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Hawthorne's masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, has been interpreted and studied since it was first published in 1850. There is much conjecture on Hawthorne's intended meaning; both literally and allegorically. However, most critics support the theme of adultery in this work. Many critics also agree with the themes of revenge and guilt. Johnston believes the gist of this novel concerns the consequences of breaking the moral code... and failing to be true to human nature (Johnston 2).
She suggests that revenge and hypocrisy are also significant elements in The Scarlet Letter and that it encompasses a persons attempt to see his or her artistic side survive in a community that disapproves of the use of the imagination (Johnston 2). The word adultery is never spelled out in the novel. Thus, the letter A could represent avenger as well as adulterer (Johnston 17). Gartner believes that Hawthorne has rewritten the Book of Esther and convincingly draws parallels between the two works (Gartner 131). Similar to Johnston's view, another critic compares Hawthorne to Hester and attributes to Hawthorne the belief that artists can prevail over the oppression shown them by other people in his book The Scarlet Letter (Egan 26). Another critic asks, Is the main theme the effects of hidden as contrasted with open guilt? (Waggoner 127).
He also ponders: ... Why is this novel which leans so heavily on statement so ambiguous? ... He is in fact letting his images do most of the work for him, even while he reserves the right to comment abstractly on them, and in later chapters, on the rare but significant actions (Waggoner 127). Male, another scholar, deduces: The critic faces two major difficulties in discussing the book.
Its plot is so lucid that almost every reader thinks he already knows what The Scarlet Letter is about. Thus what see to be the most obvious symbols- Pearl, Roger Chillingworth, the letter itself- are actually the most often misunderstood (Male 93). Male believes the novel is about mans search for truth and the consequences of sin (Male 93). Close scrutiny of the action in The Scarlet Letter divulges a theme of revenge with the three main characters acting as avengers. Though Chillingworth is the most obvious symbol of revenge, Dimmesdale and Prynne are vengeful in different degrees.
The author himself sets the tone for revenge in the preface to the second edition: ... the author begs leave to say, that he has carefully read over the introductory pages, with a purpose to alter or expunge whatever might be found amiss... As to enmity, or ill-feeling of any kind, personal or political, he utterly disclaims such motives... The author is constrained therefore, to republish his introductory sketch without the change of a word (Hawthorne 3 - 4).
Although Hawthorne denies using The Custom-House as a means of revenge for his removal as a Custom House official, he quite obviously does so. The focus of his long description of the Custom House (and object of revenge) is not only to cast his co-workers and boss in a poor light, but to reveal the inefficient and apathetic virtues of the Federal Government. To this end Hawthorne describes in detail how his co-workers sleep on the job and even describes his own government work day as... the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life... (Hawthorne 27). This reveals that government workers enjoy three hours of work rather than the customary eight.
Referring to the Custom House Inspector as an animal and comparing him to a dog is another of Hawthorne's vengeful deeds (Hawthorne 21). Chillingworth embarks on a road to revenge at almost the first moment he enters the story. The demon of revenge overtakes him as he enters the town and sees Hester upon the scaffold when A writhing horror twisted across his features (Hawthorne 44). Chillingworth's next action is to obtain information on Hester from a man in the crowd.
He first seeks to confirm Hester's iniquity, and then asks for the identity of the babys father. When he learns that the fathers identity is not available, Chillingworth declares that this unknown man should be punished. He reiterates three times that the childs father will be found (Hawthorne 45). Chillingworth's next significant action takes place while ministering medicine to Hester in her prison cell.
Hester is afraid to take any medicine from him fearing his revenge. Chillingworth reassures Hester that if he wanted revenge, he would not get it by killing her. He explains that the better revenge would be in keeping her alive to wear the scarlet letter. An easily overlooked point is Chillingworth's next declaration; that it is the infants father who has hurt both himself and Hester. This may mark the beginning of a mutual revenge against Dimmesdale, as Hester agrees to keep Chillingworth's identity as her husband secret (Hawthorne 52). Chillingworth fades into the background for a while, but he is present when the town elders debate removing Pearl from her mothers care.
When the elders fail to take this course of action he suggests that he might study the child to determine her father. It seems that he is determined to exact revenge on someone (Hester) until he can ascertain the childs father. Chillingworth's mental and perhaps physical torture of Dimmesdale is quite obvious and does not warrant further discussion here. It is noteworthy that when Dimmesdale is asleep in his chair one day, Chillingworth removes his cloak and sees the scarlet letter across his heart; which makes him more obsessed with torturing Dimmesdale (Hawthorne 95).
