Wondrous Strength and Generosity of an Author's Words: Hawthorne's Heads Up to Intelligent Readers

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Wondrous Strength and Generosity of an Author's Words: Hawthorne's Heads Up to Intelligent Readers

Jillian Davis

In talking about Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter outside of class, the subject came up of just when it became apparent that Dimmesdale was the father of Hester's daughter. I was surprised when the person in question (in this instance, Alice) remarked that she hadn't realized the truth of Pearl's paternity almost until it was declared outright. I was surprised by this, as I myself had come to the conclusion upon reading the first chapter in which we ever see Dimmesdale and Hester interact. In going back over the chapter to discover why, I found I had picked up on a number of stylistic clues that I argue Hawthorne seems to have employed intentionally, to spark the reader's suspicions about the young minister from the first.

Even before Dimmesdale himself begins to speak, Hawthorne is dropping hints in the form of ironic remarks from John Wilson, who says of his younger associate: "Knowing your natural temper better than I, he could the better judge what arguments to use, whether of tenderness or terror, such as might prevail over your hardness and obstinacy" (48). While we have no way of knowing whether it was Hester who seduced Dimmesdale, or if the young minister himself made the initial move, the statement certainly suggests that, had he had it in mind to do so, Dimmesdale would likely have known just what to say to ease Hester's nerves regarding the sinful nature of their attraction, not to mention the act of their adultery. Furthermore, Wilson reveals that Dimmesdale "opposes to [me], that it were wronging the very nature of woman to force her to lay open her heart's secrets in such broad daylight, and in presence of so great a multitude" (48). If Dimmesdale were as accomplished a scholar and minister as everyone made him out to be, would have not have known "the shame lay in the commission of the sin, and not in the showing of it forth" (48), one of the most basic teachings of Christianity? In overlooking so critical a point, it is abundantly clear that Dimmesdale has an interest in sparing Hester from humiliation, pointing to some less than platonic affection for her, as well as an interest in keeping the father's name a secret, which could only the case if he already knew who it was. Because he is described as a man full of religious fervor, and a well educated one at that, Dimmesdale is unlikely to have protected any man from being revealed as an adulterer, unless in fact that man was himself, in which case self preservation alone would cause him to go against the teachings of the Bible.

Apart from being described as reticent to demand the truth from Hester, Dimmesdale is also described physically in such a way as to make him seem flighty and nervous. Hawthorne says, "there was an air about this young minister—an apprehensive, a startled, a half frightened look...the trying nature of his position drove the blood from his cheek, and made his lips tremulous" (49). The description makes it abundantly clear that Dimmesdale is nervous, which, given that his job is to lead the community and mete out justice when necessary, seems strange. Even if one were to chalk it up to a fear of public speaking, or large groups of people (as is suggested on page forty eight, when Hawthorne describes him as being something of a recluse whenever his position allows), the description of his position as a "trying" one insinuates there Dimmesdale is experiencing some kind of emotional conflict unrelated to irrational fears phobias, but rather in response to a real danger to himself and (if we assume he loves Hester) someone he cares for.

Further evidence to suggest that Dimmesdale is indeed the father of Hester's child comes less than a paragraph later when, bowing his head in prayer, and gazing down steadfastly into her eyes, he says in a voice broken and full of feeling, "[Thou] seest the accountability under which I labor...I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow sufferer...What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him...to add hypocrisy to sin...who, perchance hath not the courage to grasp it for himself" (49). Dimmesdale isn't just dropping hints here, he's dropping anvils. He seems to be speaking to Hester directly, as though she were the only person present, in a way that can only be described as leading. From the perspective of the reader, Dimmesdale comes across as having an unaccountably guilty conscience, unless of course he is the man about whom he is speaking, in which case his words make complete sense. He half wants Hester to reveal him for the adulterer he is, if only so that the burden of his terrible secret will be lifted. Furthermore, if we are to believe he does truly love her, to watch her suffer alone is an additional agony that he must bear, since he himself does not have the courage to declare his shame publicly.

Hester does not grant him this satisfaction, however; her love for him, at least, is revealed in her response, when, staring back into his eyes just as intently, she declares, "It [the scarlet letter] is too deeply branded! Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!" (49). The significance of Hawthorne's descriptions of Dimmesdale and Hester's actions and body language in this scene is a contextual one. At no point prior to this does Hawthorne relate in such detail what other characters in the book are doing; they have only their words, tones, and feeling to represent them. In the cases of Hester and Dimmesdale, their feelings are hidden from us, and we are left instead to interpret their emotions through body language, action, and vivid description that is lacking in the cases of others. It is as though they are the only two people in the book who are represented in a "real" fashion; that is, they seem to be character studies of true, complete, three dimensional human beings, instead of two dimensional representations of stock extras.

In addition to this, the dialogue itself is important; the visual connection along with the passionate delivery of the line suggest that, as Dimmesdale has just done to her, Hester is speaking directly to him, blocking out the community behind her, and reaching out to him as the man she loves, not as her clergyman. In addressing him in such a direct but covert way, Hester is letting Dimmesdale know that she has no intention of revealing his sin for him; it is his responsibility to be a man and do it for himself, if he is to do it at all. Presumably she doesn't want him to; her love for him and her refusal to give up his name indicate a willingness to sacrifice herself in order to protect him.

This selflessness seems, to Dimmesdale, both an amazing thing and a relief, as is apparent in both his words and actions towards the end of the encounter. While indeed there was some part of him (and, arguably, everyone who does something they know to be wrong and possesses a conscience) that wished to be discovered in his criminality, a second part, that dedicated to self preservation and dominated by fear, wants to protect its own self interests, which would make maintaining the lie a positive thing. That much is expressed in his response to Hester's defiance, even in the face of a familiar voice (presumably Chillingworth) that makes her turn pale with fright. "'She will not speak!' murmured Mr. Dimmesdale, who, leaning over the balcony, with his hand upon his heart, had awaited the result of his appeal. He now drew back, with a long respiration. 'Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!'" (50). From this, it becomes evident that Dimmesdale was undeniably anxious about what Hester's response was going to be. When he learns that, miraculously, she has not given him up to the masses, his relief, and the strength of his pride in and affection for her are revealed. After all, not only is his particular word choice a bit more impassioned than is strictly appropriate for a minister trying to bring one of his strays back to the flock, but he says it in plain hearing of the rest of his companions.

While the clues which Hawthorne plants throughout the scene in suggestion of Pearl's paternity are subtle, there are not only present, but numerous. The individual actions, words, and expressions of Hester and Dimmesdale, both as individuals and as a pair engaging in dialogue, form a cohesive network of insinuations and hints which, should the reader pick up on them, raise strong theories that Dimmesdale is in fact Hester's lover. It is my belief that Nathaniel Hawthorne did this knowingly and intentionally, and that his stylistic choices in this scene leave little room for doubt as to where who Hester's "fellow-sinner" is, and by extension, the direction in which the novel proceeds towards its, I feel, inevitable conclusion.

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