One’s Identity is Vital to Their Livelihood (The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne Booke Review)
In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne often struggle with the prioritization of others perception, and are either seen how they want or endeavor a new identity, and these choices are reflections of their life-situations.
Both characters have dealt with the theme of identity vs perception but where Hester tried to cultivate a new identity, Dimmesdale tried to salvage his current one so others would perceive him how he wished. In the beginning of the book, Hester was relentlessly judged for being a sinner and was berated as she stood in the towne square. In the minds of all the on-lookers they thought Hester a foul beast, a cretin, however she looked nothing like how her fellow townspeople saw her. She was beautiful and “had dark and abundant hair...” as well as a face of “regularity of feature and richness of complexion...”(Hawthorne 47). In the simplest of terms, she didn’t look like a criminal, they thought she was disgusting but they only chose to look at her one blemish and turned a blind eye to any other qualities she possessed, all to get the religious “justice” they wanted. Hester had chosen to ignore all the negative words and thoughts of her peers, instead she wanted to try and create a new life for her and her newborn daughter. She saw this baby as almost an escape from her society, she wanted to have someone whom she could love and who could love her in return. Someone she wouldn’t have to fear valuing over someone else, her child was hers. She named her Pearl, as she is “her mothers only treasure.” To the townsfolk she appears sinful and she must wear a sign of her wrongs in the form of a scarlet letter on her chest, but God had punished her for this sin with “a lovely child whose place was on that same bosom”(Hawthorne 83). Hester was able to show that her sin isn’t a description of who Hester Prynne really is, she is able to be wealthy in any aspect, and isn’t defined by her scarlet letter. She would rather people see that she isn’t the horrible person they want to believe she is than lie or cover up the truth. On the other hand, Dimmesdale chooses to lie to not only himself but his people. Arthur Dimmesdale is a reverend, a man of God. Religion is held very high in this society and he wanted to keep his high status even though he had sinned just like Hester did. When Hester was in the square for her public humiliation, Dimmesdale had defended her and had told the town that there was “truth in what” she “says, and in the feeling which inspires her!”(Hawthorne 105) Although it is very kind of Dimmesdale to defend Hester in the trying time of her standing on the square, he most likely doesn’t feel this way. Dimmesdale values the truth and feels that he is only hurting himself by lying, but he had made the decision to repress such feelings to save his status in society and that others would perceive him in a positive light. It’s easy to pick apart Dimmesdale's character and how he wavers in his morals for his own personal gain, but it is hard to say his actions weren’t important to Hester’s journey in creating her new identity and the way that both of them were perceived.
When people are put under pressure they make decisions out of impulse, it’s those who find the light in the dark that make it out brighter than before. Newton’s third law states that “for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction, ” it is this property that illustrates the journey of Hester and Dimmesdale in the book. Hester’s life is utterly transformed when she is caught committing adultery, but Hester doesn’t fret, she instead opts to take this as an opportunity to improve herself and prove everyone wrong. When she is confronted by the megalomaniacal governor who wishes to take away her baby, based merely on impulsivity, she claims that she “can teach” Pearl what she has “learned from this”(Hawthorne 102). Any mother would defend themselves when faced with losing their child, but not all would see the immense humiliation and beratement as an opportunity for learning and helping their child live a good life. This is an effect of her environment. She has been retaught that in life you cannot simply walk the streets or talk to townsfolk, her life has been made ten times harder than it was before and this is a reaction to the seemingly endless criticism. Luckily for Hester and Pearl, the townspeople had finally understood the true Hester. The Prynne name was no longer associated with adultery, as “individuals in private life” had “forgiven Hester Prynne” and saw her scarlet letter representative “not of that one sin” but “of her many good deeds since”(Hawthorne 153). Hester was able to differentiate the importance of having her own identity and others opinions. She was able to actually improve her life by being exiled from the normality of society and come out better than she was prior. While Hester was trying to better her life and make it anew, Dimmesdale was trying to salvage what he could of his current life. He was grasping at straws, trying to fill any gaps in his persona with duct-tape. He felt as if his life was falling apart around him. He was watching a wall crumble as he was controlling the wrecking ball. He decided that he wouldn’t be able to come clean about what he had done and he was acting opposite of how he felt on the inside. As he was gaining “a brilliant popularity in his sacred office” he was being “gnawed and tortured by some black trouble of the soul”(Hawthorne 132) By pretending to be content, it only increased his suffering and led him to starve, whip himself and engrave an A into his chest. This constant torture that he inflicted upon himself didn’t lead to flourishing like it had for Hester, as her torture was not of her own accord. She had simply accepted the cards she had been dealt, Dimmesdale wanted so badly to change them. Sadly for Dimmesdale, this denial later led to his death when he finally reached acceptance, when he had told the town of his actions, he passed away after finally having been true to himself. Hester and Dimmesdale both choose the course of their lives, but where Hester wants to improve the perception of others and finds herself along the way, Dimmesdale cares too much about others and loses who he is in the process.
The way that one is perceived and their personal identity are separate entities, however both are affected by one's environment and their own actions. Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne are, in a way, polar opposites. Both journeys follow mirroring paths, a woman who seems to be at the lowest level in society and a man who is held to the highest degree amongst the townś folk. It is evident while reading that one's status and how they are viewed doesn’t portray who they truly are. That is only found once they decide to express themselves. People are often blind to any given person's identity, they focus on their actions and the cause and effect of each, but if you care too much about how you are perceived, you aren’t living for yourself.