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The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Foreshadowing

Hawthorne heavily hints throughout The Scarlet Letter that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father, so the revelation of his identity should hardly be a surprise to the reader. The narrator also indicates from the introduction that Hester’s outcome in the novel is ultimately happy; he describes her as an “angel” who spent the last years of her life doing good works and nursing others. These suggestions of characters’ fates and identities, however, do not constitute true foreshadowing, as they refer to situations and outcomes that have already passed. There are few instances of true foreshadowing in the novel, and those instances hint at characters’ true natures, rather than specific events to come.

Dimmesdale as a weak character

The first time we meet Dimmesdale, he is standing above Hester on a balcony, having been asked by the governor to plead with Hester directly to reveal the identity of the father of her child. Dimmesdale is in a position of tremendous power, but Hawthorne describes him as weak and passive: “there was an air about this young minister – an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look.” In fact, he is so pathetic, the crowd feels sorry for him: “Even the poor baby, at Hester’s bosom, was affected by the same influence.” Throughout the rest of the novel we see that unlike Hester, Dimmesdale is unable to bear the weight of his shame, and can neither embrace what he’s done nor move past it. These early descriptions of him foreshadow that despite his prominence in the community, he is ultimately a powerless figure. Unlike Hester, who is able to withstand the shame of standing on the scaffold, Dimmesdale cries out in pain the first time he mounts the scaffold, and dies the second time.

Chillingworth as a conflicted character

Throughout the novel, Chillingworth is single-mindedly set on revenge. However, our early glimpses of his character foreshadow the fact that his ultimate revenge will win him no satisfaction, and he will remain tormented until his death. When Chillingworth joins the crowd watching Hester on the scaffold, he is described as at war with himself: “by a seemingly careless arrangement of his heterogeneous garb he had endeavored to conceal or abate the peculiarity” of his uneven shoulders. Chillingsworth is a man taking great pains to hide who he is, but not entirely succeeding. Next, “a writhing horror twisted itself across his features… his face darkened with some powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an effort of his will.” Rather than being in control of himself and using that self control to manipulate others to his satisfaction, Chillingworth is fighting a constant battle against his overwhelmingly strong feelings. The early signs of this battle foreshadow the fact that his revenge wins him no peace, and he winds up giving all his money to Pearl when he dies.

Hester’s eventual acceptance of the scarlet letter

The first time we meet Hester, she is already wearing the scarlet letter that she will wear for most of the rest of her life. “She turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and her shame were real. Yes! – these were her realities, -- all else had vanished!” Of all the characters in the book, Hester is the one who most readily and bravely acknowledges what she has done and accepts the consequences. In the early scenes of the book, she bears her shame with strength, standing on the scaffold for hours while her neighbors stare at her. These initial scenes of Hester foreshadow the way she will come to embrace her scarlet A, continuing to wear it even after its initial meaning has been obscured and it seems to stand for “Able,” rather than “Adulterer.” Early on, Hawthorne tells the reader the letter has become Hester’s reality, foreshadowing her commitment to the letter for the remainder of her life.