Scarlet Letter Character Symbolism
Going through life can be described as wandering lost inside a forest. Each path leads to another, until one reaches a final endpoint, be it pain, blessing, death, or the entity sought for, the exit. Choosing the mysterious and rigorous path over the tempting and short one can make all the difference to the outcome. Nonetheless, one is always lost, and results will come unexpectedly, whether good or bad or whether affecting oneself or even others that are encountered. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter focuses on the choices of paths Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, the three main characters, whose decisions ultimately decide their fates in the conclusion of the book.
The beginning of the book opens with Hester receiving her punishment for adultery. She is publicly displayed holding her baby for her punishment, yet she does not reveal who the father of the baby is. As she is displayed, she is asked by Dimmesdale, the minister and the father of the baby, whether she wants to reveal the other perpetrator to the crowd, but Hester refuses. Momentarily afterwards, Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, is seen in the crowd, and introduced. After the public display of Hester, Chillingworth and Hester make a deal, in which her crime of adultery would be forgiven by Chillingworth if she would keep his identity a secret, since he rabidly seeks revenge toward the father of the baby. The rest of the story tells of the interactions between the three. In the end, Dimmesdale dies after confessing his sin, Chillingworth dies in a short period of time after Dimmesdale, and Hester lives on alone helping out the less fortunate of the town.
Although Hester made the decision of committing adultery, the reason she lives on is her dealing with the scarlet letter that she is given to exhibit to the town. Instead of mourning and hiding her letter, Hester does the exact opposite of what the town expects. Hester goes against all odds against her by the town due to her courage, pride, determination, and persistence in changing the label she is given to wear. As time passes, Hester maintains her optimistic attitude, and changes her label through ceaseless goodwill toward the outcasts and hapless of the town. “Such helpfulness was found in her—so much power to do, and power to sympathise—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Abel, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.” (pg. 158) Adulteress is then known as “Able”. However despite all this, there is a burden that is growing heavier exponentially as the story passes: the burden of allowing Dimmesdale to suffer as Chillingworth slowly torments Dimmesdale, who is oblivious to the cause of his anguish. Her decision to throw away her burden and reveal Chillingworth’s identity becomes both beneficial to Dimmesdale and herself, since they are released of the heavy affliction caused by Chillingworth. This final significant resolution allows Hester to live on peacefully, living as the model woman for the Puritan community of that time.
While Hester faces her problems head-on with considerable firmness, Dimmesdale cowers from his problems and allows the punishment and guilt he faces to eat away at his heart, reducing him to a pitiful figure. Because Dimmesdale is given the label of a saint, he believes that he must be perfect in both the eyes of the citizens and himself. He believes that his sin of adultery cannot be forgiven and gives up on his redemption from both God and the townspeople. “’The people reverence thee,’ said Hester. ‘And surely thou workest good among them! Doth this bring thee no comfort?’ ‘More misery, Hester!—Only the more misery!’ answered the clergyman with a bitter smile. ‘As concerns the good which I may appear to do, I have no faith in it. It must needs be a delusion. What can a ruined soul like mine effect towards the redemption of other souls?—or a polluted soul towards their purification?’” (pg. 202) He is firm toward this belief, despite the comforts of Hester. The fatal decision that Dimmesdale makes among the conflicts is not to reveal and confess his sin. Bottling up his transgression is decaying his soul, and Chillingworth is increasing the pain. Dimmesdale is afraid of what the town would think, and he does not want to become thought as a hypocrite and shunned. Throughout the majority of the book, Dimmesdale is left with self-conflict and turns emotionally, physically, and mentally unstable. However, when Hester reveals the identity of Chillingworth, he dies with a clear conscience when he confesses his sin, and then dies of an unknown death. Dimmesdale can represent man, in which for the self-conflict that resides in mankind there is a remedy, being confession and God.
Chillingworth, the antagonist of the story, makes the worst decisions of the three in order to deal with his anger after learning about Hester’s adultery. Like Dimmesdale, he is also a sinner and a victim, though it may not seem so. He is deformed and is isolated from the community, since he must dedicate himself to his physician studies and his strategy for vengeance. Because he is so isolated, there is no hope for change in Chillingworth, and his thirst for revenge will grow, instead of abating, as the story progresses. His most crippling decision is letting his anger and appetite for retribution get the best of him. Instead of seeking for a sufficient amount of revenge, Chillingworth sacrifices everything and fervidly devotes himself toward his revenge. Chillingworth makes a complete metamorphosis from a kind scholar to an overly-obsessed fanatic seeking retribution. Chillingworth, throwing his entire purpose for life away, then fuels off of Chillingworth’s suffering and agony. When Dimmesdale dies after confessing his sin, Chillingworth, who threw his entire identity away for revenge, dies due to the fact that he has no more purpose for life. Ultimately, his decisions cost him his life.
As portrayed through Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, decisions play significant roles in life. Choices can be summed peculiarly up as amino acids, building blocks of proteins. The choices one makes leads to a result, the protein, which can be both harmful or beneficial, depending on what is used to construct it. From countless numbers of choices comes countless numbers of results. Contemplation on life decisions is the key to living a satisfying and worthwhile life.