Body Language at the Scaffold and in the Forest; The Physical States of Hester and Dimmesdale in Contrasting Environments

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Body Language at the Scaffold and in the Forest; The Physical States of Hester and Dimmesdale in Contrasting Environments

Laura Otten


In the novel, The Scarlet Letter, there is a critical difference between what happens in the town, in an environment of feigned perfection and scrutiny, versus what happens undetected in the shadows of the merciful forest. Each location serves as a stark contrast to the other, but how often are the characters altered by their surroundings? Are Hester or Dimmesdale physically or emotionally changed depending on their setting? In the town, both Hester and Dimmesdale remain physically guarded in order to adhere to social restrictions. The forest has an impact on both, but this change is due in part the privacy of their physical environment and in part to the emotional comfort they find in one another.

Hester exhibits guarded and apathetic physical characteristics when she is within the town. The reader first encounters Hester on display, "Hester Prynne had been standing on her pedestal" (pg. 46), upon the scaffold. The town magistrates are determining her dreaded fate and during their discussion, she physically appears vulnerable, "as she lifted her eyes towards the balcony, the unhappy woman grew pale and trembled." (pg. 47) Mr. Wilson, one of the town leaders, tells Hester that instead of their further probing the Reverend Dimmesdale will encourage her to speak. He says, "'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;'" (pg. 48) and with this statement, he gives the reader insight into the town's perception of Hester. The community believes her to be a 'hard' and stubborn woman, which means her manner in the town, even before her offense, must have been cold and distant. Once Reverend Dimmesdale's questioning and urging ends, Hester refuses to give any information and physically gives a clear sign to her eager audience, "Hester shook her head." (pg. 49) "'I will not speak!' answered Hester, turning pale as death," (pg. 50) and therefore physically showing that although secure in her decision, she is fearful. The scene goes on, and the town leaders begin to preach about the horror of sin, referencing Hester as their live example. "Hester Prynne, meanwhile, kept her place upon the pedestal of shame, with glazed eyes, and an air of weary indifference." (pg. 50) At this point, she has created a mental barrier against their hurtful words and her bodily features reflect that apathy. Her new baby even begins to cry and she quiets in "mechanically" (pg. 50) without breaking from her removed spell. Once the episode is over, "with the same hard demeanor, she was led back to prison," (pg. 50). This incident on the scaffold existed in a stifling environment, and Hester's physical reactions responded to that setting. However, it is important to recognize that before this scene, Hester had been uncomfortable in the town environment, as reported by Mr. Wilson through his comments about her 'hardness and obstinacy'. What caused her discomfort prior to her sin? Where does she really belong?

Different from Hester's demeanor, Dimmesdale's physical characteristics throughout the scaffold scene display his intense fear and anguish. Dimmesdale is first described as "a pale young man" (pg. 48) when Mr. Wilson places a hand upon his shoulder and calls him to speak with Hester. Mr. Wilson describes Dimmesdale's "over-softness" (pg. 48) which indicates that, to the community, the Reverend Dimmesdale appears very delicate. "He was a person of very striking aspect, with a white, lofty, and impending brow, large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth which, unless when he forcibly compressed it, was apt to be tremulous, expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast power of self-restraint." (pg. 48) Physically, he is a wreck, "there was an air about this young minister, - an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look," (pg. 48). His inner struggle and pain is clearly affecting his outer physical state. Dimmesdale's task to appeal to Hester seems to overwhelm him, "the trying nature of his position drove the blood from his cheek, and made his lips tremulous." (pg. 49) Finally, however, he finds the nerve to speak and "the young pastor's voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken." (pg. 49) The pressure of the scaffold setting undoubtedly causes Dimmesdale physical torment. In general, throughout the rest of the novel, his physical state within the town environment is nervous and sickly. As the reader, we understand the reason for his discomfort, for he lives a life tainted by sin and continuing in hypocrisy. Where will this man finally find peace?

Later on in the novel, Hester and Dimmesdale encounter one another in the depths of the forest. However, for each individual this new setting spurs different physical behavior.

