Hurt So Good: The Derivation of Pleasure From Pain in "The Scarlet Letter"

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Hurt So Good: The Derivation of Pleasure From Pain in "The Scarlet Letter"

Lauren Sweeney

Lauren Sweeney March 31, 2006
Big Books of American Literature/Professor Dalke
Paper III

Hurt So Good: The Derivation of Pleasure From Pain in The Scarlet Letter

Throughout The Scarlet Letter, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale appears to restrain his emotions and feels imprisoned by his silence. Though Hester is able to confess her sin to the public and reach absolution through a penance of selfless works, Dimmesdale lives in fear that his secret will be revealed and yet envies Hester the chance that she is given to relieve her conscience. Though it appears that Dimmesdale’s fear of exposure and the ruin of his reputation keeps him from revealing the secret of his affair with Hester, in a way, he enjoys the act of repression and silent suffering. It is not only fear of exposure and the ruin of his public image that keeps him silent, but also the perverse pleasure that he gains from his pain and how he even uses his physical suffering to raise the esteem in which the pious community holds him.

The condition of the minister’s physical health leads to a discussion of the paradox of his survival up until the end of the novel. Though his health takes a nosedive during the seven years between the affair and its resolution, this is a considerable length of time to be dwindling on the edge of existence. If his condition is so severe, how can he survive it? Why does he not die? If he is truly in pain, how does he keep himself from utter despair and self-slaughter? One might suppose that he would announce his sin and allow his conscience to be cleansed as Hester is forced to do. If he was really desperate, he could have run away to Europe and commenced a new, anonymous existence without the fear of discovery. If the silent torture was really as horrible as it seems, why does he not succumb to the power of his suffering and collapsed beneath it in incapacitating physical illness or suicide. By choosing to keep his sin secret, the minister also chooses to prolong his physical and mental suffering.

Dimmesdale uses the deterioration of his health to his advantage by engaging the sympathies of the community. The first words that Hawthorne uses (to give the reader something more than a physical description of the Arthur Dimmesdale,) are written from as though from the voice of the townspeople:

“…the young minister, whose health had severely suffered, of late, by his too unreserved self-sacrifice to the labors and duties of the community.” (100)

Though Hawthorne delivers this line with something like sarcasm and incredulity, it allows the reader to understand the unenlightened community’s perspective. In their eyes, the minister is a damned innocent; the afflicted saint who patiently and selflessly devotes his life to others despite his own earthly misfortunes. They are duped into believing that this ultimately selfish man is the most selfless of them all. Just because they have never seen him commit a sin and because of the respect that they have for him as one of the leaders of the community, they assume that his suffering is unjustified.

Later in the novel, Hawthorne does supply a more detailed physical description of the minister, but he emphasizes particular aspects of his appearance very carefully.

“...The young minister at once came forward, pale, and holding his hand over his heart, as was his custom whenever his particularly nervous temperament was thrown into agitation. He looked mow more careworn and emaciated than as we described him at the scene of Hester’s public ignominy; and whether it were his failing health, or whatever the cause might be, his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth.” (104)

In this passage the voice of the narrator again plays a role in the reader’s perception of the minister. He suggests that it might not be Dimmesdale’s “failing health,” but something else that has accounts for his altered appearance. What that alternative reason might be is not directly revealed, but the seed of suspicion is planted in the reader’s mind.

The pale, thin face, large, sad eyes and hand placed over the heart are characteristic of typical depictions of saints and martyrs in the classical Christian tradition. Dimmesdale
assumes this appearance because he knows it will help his cause. If he looks like the recognizable figure of a martyr, the public will associate his image with that of a holy man. He abuses himself physically and mentally as a means to an end. Dimmesdale is a method actor who knows that he must “look the part.”

The most obvious example of Dimmesdale’s decision to suffer is revealed through his relationship with Chillingworth. He “thin-slices” (Gladwell) Chillingworth and recognizes him as Hester’s husband from the very start, but he also recognizes in Chillingworth a justified punisher.

“I might have known it!” murmured he.” I did know it! Was not the secret told me in the natural recoil of my heart, at the first sight of him, and as often as I have seen him since? Why did I not understand?” (178)

As Hester’s husband, Chillingworth is the man whom Dimmesdale has offended and therefore fulfills the role of appropriate judge. Dimmesdale has sinned against Roger, and sees him as a man who is worthy and willing to punish him. Dimmesdale accepts Chillingworth’s friendship and even moves in with him. They enter into a sadomasochistic friendship that benefits both of them; each feeds the other’s perverse desires, Chillingworth to torture and Dimmesdale to be tortured. Just as Pearl is the physical manifestation of the Scarlet Letter and the evidence of Hester’s sin, Chillingworth is the bodily representation of the guilt that is so close to Dimmesdale’s heart.

