Essay: Dimmesdale and Puritan Society
Tags: Hypocrisy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne utilizes imagery to convey that Dimmesdale can represent Puritan Society rather than the round character that can be seen on the surface level. This is seen through the imagery and symbolism of hypocrisy, Dimmesdale as a Christ figure, and the scarlet letter.
First of all, Hawthorne parallels the hypocrisy of Dimmesdale to that of Puritan society. Hawthorne describes Dimmesdale as, “a viler companion of the vilest, the worst of sinners,” even though Dimmesdale is seen as the most holy man in the Puritan community. Puritan society was supposed to be a utopian society and do away with their English traditions. Similarly, as Dimmesdale was supposed to be holy, yet they both were hypocritical. Secondly, Dimmesdale portrays the Puritan society by not initially taking his place on the scaffold, “Ye have both been here before, but I was not with you… and we will stand all three together.” The Puritans modeled Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy, as they were supposed to be a “city on a hill” for the world to see while they ended up mixing up English tradition with their ideals. While Dimmesdale hid his sin at the first scaffold seen, so did the Puritans when they colonized America. The Puritans faults were not initially that obvious but as time grew on they appeared on their scaffold just as Dimmesdale does. Hawthorne writes about one of Dimmesdale’s sermons that is, “addressed to the multitude a discourse on sin, in all its branches.” In Dimmesdale’s sermons, he spoke out against sin while at the same time he commits this sin, just as the Puritans committed sins that they condemned Dimmesdale’s character models Puritan society in the way they treat religious persecution. The Puritans left England to flee from religious intolerance, but when they got to the colonies, they had no religious tolerance for people with different religious beliefs. Dimmesdale speaks out against adultery and commits it, the Puritans demand religious tolerance but refuse to give it.
Dimmesdale symbolically portrays Jesus Christ in certain ways. For example, Dimmesdale’s death marked the beginning of a new era, just as Christ’s death marked a new beginning for all of those who believe in Him. Dimmesdale’s death symbolically ends the marks the beginning of American History and the end of colonial history, just as Christ’s death marked the beginning of the Christian church. Also, Dimmesdale mirrored Jesus Christ, in His teaching that to save your life you must lose it. Anyone that wants to follow Jesus must give up their life and let Him live for them. Similarly, Dimmesdale can not truly live until he confesses his sin, but when he finally confesses he dies. Finally, Dimmesdale parallels Christ through the suffering of his death. Hawthorne describes Dimmesdale’s suffering, “This burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat!” So it can be seen that Dimmesdale does not just die, but rather he suffers much pain in his death. In this way, Jesus did not just die but was brutally murdered and suffered indescribable pain. Through this imagery that parallels Dimmesdale to Jesus Christ we can see that Dimmesdale represents a Christ figure for the Puritan society, and Hawthorne uses this to criticize Puritan society.
Finally, the character of Dimmesdale represents the rise and fall of Puritan society, through the imagery of the “scarlet letter” on his chest. Dimmesdale is described with much potential; “His eloquence and religious fervor had already given the earnest of high eminence in his profession.” This potential of Dimmesdale and Puritan society is contrasted by the weight of sin seen in the scarlet letter. While they both could be very successful, indeed they are not; their sin holds them back. Furthermore, the scarlet letter develops Hawthorne’s criticism as the weight of the burden on Dimmesdale’s chest grows larger, so does the weight of sin on Puritan society. Dimmesdale goes from having, “his hand upon his heart,” to being, “burdened with the black secret of his soul.” Similarly the Puritans go from having a few dissenters, to the foundation of Rhode Island. Last of all, Dimmesdale and the Puritans are linked by the consequences of their sin, the permanent affects that they have. From the time Dimmesdale hides his sin the, “scarlet letter” on his chest develops and its affects are not stopped until he confesses his sin. Yet, even when he confesses his sin, he still dies. The Puritans on the other hand were able to have somewhat a level of success, while they never live up to their hope of being a “city on a hill” for the world to see.
So, through the symbols of hypocrisy, Christ, and The Scarlet Letter we can see that Hawthorne uses Dimmesdale as a symbolic character of Puritan society, rather than the personal character that is seen without looking into Hawthorne’s use of imagery to convey characterization.