English Honors 11-4
06 October 2014
When man believes a delusion long enough, it soon will replace reality. The novel The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, tells the story of a young woman, Hester Prynne, and a young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, who must deal with the shame of their adultery. Hester’s scarlet letter A publicly disgraces her every day, whereas Arthur’s sin is hidden from everyone in colonial Boston. Hawthorne shows through Arthur Dimmesdale that when man refuses to accept moral responsibility for his actions he lives in self-deception.
Dimmesdale cannot let go of his pride and chooses to live in a lie instead. Arthur knows that God’s calling for him is to the church. Dimmesdale thinks that his calling to the ministry justifies himself from telling the truth. Dimmesdale feels he has a responsibility to his congregation and God, and Dimmesdale could not fulfil his duty if he confessed. When Robert Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, lives with Dimmesdale they talk one day on the subject of misleading oneself and Chillingworth says to Dimmesdale, “These men deceive themselves, they fear to take up the shame that rightfully belongs to them. Their love for man, their zeal for God’s service. These holy impulses may or may not coexist in their hearts with the evil inmates to which their guilt has unbarred the door” (110). Dimmesdale is afraid of what might happen if he speaks up. The fear of losing his job and failing God scares him, and makes him a coward. Arthur wants to be a minister and maintain his reputation and followers so much that pride blinds him from seeing what the right choice is. However, Dimmesdale cannot both be a minister and live in the sin of adultery; one cannot coexist with the other. Arthur’s status and self-importance gets in the way of his redemption. Dimmesdale makes himself believe that he can push aside his immorality, in order for him to keep his position and pride.
Many times Dimmesdale comes close to confessing his sin to his congregation. At times he even does, but only in an ambiguous sort of way. Dimmesdale is too weak to own up to his mistake and tell the truth. Dimmesdale tries to find redemption in these cryptic confessions, but in his heart, “the minister well knew-subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that he was- the light in which his vague confession would be viewed” (120). Dimmesdale knows that the people will interpret his vague confession as him being humble and selfless. Dimmesdale’s redemption could be gained if he just would confess, but he deceives himself in thinking that these half-truthful statements will gain that for him. Dimmesdale cannot find any satisfaction from these declarations of sin, because he only deceives himself through them even more. Arthur yearns for the burden of his adultery to be lifted off his shoulders and be redeemed, but he will not simply admit to his adultery.
The penalty of adultery is the scarlet letter A, which Hester wears in public. Arthur has his own secretive version on his very skin under his shirt. However, unlike Hester he keeps it hidden. Another physical affliction Dimmesdale brings on himself is beating his body with a bloody scourge. At night in secret he hits himself, “rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance” (120). These afflictions that blight Dimmesdale remind him of his sin. He deludes himself in thinking somehow these acts pays for some of the punishment of his adultery. It gives Dimmesdale a taste of the consequences and shame, without actually suffering. He cannot take the shame and responsibility that the real letter would bring him, so he makes a secretive one on himself. This is a step forward, in Arthur’s mind, towards sanctification. These actions will not amend the mistake he made, nor will they ever. However Arthur deceives himself in thinking that these afflictions will make him feel less