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The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Guilt

1

“Let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart.”

This line is spoken by one of the townswomen when they are discussing Hester’s punishment at the beginning of the novel. She shows that while the public visible mark of the scarlet letter will lead to shame, it is Hester’s inner personal knowledge of her sin that will lead to guilt. In a sense, the scarlet letter is almost unnecessary because it is Hester’s emotional and psychological guilt that will cause her to suffer, and that will always be with her.

2

“[S]he saw that, owing the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance.”

When Hester and Pearl visit Governor Bellingham’s mansion, Hester is studying a suit of armor and notices that the way the gleaming breastplate reflects her body massively enlarges the scarlet letter. This striking image encourages us to think about how the meaning of the scarlet letter overwhelms Hester’s identity. Instead of being seen as an individual, Hester has become nothing more than a walking symbol of her crime. The first, and often the only, thing that other characters notice is the evidence of her guilt.

3

“Mother!—Mother!—Why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?”

Pearl asks this question of her mother repeatedly. Because she is a child, and also because she has not grown up with much exposure to social norms, Pearl is not embarrassed to comment on this gesture. Readers can understand that Dimmesdale’s tendency to put his hand on his heart symbolizes his guilt and his desire to try and share in the suffering Hester is enduring. However, Pearl’s inability to understand why Dimmesdale does this shows that his guilt is ineffective and doesn’t accomplish anything. The gesture does not help Hester or Pearl in any way.

4

“It is inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration tortured him!”

This line explains why Dimmesdale experiences such agonizing guilt. Not only does no one know the role he played in Hester’s scandal, they think that he is extremely pure and moral. The strong contrast between how Dimmesdale sees himself and how the rest of the world sees him is what leads to him always being tortured by guilt. If he was perceived as an ordinary, average man with a mixture of good and bad qualities, Dimmesdale might have been better able to cope with his secret.

5

“All the dread of public exposure, that had so long been the anguish of his life, had returned upon him.”

This line reveals the fear that leads to Dimmesdale being unable to take responsibility for his actions, thus leading to his overwhelming guilt. Dimmesdale partially wants to stop hiding and be honest about his past, but he is extremely sensitive to public approval and is terrified of the idea of being publicly shamed for his sins. This quote is somewhat ironic in that readers have seen Hester bravely living with her public shame because she has not had the option to hide it in the way that he does.