Learning of Dimmesdale's and Hester's planned departure, Chillingworth planned to join them rather than to kill Dimmesdale. After Dimmesdale's death Chillingworth has lost his will to live. His revenge was in watching the minister suffer and ended with his death. Though Dimmesdale suffers terribly by his own self-torture, he too has tasted revenge. He abandons Hester at her time of need (public punishment) and blames her for putting him in his secret predicament.
For seven years he makes no attempt to see her, comfort her, or offer any type of financial support for her or his illegitimate child. However, ironically, his actions seek revenge on his community for punishing Hester. He still lusts for young women in his congregation. He preaches fervent sermons, while mentally mocking his congregation. In the second scaffold scene Dimmesdale is on the podium, making noise in the middle of the night to mock his congregation. After his meeting in the woods with Hester and planning to sail away with her, his only question was when they would leave.
He was concerned with getting in one last piece of revenge, the Election Day Sermon, before his departure. Dimmesdale's ultimate revenge is at the last scaffold scene. He dashes Hester's hopes of a new life with him and Pearl. He further destroys her hopes of spending eternity with him in his last dying words. He admits his guilt to the townspeople whom he has mocked for all these years, only when he knows they will have no chance to retaliate. The most dramatic actions of revenge are performed by Hester Prynne.
As the prison guard leads her from the prison: ... on the threshold of the prison door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and the force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free will... she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbors (Hawthorne 39). Thus, from her very first action in the story, Hester shows disdain for the townspeople.
She looks directly at them with scorn, vowing to keep her true anguish hidden from them. She places her hand on the beautiful letter on her breast only to draw attention to it. Making her punishment an object of art is another means of Hester's revenge. Hester's decision to remain in the colony after being released from prison was also vengeful. Her continued presence adorned with the letter would cause unease in the community and discomfort for Dimmesdale.
It can be argued that Hester's reason for not naming Dimmesdale while on the scaffold is Hester's main revenge. She knows the ministers weak nature and that his conscious will offer her more revenge if he is alive, rather than put to death if she names him. Hester also knows that agreeing to keep Chillingworth's identity as her husband hidden is also not to Dimmesdale's advantage. It is hard to believe that Hester truly loved Dimmesdale, since she made no attempt to contact him for seven years. After seeing Dimmesdale at the second scaffold scene, and noting his physical and spiritual deterioration, Hester's need for revenge against Dimmesdale has been satisfied. Hester is able to get revenge on her community by making her needlework so good that they needed her.
She must have gained some enjoyment from refusing to work for some of her community. Also, performing work for the elders, and those in high positions in the community must also have given her some satisfaction. Hester extracted her revenge by kindness. She proudly wore the letter in public, knowing that seeing it made many of the townspeople uneasy because of their similar sins. This is also probably her true motive in wearing the letter even when told she could take it off. Finally, Hester extracted revenge on her community through Pearl.
She would not leave her house without taking Pearl along, dressed like a smaller version of the scarlet letter. She was also lax in Pearls religious training and in disciplining her, feeling that the community had caused Pearl to suffer enough. From Preface to Conclusion, The Scarlet Letter endows its infrequent action with vengeance. The characters symbolize art, guilt, and obsession, but the main characters are all avengers on some level. Is not Hawthorne making the statement that human nature is imbued with revenge?
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Research essay sample on The Nature Of Revenge In Scarlet Letter
Chapter Nine: The Leech
Roger Chillingworth, Hester's real husband, is described in more detail. After arriving at Boston and finding his wife in utter disgrace upon the pillory, he chooses to stay and live in the city. His uncommon intelligence and skill as a physician soon make him quite popular. Dimmesdale's poor health and Chillingworth's interest in the young man combine to make many of the church officials try to get them to live together. Dimmesdale declines at first, saying, "I need no medicine."
Dimmesdale finally gets into the permanent habit of placing his hand over his heart in pain, and he agrees to meet with Chillingworth. The meeting immediately leads to the two men moving in together. The narrator comments that "A man burdened with a secret should especially avoid the intimacy of his physician."
The townspeople are for the most part thrilled with the way the relationship between the two men is working out. However, a few townspeople have more innate intuition and are skeptical of the physician's true motives. They sense that Chillingworth has undergone a profound change since arriving in Boston, going from a genial old man to an ugly and evil person. Thus, "it grew to be a widely diffused opinion that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale ... was haunted either by Satan himself, or Satan's emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth.”