Contra to her presence on the scaffold, the physical characteristics that Hester displays in the woods are free and uninhibited. Upon revealing the true identity of Chillingworth, Dimmesdale's horror and anger causes Hester to have an outburst and "flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him," (pg. 125) she begs for his forgiveness. "With sudden and desperate tenderness, she threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom...He would have released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free," (pg. 125). Once the town resides in the background, Hester's release allows the reader to understand her real personality. In the forest, her basest emotions rule her physical actions and she has no reason for restraint. Dimmesdale and Hester speak openly about their sin. Hester grieves for Dimmesdale's utter hopelessness and her sorrow physically manifests as "tears gushing into her eyes." (pg. 126) Desperately craving a future with possibilities, Hester proposes that the two of them run away together. They agree and in triumph, Hester unpins her scarlet letter and casts it aside. "The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit." (pg. 130) Her relief then infects other aspects of her physical appearance. "By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair...there played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile...a crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale." (pg. 130) Her potential for happiness is gained within the forest setting, an arena which provides her comfort and hope.

One might assume that the forest would provide the same relief to Dimmesdale as it had to Hester. However, initially, when walking through the woods, "he looked haggard and feeble, and betrayed a nerveless despondency in his air," (pg. 121). Similar to his physical characteristics in the village, Dimmesdale's body still appears weak due to his mental state of depression. "There was a listlessness in his gait; as if he saw no reason for taking one step further, nor felt any desire to do so, but would have been glad, could he be glad of anything, to fling himself down at the root of the nearest tree, and lie there passive, forevermore." (pg. 122) Once the minister begins to talk with Hester, there is little change in his unstable physique. When Hester finds the courage to tell Dimmesdale about the real identity of Chillingworth, "the minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and clutching at his heart, as if he would have torn it out of his bosom." (pg. 124) After he had calmed down from his initial shock, "he sank down on the ground, and buried his face in his hands." (pg. 125) Physically his abrupt actions demonstrate that his is distraught. He voices terror at the circumstance, "'And I! how am I to live longer, breathing the same air with this deadly enemy?' exclaimed Arthur Dimmesdale, shrinking within himself, and pressing his hand nervously against his heart," (pg. 126). He is physically collapsing at the thought of Chillingworth. Though their meeting in the woods begins with the sharing of negative information, there is hope for change when Hester suggests they run away together. In response to her idea, Dimmesdale has a telling facial reaction, "Arthur Dimmesdale, in whose eyes a fitful light, kindled by her enthusiasm, flashed up and died away," (pg. 128). Although there is a spark of excitement, this early glimmer of hope soon fades, perhaps proving that neither the new environment of the open forest nor the faith of a loved one can alter his troubled personality. "He lacked energy to grasp the better fortune that seemed within his reach." (pg. 128). At this point in the novel, Dimmesdale has resolved to die for his sin, and his physical cripplings are not due to environmental stress, but the inner conflict he cannot escape.

When Hester and Dimmesdale meet together in the forest, their encounter is different from their interaction on the scaffold. They speak in confidence and may touch one another. Their physical bodies offer evidence about their mental states in this intimate environment. "So strangely did they meet, in the dim wood, that it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the grace, of two spirits who have been intimately connected in their former life, but now stood coldly shuddering, in mutual dread;" (pg. 122). At first, they are afraid and shake in the presence of one another. It has been so long since their private relationship that they are physically startled at the idea of continued contact. "It was with fear, and tremulously, and, as it were, by a slow, reluctant necessity, that Arthur Dimmesdale put forth his hand, chill as death, and touched the chill hand of Hester Prynne." (pg. 122) The intense feeling of cold is mutual, possibly because they are terrified to be indulging their desire for the relationship again. However, slowly they adjust as they relax and remember that they trust each other. It is with this newfound comfort that their physical actions become smoother, reflecting a peace of mind. Before entering conversation, "they glided back into the shadow of the woods" (pg. 123) and "sat down again, side by side, and hand clasped in hand, on the mossy truck of the fallen tree." (pg. 126). They revert to the constructs of their previous relationship, giving the readers a chance to witness the peace and happiness that a societal sin brought to these two people. The woods provide a safe haven from the critical town. Without the change of physical environment, their physical bodies would not have been calm and, likewise, their minds would not have detected the cues and followed their physical example.


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