Essay Test: The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" is set in the early days of Puritan America. Hester Prynne, a seamstress, comes to the New World before her husband in order to prepare a place for them. During his absence, she develops a relationship with Arthur Dimmesdale, a rising minister in the newly founded Puritan community. Hester becomes pregnant. The novel is widely viewed to be a story about her trials and tribulations; however, critic Randall Steward argues that, "...Hester is not the protagonist, the chief actor, and the tragedy of the novel is not her tragedy but Arthur's. He is the persecuted one, the tempted one. He it was whom the sorrows of death encompassed...His public confession is one of the noblest climaxes of tragic literature." This review, controversial as it may be among Hawthorne's readers and very possibly a bit of an overstatement, has a lot of truth in it.
Obviously, Hester Prynne is the most obvious of the protagonists in "The Scarlet Letter". She is first seen upon the scaffold holding her child in her arms with a "Scarlet Letter, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom." (p. 49) She is being watched and no doubt ridiculed by all those present. She is forced to watch her husband slither into the heart of Arthur Dimmesdale and then not to say a thing. She is cast out of society. Her child is viewed as a demon because she comes from sin. She is not granted a moment's relief from the letter that is blazoned on her chest in red and gold. She is persecuted, tempted, and her life is never the same. Yet, somehow, she perseveres in the face of adversity. She is a protagonist in Hawthorne's novel. To say that the tragedy of the novel is not hers at all is flat out wrong and inobservant almost to a point of virtual blindness. However, there is some truth in that it doesn't belong to her entirely. The reader must look closer to find the other hero hidden in the shadows of the scarlet letter.
The reader first meets Arthur Dimmesdale on the top of a balcony looking down upon Hester Prynne who has recently been accused of adultery. Hawthorne first describes him as, "a person of very striking aspect" (p.60). He is "up-and-coming" in the religious community and extremely intelligent in a very godly sort of way. Then suddenly his world is shaken by the news that he has fathered an illegitimate child. Upon this balcony looking down on Hester Prynne, the mother, he pleads with her to speak his name: "I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow sinner and fellow sufferer! not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee...better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life." (p.62) This is how the reader first meets Dimmesdale. Yet as the story progresses and he continues to hide his sin from the eyes and ears of the public his
The Scarlet Letter: Arthur Dimmesdale As Protagonist
"Hidden Guilt Abolishes Selfhood"
Those who keep their sins and feelings to themselves cause themselves only anguish and despair. In The Scarlet Letter, a romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is a young man who achieved fame in England as a theologian and then immigrated to America. In a moment of weakness, he and Hester Prynne, a young, beautiful, married woman whose husband is away in Europe, become lovers. Although he will not confess it publicly, Dimmesdale is the father of her child; also, he deals with the guilt by tormenting himself physically and psychologically, developing a heart condition in the process. Dimmesdale is an intelligent and emotional man, and his sermons are thus masterpieces of eloquence and persuasiveness. His commitments to his congregation are in constant conflict with his feelings of sinfulness and need to confess. He lives behind a false self for many years while unknowingly living beside Hester's husband, finally his true self appears and he is redeemed of his sins as he admits them publicly. Selfhood can be achieved when a hypocritical persona is rejected and the true self consistently emerges. Dimmesdale is shown as the protagonist of the romance through Hawthorne's use of characterization, conflict, by showing the transformation of Dimmesdale, and by showing that Roger Chillingworth and Dimmesdale's own guilt oppose him.
Hawthorne uses characterization throughout The Scarlet Letter to show Dimmesdale as the protagonist. The Scarlet Letter is a story of characters that have to live and deal with the effects of sin in different ways; of these characters, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is the character portrayed as the most inadequate. Despite this portrayal Dimmesdale was a stronger character than given credit for, his unbelievable amount of control in his way of handling his burdens displays his great sense of strength and intellect; although, he is very intelligent, his faults mask his dignity, Dimmesdale is aware that he is covering up his true self but hides these feelings to keep his reputation of being a pious, dutiful minister. His shortcomings and distress throughout the narrative conceal his pride, "Dimmesdale clearly suffers from an excess of self. His weakness and suffering throughout most of the romance, as I suggested earlier, have tended to blur for some readers the fact of his pride, which, like his scarlet letter, lies beneath and gives special form to his mask of saintliness" (Martin 124). He is first characterized as a nervous and sensitive individual, despite his outer appearance, inside...
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