The use of the term "leech" to describe Chillingworth is at once appropriate and ironic. After all, he is a physician, and leeches at the time were used in order to facilitate bloodletting. At the same time, however, Hawthorne is obviously suggesting the parasitic relationship between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. We return to our earlier postulation that Chillingworth goes after Dimmesdale not because he is a stock character or out of any sense of moral purpose, but rather in an effort to absorb the reverend's virility, to steal his life force and appropriate it as his own, both in vengeance and for his own sake. Chillingworth realizes that he is old, deformed, and unworthy of Hester, even though he is her husband. Yet, he seems to retain the unconscious desire that if he can somehow capture Dimmesdale's spirit, he will be able to gain Hester's love and allegiance.
It is odd that some of the townspeople can sense that Chillingworth may be on the side of the devil. As a matter of morals, we would expect them to side with the cuckolded husband, if they knew his true identity. But for all their strict laws and overreaction to sin, these Puritans can sense the energy of injustice that is growing in Chillingworth’s psyche; they are attuned to it. Thus society is split in half over the man, some seeing him as a helper of Dimmesdale, others seeing him rightfully as the spawn of "The Black Man," having dangerous motives.
Chapter Ten: The Leech and His Patient
Chillingworth realizes that Dimmesdale is hiding some dark secret. He therefore expends a great deal of time and energy to make Dimmesdale reveal what is troubling him. Dimmesdale fails to realize that Chillingworth is in fact his enemy. He is so terrified of everyone in the town finding out his secret that he is blind to any enemy within his own home.
Chillingworth engages the minister in a conversation about why men keep secrets in their hearts rather than revealing them immediately. Dimmesdale clutches his breast and struggles to avoid directly answering the questions Chillingworth poses. The two men are interrupted by Pearl and Hester walking through the cemetery outside. Pearl is jumping from gravestone to gravestone, and she finally starts dancing upon a large, flat stone. When Hester tries to make her stop, she takes several burrs and arranges them on the scarlet letter, to which they stick.
Chillingworth observes that Pearl has no "discoverable principle of being" since she disregards all human ordinances and opinions. Dimmesdale then remarks that Pearl embodies "the freedom of a broken law." When Pearl sees the two men, she hurls one of her burrs at Dimmesdale, who recoils in fear. Pearl then shouts to her mother that they should leave, or the "Black Man" who has already gotten hold of Dimmesdale will catch them.
Chillingworth then tells Dimmesdale that as his physician he cannot cure him—his ailment sees to come from his spiritual side. Chillingworth demands to be told what sort of secret Dimmesdale is hiding. The minister, upset by this, passionately cries out, "No!—not to thee!—not to an earthly physician!" and leaves the room.
Soon after, Dimmesdale falls asleep while reading. Chillingworth takes the opportunity to place his hand over Dimmesdale's heart and then leaves before the minister can awaken. He is incredibly full of joy and wonderment after having felt Dimmesdale's heart. The narrator tells us that he acted "how Satan comports himself when a precious human soul is lost to heaven and won into his kingdom."
Chillingworth seems to cross the line in this chapter from having human motives to suffering inhuman possession. Indeed, although the narrator proceeded no further than calling Chillingworth “evil” in motives and in deed, now Chillingworth's soul is attacked, and he is even compared to Satan, a thief of men's souls. Pearl perhaps senses this evil more than anyone, calling Chillingworth "the Black Man" and telling her mother that he already has captured Dimmesdale's soul.
The end of the chapter brings to light some of what previous foreshadowing promised. Earlier, Chillingworth told Hester that he would be able to know her partner by reading his heart. In the final scene, he is in fact able to read Dimmesdale's heart and know the secret Dimmesdale is hiding. Hawthorne, however, indicates that Chillingworth is surprised by what he discovers, implying that Chillingworth never fully suspected Dimmesdale of being Pearl's father.
Pearl herself seems to grow angrier and wilder the longer that everyone keeps the secret of her father's identity. She dances on graves, shuns all law, even attacks Dimmesdale now, all in a raging storm. She, in a sense, is our beacon in this story, a kind of lightning rod for everyone's repressed feelings. She impels action from under the surface, much as unconscious desires demand conscious action. It will not be until her desires are satiated, namely through confession and reconciliation among the adults who are tangled up in the adultery and her life, that she will be able to live in peace.
Chapter Eleven: The Interior of a Heart
Chillingworth, having figured out that Mr. Dimmesdale is the true father of Pearl, goes on a subtle campaign to hurt the minister as much as possible. Revenge consumes him to the point that he can only focus on causing the other man pain. Dimmesdale never figures out that his strongest enemy is the man whom he considers his only friend and physician.
Mr. Dimmesdale is so overwhelmed with shame and remorse that he has started to become famous for his sermons. His ability as a speaker is enhanced by the fact that he feels far more sinful than many in his audience. He has even tried to tell his congregation about the sin he committed with Hester Prynne, but always in such a way that they think he is being modest. This causes Dimmesdale even more pain, for he believes that he is also lying to his people.
