God’s Mercy in The Scarlet Letter


“Is not this better [said Dimmesdale to Hester on the scaffold] than what we dreamed of in the forest?” (Chapter 23)

Henry James, the famous novelist, wrote a note about The Scarlet Letter in which he called it “the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth” in the United States. His main criticism of the novel was that it contained “a great deal of symbolism…I think, too much.” The point, however, is that symbolism is very important to understanding The Scarlet Letter, and in this short note I will make much of two very important symbols used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the novel, namely, the scaffold and the forest. I will maintain that the scaffold, formally a penal instrument of punishment, shame and humiliation, is ultimately a symbol of salvation, and the forest a symbol of freedom from conventional moral restraints. Especially by the use of these two symbols, I hope to demonstrate that all four of the main characters in The Scarlet Letter – Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Mr. Roger Chillingworth and Pearl – were saved (and by saved I am referring ultimately to the Christian meaning of that term, although it has other meanings as well).

Let me get straight to my main point (knowing that you are already familiar with the facts of the novel): no one is saved in The Scarlet Letter unless he climbs up upon the scaffold. In other words, the pathway to salvation in the novel is directly connected to the scaffold. Dimmesdale flees the scaffold, or mounts it in a cowardly and imaginary fashion under the cover of darkness, when no one can see him, and thus suffers incredible interior pain throughout the course of the novel due to the concealment of his sin (and Hawthorne’s psychological description of Dimmesdale’s acute suffering is quite remarkable). Hester Prynne, by contrast, who was forced to undergo the public humiliation of standing on the scaffold (as described in the opening chapters) fairs much better. Her mental well-being and fortitude is impressive, and her growth in virtue as described by Hawthorne in Chapter 13 results in her being called a “Sister of Mercy.” Nevertheless, there is a temptation within Hester’s soul that attracts her to the illusion of salvation offered by the forest (and one can naturally sympathize with her attraction to the type of (seemingly) liberating moral calculus offered by the forest given the Puritanical oppression she has heroically endured).

But the forest is not the pathway to true salvation. In that famous scene near the end of the novel, where Dimmesdale and Hester meet in the forest, the temptation is placed in their hearts to see in their love something greater than the moral restraints that prohibit it, Hester arguing that their forbidden love “had  a consecration of its own.” Their plan of escape, which can never amount to a true escape, is to get out of Boston and sail to England, and live a new life (along with their daughter, Pearl). The forest thus symbolizes a freedom not found in the civilized world, a freedom that would romantically overshadow (or overpower) the stigma of sin. But the narrator (speaking for Hawthorne) comments:

“Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!” (Chapter 18).

But as soon as Dimmesdale leaves the forest and reenters the civilized world he is attacked by diabolical temptations so vehement that he is on the verge of saying blasphemous, vile and wicked things to people passing by (most of whom are associated with his congregation).  At some point, upon returning home, Dimmesdale must sense or discern that his spiritual life is under attack (“…am I given over utterly to the fiend?” he wondered on his walk home) and that no amount of miles between himself and Boston can ever really solve his underlying problems of guilt and concealment. This is clearly supposition on my part, but it seems to be confirmed later when Dimmesdale says to Chillingworth, “Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late,” which evidences the Reverend’s change of heart (and one theory is that Dimmesdale’s change of heart was the result of his preparation for his Election Day sermon, but in any event Hester recognizes a definite change in him on Election Day before he delivers the sermon). Thus, the true path to freedom for Dimmesdale will be to mount the scaffold of guilt and confession, to “unconceal” to all what he has been hiding for seven years. It is on the wooden beams of the scaffold that he can unveil his heart to the crowd, and reveal publicly his true situation.

I thus turn to the final, dramatic scene on the scaffold that takes place after the procession on the day of the Governor’s inauguration, following Reverend Dimmesdale’s very moving Election Day sermon, three days after the meeting of Hester and Dimmesdale in the forest. In the lengthy but crucial quotes set forth below (from chapter 23) you can see clearly that Dimmesdale, Hester, Pearl and Chillingworth all make it on to the scaffold, which I have referred to as a symbol of salvation in the novel. Here we find Dimmesdale being helped by Hester and Pearl to mount the scaffold of his final confession (one might even say, in proper context, being helped to carry his cross).

“Hester Prynne,” cried Dimmesdale, with a piercing earnestness, “in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what—for my own heavy sin and miserable agony—I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me! Thy strength, Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath granted me! This wretched and wronged old man is opposing it with all his might!—with all his own might, and the fiend’s! Come, Hester, come! Support me up yonder scaffold!”

The crowd was in a tumult…they remained silent and inactive spectators of the judgment which Providence seemed about to work. They beheld the minister, leaning on Hester’s shoulder, and supported by her arm around him, approach the scaffold, and ascend its steps; while still the little hand of the sin-born child was clasped in his. Old Roger Chillingworth followed, as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene.

“Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,” said [Chillingworth], looking darkly at the clergyman, “there was no one place so secret,—no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me,—save on this very scaffold!”

The salvific nature of the scaffold is thus confirmed by Chillingworth who states that Dimmesdale’s only escape from Chillingsworth’s evil machinations is the scaffold. The dramatic scene on the scaffold thus continues:

“Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!” answered the minister.

Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester with an expression of doubt and anxiety in his eyes, not the less evidently betrayed, that there was a feeble smile upon his lips.

“Is not this better,” murmured he, “than what we dreamed of in the forest?” ***

“For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,” said the minister; “and God is merciful! Let me now do the will which he hath made plain before my sight. For, Hester, I am a dying man. So let me make haste to take my shame upon me!”

