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The More It Asserts Itself: Guilt and Masculinity in The Scarlet Letter

Amy Stern

The Scarlet Letter has traditionally been presented as a story about Hester Prynne. Certainly she is the focal point of the novel; the letter in question is a judgment upon her, as reflected in a symbol upon her chest. Yet to view Hawthorne's classic chiefly as the story of Hester, or of the guilt of a woman who sinned against a village, is not only untrue, it is reductive of the novel as a whole. To read the text as the story of Hester removes the deepest truth of the story; it is a tale of a town, and each member of the town is as guilty as Hester is, in some way or another. This can be seen in any of the villagers we meet, or even the villagers altogether as an entity, but it is perhaps most obvious by examining Chillingworth and Dimmesdale.

Although The Scarlet Letter is written by a male author, is textually a story recounted by a man, and certainly has what could be seen as a traditionally masculine (not to mention, perhaps somewhat obviously, Puritan) sensibility about sex, the men are usually considered secondary to the novel's female protagonist. Hester is the central focus of the novel, and while she is clearly directly tied to both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, her primary relationship is with her daughter, Pearl. Pearl is young, however, and not yet developed into a worthy conversationalist; she is in many ways not yet independent enough to be anything but a reflection of her strongest influence. To that end, much of her behavior, not to mention her interactions with her mother, can be read as Hester interacting with different facets of herself. Because of this, while Pearl and Hester are interesting, they are hardly a relationship built on secrets and conflict. Pearl is a physical representation of Hester's biggest secret, but by being born and interacting as a person, Pearl has in many ways ceased to be that which she symbolizes and become, in fact, the inverse of same; a secret brought to light is no longer a secret at all.

Similarly, while Hester's relationships with Dimmesdale and Chillingworth are interesting, for the reader they are strikingly one-sided. Hester knows both of their secrets; one is her husband, the other the father of her child. Yet she chooses to not share this with anyone, because the men have chosen to not share the information; she allows the flow of information to be dictated through her rather than to take the initiative and share the information herself. Although Hester is hardly passive, and her silence is in and of itself a form of activism, she is still willing to allow the power which she could have to be taken from her. Neither man's choice to keep his secret is ever questioned, even in the face of her being forced to share her own without granting permission.

Because of this, Hester's relationship with both men is inherently unbalanced. She knows their secrets, and keeps them, yet they are not responsible for keeping hers; anything Hester might have wanted to keep hidden was revealed with the birth of her daughter. Likewise, the men cannot have a relationship with anyone else in the town which would have a balance, because the same problem arises; at least as far as the omniscient narrator seems to know, the townspeople have no secrets which compare to Dimmesdale's or Chillingworth's. Moreover, they think that these two men are honest, upstanding citizens. Dimmesdale especially, a religious leader in this small religious town, is seen as the epitome of virtue. For him, then, an equal relationship with any of the townspeople is simply impossible; their expectations for him and the truth of who he actually is are in far too much conflict to ever allow for true conversation. Similarly, so many facts about Chillingworth's history are omitted from anything he tells the people in the town that any interaction is almost by definition unbalanced; with no one truly suspecting that anything might be strange or hidden, Chillingworth is granted a bizarre amount of power, by virtue of that which he is able to keep hidden.

In fact, the only true balanced, equal relationship that either Chillingworth or Dimmesdale can have is with each other. While it is certainly arguable that the strongest emotional bond either man has is with Hester, their biggest conflict, and the most passion we see from either of them, tends to be revealed when they are interacting with each other. Considering the book can easily be read as a heterosexual romance focusing on the role of the woman, it is perhaps ironic that we learn the most about Dimmesdale and Chillingworth from their interactions with each other. For each man, the other's presence is hurtful, yet both seem incapable of moving away from these interactions. Under the guise of a deep forming friendship, both men appear to gain an almost sadomasochistic pleasure from their time with one another.

This is not to say that the relationship is in any way sexual. While it is possible to read their deep and growing relationship, not to mention the clear passion each man feels about the other, as homoerotic, it is difficult to deny that both men are sexually attracted to Hester above all. It is, in fact, this feeling for Hester which fuels their interactions with each other; in many ways, both men exist to serve as witness to the other's love of a woman who, for some reason, cannot love him fully. Hester remains the invisible center of any interaction the two have, a firmly heterosexual baseline for their interplay. This is, in many ways, which makes the queer reading possible; "the more [masculinity] asserts itself, the more it calls itself into question" (Segal). The masculinity, in this case, is like Dimmesdale's own guilt; the more he self-identifies as guilty, the more the people read his attitude as indicative of the idea that "we are all sinners", and the more he seems noble, humble, and innocent of all wrongdoing. It is quite easy to believe, then, that that attitude is reflected in all things Dimmesdale does.

That is perhaps why a reader can easily view the love triangle as one which goes in all directions. The conversations which Chillingworth and Dimmesdale have together seem far more like conversations between equals than either of their interactions with Hester do. (And perhaps it is telling that in the text, Hawthorne calls upon both men by their last names and Hester by her first; it is a clear representation of the imbalance of power beneath them. When this identification system is repeated in analysis, however, is it legitimizing the power imbalance for the reader, or merely staying true to the text? Referring to Dimmesdale, who is usually only identified to as "The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale", as "Arthur", or to Chillingworth as "Roger", seems as wrong as calling Hester "Prynne".) Yet this seems to speak more of love as a construct which has far less to do with sex or sexuality than with passion and interest and strong feelings for one another. This feeling shows itself, by turns, as curiosity, as antipathy, and as friendship. It is the contrast among these three feelings which makes their relationship so compelling. As Chillingworth, for example, strives to get closer and closer to Dimmesdale's secret, the latter seems to thrive on the pain of hiding his secret, protecting himself from a condemnation which he is not getting from the people of the town. Dimmesdale clearly feels he deserves this pain (as exemplified in the A burned across his chest; whether it is a divine symbol or simply the result of him constantly beating his own chest, it is certainly a powerful visual representation of the guilt which he feels). Similarly, Chillingworth places himself in close proximity with the man he is increasingly sure impregnated his wife, and clearly begins to feel some guilt by the end of the novel; he leaves a large sum of money to Pearl, even though she is Hester's child with another man. (Hester, of course, seems to get the pain from both men with none of the feeling of deserved punishment but that is perhaps another essay.) Each similarly holds the other in contempt; Chillingworth judges for the adultery, and Dimmesdale judges for the cruelty to Hester.

In many ways, despite how it is frequently advertised, The Scarlet Letter is primarily the story of two men's guilt. After all, Hester's guilt is public, a red letter embroidered upon her chest such that everyone can see it, and as such, the secret for which she might feel ashamed is public for everyone to see. For Hester, the guilt of the secret itself is not compounded by the stress of keeping it as a secret. Both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, however, are responsible for not just the truth which they are guarding, but also for the all-consuming act of guarding it. For Dimmesdale, in fact, this act seems to prove fatal; it is only as he is dying that he can drop his act of piety in favor of revealing the truth.

Dimmesdale and Chillingworth are both, in many ways, their own worst enemies. Their inability to come to terms with that which is hidden ultimately exposes them to far more suffering than Hester, forced to wear a piece of cloth which condemns her, could ever think of. It is the men's pain which is at the center of the novel, that of standing idly by instead of confronting the internal demons head-on. Hawthorne's novel therefore most strongly investigates not Hester, but the men around her, for condemning her to such a fate in silence.

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