imprisoned because of it. Initially she is mocked and badly treated by her small community, but as the years pass she earns the respect and forgiveness of those who initiated the punishment. Kinkead-Weekes makes the point that there is a suggestion, in the text, that open acceptance of sin and guilt is represented as empowering:

“By accepting punishment and guilt, Hester is educated and strengthened by suffering, and acquires a power for good beyond the scope of the rebel of the opening.”

However, she accepts responsibility more so than suffering from guilt as a mental obsession. The fact that she embroiders a fancy letter ‘A’ and wears it long after she is required to do so suggests pride more than guilt.

Dimmesdale, in refusing to admit to his sin, is condemned to suffering from a guilt complex, a secret that he can share with no one, except God. This guilt complex is added to because Hester, whilst accepting guilt and punishment, is keeping it a secret as well. She is being punished while he continues to retain the respect of the community. By not confessing he is able to continue in his pastoral role, albeit riddled with guilt; this makes him a hypocrite also. He is aware that he will never be free of this guilt complex until he confesses, however, he keeps the secret and his mental and physical health deteriorate to such an extent, because of the guilt complex and shame, that when he does finally confess he dies. His character is portrayed as quiet and pious, but his failure to confess and his continuing to preach the importance of confessing sin render him a coward as well as a hypocrite. He rationalises that, were he to confess, he would not be able to help anyone and thus excuses himself; this representation of guilt is manifested as a fundamental weakness to his character. Occasionally he contemplates his hypocrisy but never finds the courage to confess, he begins to suffer considerable anxiety because of this weakness. The guilt in Dimmesdale is represented as a powerful force for harm; this is because it is hidden, not accepted and furthermore, is compounded by hypocrisy. The power of guilt is further represented

when Dimmesdale subjects himself to self flagellation, and by carving an ‘A’ onto his chest hidden from view, like his guilt. Notwithstanding this punishment he still suffers, the point being made that guilt and secrecy are deleterious. Contrast this with the open guilt of Hester, she is openly labelled, which is ultimately empowering, allowing her to rise above her sin, guilt and shame and to emerge with the respect of her community, and the love of her daughter. Dimmesdale suffers for seven years before finding the moral courage to confess and overcome the weakness in his character. The confession is public and made during a sermon. It is also the conclusion to the plot and the climax to the text, but shortly after relieving himself of this burden he dies, in Hester’s arms. The ultimate power of hidden guilt, and the resultant guilt complex and shame, to destroy a person, is amply made. Kinkead-Weekes makes the point that an acceptance of sin and a feeling of guilt are represented within the text as a positive power for good, when he says of Dimmesdale:

“…his most guilty suffering produces his greatest power for good”

Guilt in the Scarlet Letter is being represented as both a positive and negative but inevitable human emotion. The text represents guilt as an emotion from which all must suffer in a Calvinistic puritanical way, that is, as fundamental to the human condition. The text demonstrates that confrontation of sin and the acceptance of punishment lead to redemption in the guise of Hester. Hiding sin and a refusal to openly accept guilt cause shame, misery and, in its ultimate manifestation, death in the guise of Dimmesdale.


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