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The Scarlet Letter | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does Hawthorne use symbols to link the four main characters in Chapter 10 of The Scarlet Letter ?

The novel's primary symbol is the scarlet letter, which reappears throughout the book and in part serves to connect Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale. For example, Hester dresses Pearl in red like a human scarlet letter early in the book. In Chapter 10, the burrs that Pearl puts on Hester's chest and the one she throws at Dimmesdale represent the insults that Hester must endure because of the letter. By giving burrs, which cling stubbornly to clothing, to both of them, Pearl's actions link Dimmesdale to the letter and to herself, its living proof. Dimmesdale's attempt to avoid the burrs "with nervous dread" symbolizes his refusal to admit his sin and acknowledge his love for Hester. His extreme reaction also shows the depth of his guilt, as it is unreasonable to think a child could throw a burr through a window and hurt him. Finally, Dimmesdale is linked to the letter by his scaffold confession and the tombstone that he and Hester share. The three adults are also linked to Satan, the "Black Man." In the burr-throwing scene, Pearl refers to Chillingworth as the "Black Man," making an explicit connection. Later in the book when Pearl asks her mother if she had ever seen the Black Man, Hester answers that she had once and Pearl was the result. This comment links Dimmesdale to the "Black Man" as well.

In The Scarlet Letter, Chillingworth rips aside Dimmesdale's shirt while the minister sleeps. What inference can you draw from Chillingworth's reaction to Dimmesdale's naked chest?

Chillingworth's great glee suggests that he found what he hoped or expected to find. Notice that Hawthorne does not describe what Chillingworth sees, only how he reacts to it. He responds with "a wild look of wonder, joy, and horror!" This presentation mirrors what happens when Dimmesdale rips aside his shirt himself in Chapter 23, "The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter." Both cases offer a twist on the public truth, private truth theme: the author does not make a truth public. It is important to remember that Chillingworth violates the rules of society as well as a doctor's ethical responsibilities when he rips aside the minister's shirt while the minister is sleeping. His action is shockingly rude and invasive, reflecting how deeply Chillingworth has sunk into evil.

In The Scarlet Letter, why does the physician, Roger Chillingworth, torture the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale?

The primary reason that Chillingworth tortures Dimmesdale is revenge, as he believes that the minister is the man with whom Hester had the affair, mixed with the desire for certainty. Chillingworth is bent on making Dimmesdale suffer until Chillingworth can learn whether that suspicion is true. In addition, Chillingworth is an old, misshapen physician. Initially respected by the townspeople for his skill, he comes to be feared for his increasingly evil appearance and odd behavior. In contrast, Dimmesdale is a minister in the prime of his life. Beloved by the people in his church, he is handsome and charismatic. There may be a hint of jealousy in Chillingworth's actions, making his behavior that much more evil, as it seems unjust to torment someone who is already suffering so much guilty agony on his own.

What are Dimmesdale's secret practices, and what do they suggest about his feelings midway in the The Scarlet Letter?

Dimmesdale tortures himself by whipping and starving himself and staying up all night as "an act of penance." He hates himself for not revealing the truth to the public and feels deeply that he should suffer some kind of punishment. That punishment remains his private truth. Dimmesdale's behavior has an impact on the reader's experience of the story as well. His self-torture lessens the negative response that readers might feel toward him for letting Hester take the public punishment alone. He becomes a more sympathetic character through his self-inflicted wounds—it is difficult to judge someone harshlywho is so wracked by guilt and so intent on suffering as a result.

Given that Dimmesdale gets more and more ill as the action in The Scarlet Letter goes on, what can you conclude from his refusal to take medicine?

There are two possible reasons why Dimmesdale refuses to take medicine, even though there is no doubt that his health is poor and is in fact declining. The first reason is that he realizes he is suffering from an emotional sickness—extreme guilt—rather than any physical ailment. His inability or unwillingness to admit that he was Hester's lover, to make the truth public, is eating away at his soul. As a result, he is aware that no medicine can help him. The only relief he could get from his pain would be an open and full confession of his guilt, which is he not willing to do at this point in the book. The second reason Dimmesdale doesn't take medicine is that he does not want to get well. He would rather torture himself for his moral weakness than relieve his suffering. He is punishing himself because his lack of public truth about his sin denies him the punishment of the law.

In The Scarlet Letter, why does Dimmesdale leave his room in the middle of the night and go to the scaffold?