And so we finally reach the climax of the novel, Dimmesdale’s powerful confession of guilt:

Partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one hand of little Pearl’s, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to the dignified and venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, who were his brethren; to the people, whose great heart was thoroughly appalled, yet overflowing with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep life-matter—which, if full of sin, was full of anguish and repentance likewise—was now to be laid open to them. The sun, but little past its meridian, shone down upon the clergyman, and gave a distinctness to his figure, as he stood out from all the earth, to put in his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice.

“People of New England!” cried he, with a voice that rose over them, high, solemn, and majestic,—yet had always a tremor through it, and sometimes a shriek, struggling up out of a fathomless depth of remorse and woe,—“ye, that have loved me!—ye, that have deemed me holy!—behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last!—at last!—I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from grovelling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her walk hath been,—wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have hoped to find repose,—it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!”

It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave the remainder of his secret undisclosed. But he fought back the bodily weakness,—and, still more, the faintness of heart,—that was striving for the mastery with him. He threw off all assistance, and stepped passionately forward a pace before the woman and the child.

“It was on him!” he continued, with a kind of fierceness; so determined was he to speak out the whole. “God’s eye beheld it! The angels were forever pointing at it! The Devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger! But he hid it cunningly from men, and walked among you with the mien of a spirit, mournful, because so pure in a sinful world!—and sad, because he missed his heavenly kindred! Now, at the death-hour, he stands up before you! He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!”

With a convulsive motion, he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation. For an instant, the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentred on the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood, with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory. Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head against her bosom.

But could there possibly be grace for the evil Mr. Chillingworth who kneels down next to Dimmesdale on the scaffold? The scene continues:

Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed.

“Thou hast escaped me!” he repeated more than once. “Thou hast escaped me!”

“May God forgive thee!” said the minister. “Thou, too, hast deeply sinned!”

He withdrew his dying eyes from the old man, and fixed them on the woman and the child.

And then we come to one of the most touching scenes in the book which speaks to the remarkable transformation of the child, Pearl, who is, in essence, given her humanity back upon the the scaffold (she who had been made essentially unreal by her father’s concealment) .

“My little Pearl,” said he, feebly,—and there was a sweet and gentle smile over his face, as of a spirit sinking into deep repose; nay, now that the burden was removed, it seemed almost as if he would be sportive with the child,—“dear little Pearl, wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not, yonder, in the forest! But now thou wilt?”

Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.

Finally, just before he dies, Dimmesdale says his goodbye to Hester.

“Hester,” said the clergyman, “farewell!”

“Shall we not meet again?” whispered she, bending her face down close to his. “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe! Thou lookest far into eternity, with those bright dying eyes! Then tell me what thou seest?

“Hush, Hester, hush!” said he, with tremulous solemnity. “The law we broke!—the sin here so awfully revealed!—let these alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God,—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul,—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever! Praised be his name! His will be done! Farewell!”

That final word came forth with the minister’s expiring breath. The multitude, silent till then, broke out in a strange, deep voice of awe and wonder, which could not as yet find utterance, save in this murmur that rolled so heavily after the departed spirit.”

So then, who was saved? And I reply: all of them! We can see rather easily from the quotes above how God’s mercy fell upon Dimmesdale and Pearl, but what about Chillingworth and Hester?

Did Dimmesdale’s prayer of mercy for Chillingworth on the scaffold work? Apparently so. We read in the novel that “nothing was more remarkable than the change which took place, almost immediately after Mr. Dimmesdale’s death, in the appearance and demeanor of the old man known as Mr. Chillingworth.” Is one act of great charity sufficient to save a soul? We read that Chilingworth died “within the year,” but that in his last will and testament he bequeathed (rather amazingly) “a very considerable amount of property, both here and in England, to little Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne,” all of which supported a very fine existence for Pearl (who Hawthorne intimates got married and had a child across the sea). All of this evidences a changed heart and a saved soul for the man who had been the very embodiment of revenge.

But what about Hester Pyrnne? Did she go back to the forest, so to speak, to find her salvation there (on her own terms)? We know that “for many years” after Dimmesdale’s death she left New England and ventured somewhere “across the sea.” But Hester ultimately returns to New England because, as Hawthorne tells us, “there was a more real life here for Hester Pyrnne…here had been her sin; here, her sorrow, and here was yet to be her penitence.” And there from her cottage, where she had so long lived in isolation, Hawthorne tells us she ministered to the needs of women “who besought her counsel” because they were wounded in love or could find none at all. And so ends The Scarlet Letter, and the woman who wanted to flee New England ends her life there in gentle penitence, caring for other women harmed by the difficulties of life and love.

And the “A” on Hester stands for “Able,” and the scaffold she three times stood upon for salvation.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

Image: Hester Prynne & Pearl before the stocks, an 1878 illustration for the book by Mary Hallock Foote (Public Domain, U.S.A.)

Note/References: The critical essays in The Scarlet Letter, A Norton Critical Edition were valuable (see especially the essays by Carpenter, Fogle and Stewart). Hoffman adds: “The salvation of Pearl depends upon Dimmesdale. Until he acknowledges himself her father she can have no human patrimony, and must remain a Nature-spirit, untouched by the redemptive order that was broken in her conception” (p. 371). One could also argue that the salvation of Chillingworth depended upon Dimmesdale. It was Dimmesdale, too, who seems to have played a certain role in the salvation of Hester. The unity of these four main characters on the scaffold at the end of the novel warrants additional reflection.

To SHARE on SOCIAL MEDIA: click on “Leave a comment” or “Comments” below (and this will bring up social media icons if they are not already present).

To LEAVE A COMMENT: click on “Leave a comment” or “Comments” below, and then scroll down to the box which says, “Leave Your Own Comment Here,” which is at the end of any comments already made. If the comment section is already present, merely scroll to the end of any comments already made.

All rights reserved.

Any ads in this note are by WordPress and not CatholicStrength.