Scarlet Letter-Secret Theme
One of the main themes in The Scarlet Letter is that of the secret. The plot of the book is centered around Hester Prynne s secret sin of adultery. Nathaniel Hawthorne draws striking parallelism between secrets held and the physical and mental states of those who hold them. The Scarlet Letter demonstrates that a secret or feeling kept within slowly engulfs and destroys the soul, while a secret made public can allow a soul to recover and even strengthen.
When a secret is hidden inside it can engulf and even destroy a person. Arthur Dimmesdale, a revered young minister in the town, demonstrates what happens to the soul. Dimmesdale, as it is later made known, commits the serious crime of adultery with a young married woman named Hester Prynne living in the Plymouth Colony. Because of Hester s unwillingness to reveal her partner in sin, and Dimmesdale s fear of persecution and most of all humiliation, the minister is forced to keep his sin a secret. So he watches as Hester is placed before her peers on a platform in front of the whole town and is then called to speak to her and urge that she reveal her fellow adulterer. In essence, he is called upon to commit yet another sin, that of hypocrisy. Dimmesdale s accumulated sins build inside of him, constantly afflicting his soul until it begins to affect him negatively. Thinking himself a hypocrite, he tries to ease his conscience and requite his sin by scourging himself on the chest during the night, fasting for days on end and even climbing the same platform on which Hester began her humiliation.
Walking in the shadow of a dream, as it were, and perhaps actually under the influence of a species of somnambulism (sleepwalk), Mr. Dimmesdale reached the spot where, now so long since, Hester Prynne had lived through her first hours of public ignominy. The same platform or scaffold, black and weather-stained with the storm or sunshine of seven long years, and footworn, too, with the tread of many culprits who had since ascended it, remained standing beneath the balcony of the meeting-house. The minister went up the steps.
Dimmesdale s increasingly enervated physical condition is evident through his eyes, which show a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depths, As years go by, the minister is inundated with guilt, to the point that he is physically deteriorating. All the while giving phenomenal sermons and regarded as a pillar of the community, internally, Dimmesdale could not feel worse. Dimmesdale s pain was obviously related to, and most likely the result of, his concealed sins. It is not only sins you commit kept secret that cause anguish to the soul, but also secrets in general that can saturate the human soul until they begin to take over human life.
In addition, a sin or secret that goes unacknowledged and unrevealed can cause a cycle of vengeance and further sin. Such an example of feelings kept secret ruining a life is the secret of Roger Chillingsworth. He is the husband of Hester Prynne and is thought by the townsfolk to be dead at sea. He returns in hopes of surprising his wife and living a happy life together only to find his wife being punished for adultery. Upon visiting with his wife in prison, in disguise as a doctor, Chillingsworth makes it clear that he does not want his identity known. His primary reason for this request of his wife is in order to salvage all the dignity he can. When Hester refuses to tell him who fathered her baby, Pearl, he vows to seek vengeance on his wife s lover. Chillingsworth also requests that this be kept secret from the public, so that he has a chance to sense the guilty one for himself. Chillingsworth, too, experiences a drastic descending change in his physical condition. He makes vengeance an obsession, an obsession that eventually transcends his life. Chillingsworth suspects Dimmesdale s guilt, so he attempts to get closer to him by becoming the reverend s personal physician. When Chillingsworth uncovers Dimmesdale s shirt while he is sleeping, he finds an A scourged on his chest, similar to the one worn on Hester s bosom in penance for her crime of adultery. Hawthorne portrays him closely to Satan as he stares at the wound in great joy.
Had a man seen old Roger Chillingsworth, at that moment of his ecstasy, he would have had no need to ask how Satan comports himself when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won to his kingdom
This vividly shows how much his obsession has taken over his life. As the obsession slowly grew, his physical and mental condition and his life overall began to diminish. The only one who could see this drastic change was Hester who knew well what he was once like.
Hester Prynne looked at the man of skill, and even then, with her fate hanging in the balance, was startled to perceive what a change had come over his features,–how much uglier they were,–how his dark complexion seemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen,–since the days when she had familiarly known him.
His secret hatred towards Dimmesdale and his obsession with vengeance takes over his life and changes his physical and mental condition for the worse because he keeps it inside and never lets any anger out leaving it to build up beyond the point of manageability.
Unlike Dimmesdale and Chillingsworth, the secret of Hester Prynne was not a secret for long. The townsfolk know at the first signs of pregnancy that she has committed adultery because her husband traveled overseas for several years without return. During this time period, adultery is considered a serious crime, punishable by death. Due to the fact that her husband is presumed to be deceased, she is lightly sentenced. One of her punishments is to wear an embroidered A on her bosom to eternally symbolize her crime. This symbol makes her secret known to the world. While Hester may not have known it, this was a blessing in disguise. It allowed her sin to be out in the open and partially away from her soul. Thus, she demonstrates how the pathway to spiritual healing opens with her accepting her sin and not trying to hide her symbol.
When the young woman the mother of this child stood revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress.
While she experiences immense humiliation from wearing the scarlet letter, she does not lash back, she accepts the abuse of Puritans, child and adult alike, all the while keeping an almost prideful manner about herself, desperately trying to keep some dignity. She remains silent and finds strength from inside; since she is secluded from the outside world she turns to the inside world, full of her memories and her imagination. She also finds comfort in her daughter, Pearl, because the girl is Hester s only friend at times and they both live a life of seclusion away from the realm of the rest of the world. She lives this life in hopes that one day her sin will be forgiven, by God and her peers, and the A that is branded on her heart can be removed along with the A on her bosom.
Hawthorn s depictions of secret and sin are engraved throughout the book and make up the veins of the story. The novel paints vivid pictures of how undiscovered sin can destroy a man. He paints these pictures in the forms of two men, Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingsworth, and draws a direct corollary in Hester Prynne who does the exact opposite and has her sin revealed to the public. While humiliated, when the sin is in the open, the soul heals and strengthens, while a guilty conscience resulting from an undisclosed sin, slowly corrodes the soul until the body no longer feels, and the mind slips into darkness.