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The Scarlet Letter | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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What are some examples of how Hawthorne connects the events in The Scarlet Letter and the locations in which they occur?

The connection between setting and events is extremely important in The Scarlet Letter. For example, things happen in the forest that could not happen in the town. The town is the setting for realistic events: Hester being forced to stand on the scaffold and be humiliated for her sin, Hester pleading to keep her child from being removed on a charge of poor parenting. The forest is the setting for events that swerve from reality: witches holding meetings, Pearl and animals talking happily with each other, Hester and Dimmesdale briefly enjoying the possibility of escape and a life together. The forest is a place of enchantment holding the potential for love, freedom, magic—not to mention the home of native people and their productive relations with the natural world (food, clothing, healing herbs).

Wisdom through suffering is an important theme in The Scarlet Letter? How do Hester and Dimmesdale illustrate this theme?

Hester grows as a result of the misery she suffers. She wears the scarlet letter with grace and dignity, living in isolation and supporting herself and her daughter through her hard work as a seamstress. She does many good deeds for others, and so comes to be respected and even admired. At the end of the novel, some visiting Native Americans assume the letter she wears marks Hester as a person of great honor. Indeed, this has come to be the case. Dimmesdale also grows as a result of the misery he suffers. He spends seven years hiding the fact that he was Hester's lover. During that time, he allows Chillingworth to torture him and he tortures himself. He allows Hester to shoulder the entire burden of shame, not to mention the burden of supporting herself and their child. At the end of the novel, Dimmesdale confesses the truth to the entire community as he has learned that he cannot live with a lie. That real growth takes place can be seen in this confession. In the forest scene, Dimmesdale is still weak willed and insists that he needs Hester's strength. At the scaffold, he reveals his secret of his own free will without consulting her. Though he calls her and Pearl to be with him, it is not her support he seeks but his solidarity with them that he offers. Though he dies, he finally achieves some peace of mind before doing so.

In The Scarlet Letter, what are some of the reasons why Dimmesdale conceals his sin from everyone in the community for seven years?

Dimmesdale conceals his sin for two main reasons. First, he lacks the strength to confess. We can see this by the fact that he has to lean on Hester, begging her to think for him. In Chapter 17 when the two of them are talking in the forest, Dimmesdale says, "Be thou strong for me! ... Advise me what to do." She complies and wills him to run away with her and their child, using the power of her much stronger spirit to persuade him. Second, by confessing, Dimmesdale would be sacrificing all that means so much to him: his pulpit, his reputation, and his moral stature in the community. Indeed, he places his relationship to God and his service to the Puritan community over his personal happiness—and the happiness of his lover Hester and their child Pearl. A brilliant young minister who had won recognition at the prestigious Oxford University in England, Dimmesdale derives his identity from his accomplishments and his profession. He cannot give that up, no matter how much suffering he undergoes as a result, leaving him entrapped in tragedy.

In The Scarlet Letter, does Dimmesdale deserve our pity because he is a victim of harsh Puritan views? Explain.

Dimmesdale's suffering is likely to promote sympathy among many readers. He has internalized the harsh Puritan perspective that sees all humans as sinners. There is some dramatic irony in the fact that Hester, who is not executed for her crime at the beginning of the book but given a lesser sentence, is shown more mercy by this so-called harsh society than Dimmesdale shows himself. Indeed, his self-inflicted suffering imposes its own death sentence. Some readers may view him more harshly, seeing him as egotistically placing his reputation and career over the welfare of his lover and child and even over his own soul.

Revenge is an important theme in The Scarlet Letter? How does Chillingworth illustrate this theme?

Chillingworth embodies the theme of revenge, spending seven years torturing Dimmesdale in the belief that he is the one who committed adultery with Hester. Chillingworth's quest for revenge even changes his appearance, making him look evil like Satan himself. His death, so soon after Dimmesdale's death, shows the ultimate outcome of a life devoted to achieving revenge and retribution: a wasted life and an early death when the foul purpose no longer applies. Chillingworth is something of fallen angel. He has the potential for good acts—he is a physician and a man of learning and in his early life presumably helped others. He is sensitive and admits that he is troubled in recognizing that he took advantage of Hester's innocence and her family's poverty to have a beautiful young wife. Consumed by jealousy and hurt pride, however—fallen—he resorts to anger, treachery, and revenge. He is not just an evil man but one who has suffered and taken a profoundly wrong turn—a contrast to Hester.

