Thursday, January 28, 2010

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.


Rachael said...

I must say that this ending was a great relief for me. I almost wanted to cheer when he finally found the strength to do what he knew was right...

I agree with you that Dimmesdale relies on his own suffering as atonement for his sin, rather than on the cross. He says of his suffering; "had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever".

I wonder, do you think true repentance would have looked any different?

It also seems significant to me that in this last act he turns from the temptation that Hester offers him (that they dreamt of in the forest).

EQUIP Book Club said...

Hi Rachael, 

Yes, I completely agree that the ending is a relief - I like the sense of escape, of freedom, (something that is true of genuine repentance too) that Dimmesdale achieves through his 'triumphant ignominy'.

As for whether true repentance would have looked any different, that's a great question -  made me think! I suspect not, as long as it happened at the same point in the plot. (Had it happened at the beginning of the story, there would have been no plot at all, because the tension needed to build up over years for it to be worth writing about.) I suspect it would have looked similar because in that time and place (where adultery was a serious civil offence) public confession of some sort would probably be the necessary action of a Christian in those circumstances. 

Although it would have looked the same, however, it might have sounded different. The relief and triumph would still be there, but Christ and his grace would have been present too. 

However, somehow I just can't imagine Christ, or a love for his grace, being present in the book at all. He seems to be wholly absent from The Scarlet Letter, so even had Dimmesdale's confession sounded more like Christian repentance, it would have been "out of sync" with the rest of the book. So it's a bit of a moot point - Dimmesdale's repentance could only have plausibly looked different if the whole book looked different, and if it did, it wouldn't be The Scarlet Letter. It might have been something by another author, but it wouldn't have been a book by Hawthorne! 

I think you're right that it's significant that Dimmesdale doesn't follow Hester's prompting and leave with her for Europe. It is a sign of the genuineness of what he is doing - it's just that what he is doing is not in any sense framed by the gospel of grace.