While allegory is an explicit and tempting reading of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, I see in this novel also the potential of a psychological reading, interpreting it as a search for one’s own self. Both Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne goes through this process and finally succeeded in finding the duality of one's personality, and the impossibility of complementing the split between individual and community identity. However, they were compelled to take different paths on this journey, and they react quite differently when they finally arrive at the conclusion of this search.
Dimmesdale and Hester start out from the same point: their adultery. This "sin" shakes them out of place from their tracks, and begins their long and difficult journey.
Dimmesdale’s crime is kept secret, but it does not mean that he can forget it or deny it. As a well-respected minister, he stands at the center of his community, being the advocate of religious and moral standards of that Puritan society. Whereas the Puritans are as a whole stern and strict concerning evils and sins, he is even more conscious of them than anyone else. The values he holds condemn him with a strong sense of guilt, precisely because he is his own prosecutor. The pain is acute because not only has he sinned, but he has to bear the secret of it:
It was inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration tortured him! … He longed to speak out, from his own pulpit, at the full height of his voice, and tell the people what he was. … ‘I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!’ (143)
Not only does he have to bear the guilt of his crime, but h...
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...uld have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness. (263)
As Dimmesdale represents the society-bound person, oppressing his passions, and Hester the society’s exile, proudly denying her need for social support, the sad truth they discover, although through different ways, is one of the same: that one needs both individual freedom and social belonging. Although it is impossible for them to have both, and complete themselves, at least they have come to the recognition of this truth.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Oxford and New York: Oxford
University Press, 1998.
Girgus, Sam B. Desire and The Political Unconsciousness in American Literature.
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
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