In The Scarlet Letter, Chillingworth commits two sins. What are those sins and which of the two do you judge to be the worst? Why?

First, Chillingworth commits the sin of marrying Hester. By doing so he is taking advantage of her innocence and her youth as she has little or no idea what a life with him will be like. She does not love him—or even know him particularly well. Chillingworth is fully aware of that fact yet ignores it, as he acknowledges when he meets with Hester toward the end of the book. Far more serious is his second sin: tormenting Dimmesdale. His persecution of the minister shows that the doctor values intellect over emotion, the mind over the heart. In pursuing his revenge, he violates two rules from the Bible: "Judge not lest ye be judged" and "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." Chillingworth would have known both these rules well, as a learned man.

In The Scarlet Letter, how is Dimmesdale's sin different from Chillingworth's sin, and which sin is worse?

Dimmesdale committed a sin of passion not a sin of principle. His sin was falling in love with a married woman and having an affair with her. Chillingworth, in contrast, committed a sin of principle. His sin was persecuting Dimmesdale, taking judgment and punishment as his right to administer. He also acts out of malice, reflecting the evil nature he has developed. Dimmesdale acted out of love. Chillingworth's sin is far worse because he placed intellect over feeling, the mind over the heart. Dimmesdale takes this view in Chapter 17 when he tells Hester that Chillingworth's revenge "has been blacker than my sin." He has violated in cold blood "the sanctity of a human heart." Chillingworth's sin weighs more heavily on him for another reason: he never repents, which Dimmesdale does. Dimmesdale willingly accepts what he calls in his last speech "the death of triumphant ignominy." Chillingworth's last recorded words on the other hand are "Thou hast escaped me," reflecting his frustration that his vengeance has somehow failed.

Some critics have claimed that The Scarlet Letter is more Dimmesdale's story than Hester's. Who do you think is the main character in the book and why?

Given the attention paid to both characters, you could argue that either is the main character. As they shared responsibility for the act that caused their guilt and as they each suffer, one of them more outwardly and the other more inwardly, it seems possible to see them both as main characters. Hester is the owner of the scarlet letter that is the central symbol of the story is relatively straightforward: she sins, she gets punished, she redeems herself through her good works. She never actually repents of her sin for she feels that she did nothing wrong: indeed, many readers would agree, as she believed her husband to be dead. Dimmesdale's situation is very different. He sins, yet the public does not punish him. Rather the opposite happens: his parishioners come to revere him as his health declines because they perceive the reason for his suffering to be sanctity and purity rather than a guilty conscience. The text describes Dimmesdale delivering eloquent and moving sermons because he is able to identify with his parishioners now that he himself is a secret sinner. Like Adam in the Biblical story, Dimmesdale seems to start off pure and without sin but ends up a corrupt sinner. He finally makes his public confession and releases his guilt. The Scarlet Letter traces his growth as an individual who comes to accept responsibility for his actions.

Why does Hawthorne use old-fashioned language for the dialogue in The Scarlet Letter? Is that technique effective?

Hawthorne uses old-fashioned language for the dialogue in The Scarlet Letter to convey a sense of historical verisimilitude. He is trying to make the characters sound like seventeenth-century Puritans rather than like his contemporaries. Since thy, thee, thou, knowest, and similar verbs are also used in older translations of the Bible, these expressions give the dialogue a formal tone and an association with religious texts, both of which attributes seem appropriate for a story set in Puritan society. Other expressions, such as frequent references to God and Satan and the frequent use of words such as sin, while not as old-fashioned, still place the diction squarely within what readers might assume to be Puritan norms. In using language to root the story in a particular time, Hawthorne is quite effective.

Is Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter a feminist heroine?

If a feminist heroine is a female character who exhibits strength, independence, and self-sufficiency, Hester Prynne seems to qualify as a feminist heroine. That she does so is remarkable given that she is a seventeenth-century character living in a male dominated society and was created by a nineteenth-century male author. Hester exhibits strength from her first appearance when she stands before the crowd of townspeople and the high officials of church and state and refuses to reveal the name of her lover—an act she repeats later that day when pushed to tell the truth by her reappeared husband. She shows that strength on other occasions as well, and Dimmesdale acknowledges her greater strength in the forest scene. She demonstrates independence in flouting her punishment by embroidering the elaborate scarlet letter and by raising Pearl. She demonstrates self-sufficiency in earning a living through her needlework and in maintaining her household without needing to rely on a husband's income. Given these character traits, there is little wonder if feminists respect Hester Prynne.

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