Dimmesdale also has become a masochist, and he uses chains and whips to beat himself in his closet. In addition he undertakes extremely long fasts, refusing to eat or drink as penance. This fasting causes him to have hallucinations in which he sees his parents, friends, and even Pearl and Hester. One night he decides that there might be a way for him to overcome his anguish, and he softly leaves his house.
Dimmesdale complements his emotional masochism with physical masochism. He fasts, flagellates himself, and keeps waking vigils so that he deprives himself of sleep, all in the hopes of banishing sin from his heart. Indeed, he still believes that he has done wrong, even when his feelings have not abated, and we sense that he cannot take public claim for Pearl's birth not only because he is afraid of the town's reaction, but also because he believes he can somehow atone for the sin enough to allow him to stay silent.
That said, Dimmesdale tries several times to confess to his congregation, but each time he even suggests his own fallibility, his followers fail to grasp the significance of his confession. Dimmesdale will come to open confession, it seems, only of his own accord. It will not be found out or dragged out of him, no matter how much Chillingworth or the spawn of “The Black Man” try to suck out his soul. Dimmesdale will have to wear his own scarlet letter and reveal it to his masses, taking responsibility for his sin and its consequences.
Chapter Twelve: The Minister's Vigil
Dimmesdale, having left his house, walks until he reaches the scaffold where Hester Prynne suffered her public humiliation several years ago. He climbs the stairs and imagines that he has a scarlet letter on his chest that all the world can see. While in this state of mind, Dimmesdale screams aloud, and he is immediately terrified that the whole town has heard him. Instead, only Governor Bellingham briefly appears on his balcony before retiring to bed.
The Reverend Mr. Wilson approaches the scaffold holding a lantern, but only because he is returning from a late-night vigil. He fails to see Dimmesdale, who is standing on the scaffold. Dimmesdale waits a while longer and then bursts out laughing. Much to his surprise, the voice of Pearl answers him.
Hester and Pearl are at the scaffold because they have been at Governor Winthrop's deathbed taking measurements for a robe. Dimmesdale invites them to join him on the stand, which they do. All three hold hands and Pearl asks him, "Wilt thou stand here with Mother and me, tomorrow noontide?" Dimmesdale answers, "I shall, indeed, stand with thy mother and thee one day, but not tomorrow." Pearl persists in her question, and Dimmesdale answers that, "the daylight of this world shall not see our meeting."
At that moment a meteor streaks across the sky, illuminating everything, including Dimmesdale with his hand over his heart and the scarlet letter on Hester's dress. Looking upward, Dimmesdale believes that he sees a giant A in the sky. When he looks down again, Pearl is pointing to Roger Chillingworth, who is watching him from across the street. Chillingworth takes Dimmesdale home.
The next day, after a sermon that the narrator describes as "the richest and most powerful," Dimmesdale is greeted by the sexton. The sexton hands him his glove, telling him that it was found on the scaffold where Satan must have left it. The man then tells Dimmesdale that last night, a large A was seen in the sky, which was interpreted to mean "Angel" in honor of Governor Winthrop's death.
Dimmesdale begins to understand that he must himself embrace a figurative scarlet letter on his own breast. This realization comes with "a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart." Hester, after all, found freedom once she stood on the scaffold and endured the humiliation that came with confessing her sin, but Dimmesdale is still held up as the paragon of virtue in this most stringent of societies. He simply cannot bear the weight of such guilt.
As a result, Dimmesdale ventures to the scaffold at night, perhaps unconsciously seeking absolution. Perhaps he believes that if he stands in the same place Hester did, he can find some degree of peace without having to publicly confess. But it is not enough. Dimmesdale already knows of his own guilt and susceptibility to sin. What he cannot make peace with is the guilt of having preached all these years to a congregation he has betrayed with his own behavior. Whereas Hester wears a scarlet letter on her clothes and has not taken it to heart, Dimmesdale's scarlet letter is hidden, and it is slowly becoming inextricable from his flesh.
Perhaps Pearl recognizes this, for she urges Dimmesdale to stand beside her and her mother at noontime the next day on the scaffold. Pearl senses that things have come to a head, that Dimmesdale will soon confess and that there will be a reckoning for him that will set them all free. Dimmesdale demurs, perhaps knowing that he cannot bear to make such a confession, and instead suggests that he and Hester will find freedom in the dark. It is then that the meteor streaks by, illuminating them in the whitest of light, foreshadowing Dimmesdale's revelation to the town and, more importantly, the absolution that will come with confession.