Dimmesdale comes upon the idea suddenly, thinking "there might be a moment's peace" in standing on the scaffold. He goes to the scaffold because part of him wants to confess (his desire for public truth and public punishment), but the other part hangs back. Hence he goes at night when "the town was all asleep [and] there was no peril of discovery." He lacks the courage to come forth and tell the truth because if he did, he would have to give up all that he values: his reputation, his job, his identity, and quite possibly his life. He is not yet ready to pay that price to have a free conscience. While he craves punishment, he also fears it. The narrator describes the warring impulses within him. He was driven to the scaffold "by the ... Remorse which dogged him everywhere" but drawn back by "Cowardice ... just when the other impulse had hurried him to the verge of a disclosure." That Dimmesdale goes at night highlights the symbol of sun and shadow. In The Scarlet Letter, the sun is associated with God's mercy and nature's blessing, with vibrancy and life. The shadows—and by extension night—are linked to sin and guilt.

In Chapter 13 of The Scarlet Letter, what does the narrator mean when he says that "the scarlet letter has not done its office"?

Chapter 13 says that Hester "assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter." This statement means that Hester has not overcome her independent thinking and deep passions. Even though she fully acknowledges her sin and the acceptance of her punishment, displaying it for all the world to see through the scarlet letter, she continues to think and to question. This shows her individuality, a characteristic that Puritans frowned upon. It is yet another way that she is isolated from the rest of Puritan society.

How does the A that Pearl makes out of seaweed differ from her mother's scarlet letter?

Pearl, who is identified with nature, makes her letter from natural material. Hester's letter comes from human actions, the sin of adultery. Thus though they have the same shape, they spring from vastly different sources: purity versus sin. Pearl's letter, made from vegetation, also carries the association of impermanence—plants grow and then die. On the other hand, Hester's letter is fixed and permanent. The incident also leads Pearl to ask Hester what the letter means and why Dimmesdale holds his hand over his heart, thus reinforcing his link to the scarlet letter and reminding readers of his torment—as well as reminding them of the lingering mystery of the question she asks.

Why do Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest in Chapter 17 of The Scarlet Letter? Consider symbolic as well as literal meanings in your analysis.

On a literal level, Hester is shocked by Dimmesdale's decline and decides that she must reveal Chillingworth's true identity to him. She has obtained Chillingworth's grudging allowance to break her vow of secrecy. She hopes that by learning who Chillingworth really is—and thus his motive for torturing the minister—Dimmesdale will recover some of his strength. They meet in the forest because it provides the earliest opportunity for her to unburden herself. In addition, Hester feels that she owes it to Dimmesdale to reveal Chillingworth's identity and motives. As Hester tells her husband: "This long debt of confidence, due from me to him, whose bane and ruin I have been, shall at length be paid." Thus, she feels guilty that she has maintained a private truth that if made public to him might have spared him pain. On a symbolic level, they meet in the forest because the rules of society do not apply there. In the forest, the wilderness, the couple can talk freely and even seem to become young again. The forest offers freedom outside of the strict Puritan boundaries.

What is the significance of the word fallen in Chapter 17 of The Scarlet Letter and how does it relate to the Bible story of Adam and Eve?

In Chapter 17, "The Pastor and His Parishioner," Hawthorne repeats the word fallen several times. For instance, he says that Dimmesdale and Hester "sat down again, side by side, and hand clasped in hand, on the mossy trunk of the fallen tree." A few lines later the narrator comments: "Here, seen only by his eyes, the scarlet letter need not burn into the bosom of the fallen woman!" And a bit further in the same chapter, Hester asks Dimmesdale, "Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of Roger Chillingworth?" Dimmesdale replies, "Yes, Hester, but only under fallen leaves." The word fallen suggests the condition of humanity after the fall of Adam and Eve, their sin and expulsion from Eden. This is the starting point of Puritan theology. Hawthorne links the word fallen to Hester, the so-called "fallen woman" for her sin, but Dimmesdale is connected to it also, as he was a partner to her fall—just as Adam and Eve fell together. Unlike Adam, who was expelled from the garden along with Eve, Dimmesdale did not share in Hester's punishment, however. Hester and Dimmesdale are also linked to the Garden of Eden in the setting of this scene—they are in the forest, a natural place rather than a location reflecting the world made by humanity. (The look that moved like a snake over Chillingworth's face when he is introduced is another link to the Garden of Eden.

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