The Scarlet Letter - Pt 8

Chapters 19 — 24

I promised to say something more in this post about Dimmesdale. Critics writing from a Christian point of view are sometimes keen to explain the third and final scaffold scene as both the consummation of Dimmesdale’s suffering and the point of repentance by which he is ‘saved’.

There are a few problems with this. Firstly, Hawthorne doesn’t seem to be concerned with ‘salvation’ in the Christian sense. Throughout the book, guilt has been all about pain of mind (for Dimmesdale) or the pain that arises from society’s condemnation (for Hester). It is not primarily a problem with how God sees a person. Therefore ‘salvation’ from guilt is simply personal and social.

Secondly, the universe of the book is not governed by God in the Christian sense in any case. Rather, the plot is driven by a sense of necessity or fate — a more pagan than Christian idea. Dimmesdale for most of the book sees himself as necessarily bound to continue on in secrecy. Chillingworth excuses his conduct on the grounds of fate. Hester haunts New England despite the freedom she might gain elsewhere. If there is anything that the characters need saving from on the cosmic level, it is fate, not divine judgement.

Thirdly, although Dimmesdale is certainly admirable, humbled, and even noble, he could not be described as repentant exactly. Repentance implies a reliance on Christ’s atoning work. Dimmesdale relies on his own.

As a solution to the problem of fate, however, the final scaffold scene is a success. Relying on his own agency, and not submitting to any cosmic necessity, Dimmesdale finally escapes from the persecution of Chillingworth and from his own habit of passive secrecy. He achieves something out of strength rather than weakness. Given that fate is not a Christian problem, this cannot be said to be Christian salvation, but it is salvation from the problem that the book has set out for us. It is the triumph of personal agency.

As a solution to the problem of social guilt, the scene is triumphant indeed, although even here Hawthorne gives us varying perspectives — some believed that Dimmesdale’s death was simply a ‘parable’ (Chapter 24), not a confession of guilt. As a solution to the problem of personal guilt and its attendant mental pain, Pearl’s symbolic kiss seems to heal the minds of both Dimmesdale and Hester, but how much or how thoroughly is impossible to say. If guilt is located only in the human mind its healing may be impossible and is certainly invisible.

It’s hardly surprising, I suppose, that Hawthorne’s reading of the last chapter of The Scarlet Letter to his wife ended by her going to bed with a headache. Hawthorne thought this rather a good sign, and history has certainly justified his expectations of the tale. I don’t think the book is fair to the Puritans, and I don’t think it should be read as in any sense Christian, but it is most certainly amazing.