When Hester and Dimmesdale agree to run away, he experiences a new sense of freedom that is manifested in his uncontrollable desire to sin:

“In truth, nothing short of a total change of dynasty and moral code, in that interior kingdom, was adequate to account for the impulses now communicated to the unfortunate and startled minister. At every step he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional; in spite of himself, yet growing out of a profounder self than that which opposed the impulse.” (198)

There is a discussion of the duality that exists within himself"the id revolting against the super-ego or the devil on his left shoulder pricking the angel on his right with a flaming pitchfork. His inner self, the one with the inclination towards evil, the one that he felt he had been smothering for his whole life, and yet the one which was driving his ever action from the beginning, his selfish side tries to burst forth when it is given the least bit of leeway.

Hawthorne finally gives the reader a blunt statement about Dimmesdale’s less-than-altruistic motivations when the minister asks Hester when their ship Europe will set sail.

“Now, why the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale considered it so very fortunate, we hesitate to reveal. Nevertheless,"to hold nothing back from the reader,"it was because, on the third day from the present, he was to preach the Election Sermon; and, as such an occasion formed an honorable epoch in the life of a New England clergyman, he could not have chanced upon a more suitable mode and time of terminating his professional career. “At least, they shall say of me,” thought this exemplary man, “that I leave no public duty unperformed, nor ill performed!” Sad, indeed, that an introspection so profound and acute as this poor minister’s should be so miserably deceived! We have had, and may still have, worse things to tell of him; but none, we apprehend, so pitiably weak; no evidence, at once so slight and irrefragable, of a subtle disease, that had long since begun to eat into the real substance of his character.” (196-197)

Through the voice of the narrator in this passage, Hawthorne reveals what he alludes to throughout the novel. That the narrator has had suspicions about the content of Dimmesdale’s character and though it pains him to do so, reveals to the reader the honest truth about the minister. Dimmesdale’s behavior is ultimately selfish.

In the midst of all his confusion, while he is “in a maze” and repeatedly tempted to perform random acts of wickedness, his focus remains to the success of his reputation and what people will think of him. He loves the idea that he sinned and is able to suffer for his sins. He is proud of his martyrdom and this is why he lets it go on. He wants to be seen as someone who suffers and ultimately dies for his belief in a particular faith. He is the opposite of Uncle Tom; he does not die to save anyone but himself. He loves that the village people see him as the perfect minister. When he goes out into the scaffold both under the cover of night and at the end of the novel, it is because he wants the people to understand the full extent of his suffering, not because he wants to be freed from the repression of his secret and the resulting guilt. He never says that he regrets sleeping with Hester, but it becomes obvious that he is glad that he sinned so that he could suffer for his faith.

Dimmesdale uses the public opinion to his advantage, and the manifestations of his private suffering only reinforce the village’s perception of him. Dimmesdale uses the pre-established system of the community to make himself look better and thereby give him some degree of political power and help to regain his philosophical autonomy. He works the system. He lets the people believe what they want to believe about his situation. He wants to be the hero that they imagine him to be, but he also gains some pleasure from seeing them believe the lie. He likes knowing that what they believe could not be further from the truth, and because he knows more than them, he feels powerful. He has the power to reveal or not to reveal the identity of Pearl’s father, but he chooses to remain silent because he sees that as the best decision for him. He behaves rationally because his suffering and sense of power through knowledge makes him happy.

This discussion of Dimmesdale leads me to wonder if Hawthorne himself was not something of a masochist. He and Dimmesdale actually have much more in common than the author does with any other character. He is the one who created this character; a young man, an upright citizen of the nascent New England community. Both suffer in the guilt of a sin, committed long in the past but just like Dimmesdale, might Hawthorne himself have derived some variety of fascinated pleasure from the romanticized vision of his familial guilt? The sin he confessed was that of his forefathers and, in actuality, had nothing to do with him. He adopted their sin as his own and used it for his own gain. He used their experience as the basis to write this now classic work of American Literature. He created for himself an image of a suffering artist, surely disowned by the spirits of his pious ancestors who would have no respect for his life’s work"but this is the definition of a true artist; one who gives up everything for his work. The greater the suffering the greater the capacity for emotion expressed through art. This performance of “suffering artist” is comparable to Dimmesdale’s active perusal of the role of “suffering saint.” Like Dimmesdale, the suffering makes the product of his sacrifice appear more authentic. It's good for his image.

Works Cited:

Malcolm Gladwell. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2005. 3-47.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bantam Books,


Rorty, Amelie O. Lecture. March 28, 2006. Bryn Mawr College.

Ross, David. Lecture. March 30, 2006. Bryn Mawr College.

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