The Emotion of Reason
(An essay on the internal conflicts of man and the society that judges him)
by Anthony Miskolci
Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter epitomizes the internal conflicts of man. These internal conflicts are born from the pressures society places upon him/her, and are manifest in their actions, thoughts, and emotions. Society is where a person lives, and laws and regulations place pressures upon its individuals. Especially in The Scarlet Letter, where the characters are locked in a conflict of man and society. Three main emotions spawn from this conflict, and these are felt --some less than others -- by the three main characters of the story. These emotions, guilt, pride, and love, are manifest throughout the story based on situational changes and the character's own interpretation of society's expectations.
Guilt, the self-imposed anguish of knowing that one has done something to abuse or break trust given to him/her by society's standards. Guilt is a common emotion for perceived wrongs, and it has been known to have disatrous consequences. Dimmesdale, the young minister, is the one most commonly afflicted with guilt. The young man, being born into a pious society that does not tolerate any form of sin, is stuck in a seemingly everlasting rut of self-martyrism. In Hawthorne's own words, "in the clergyman's secret closet, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine plied it on his own shoulders, laughing bitterly at himself the while. . ." (115) This shows Dimmesdale's extended feelings of guilt, and his self-induced torture to, in a way, repent for his sins. The Protestants did not commonly employ such methods of purification, and that served to further enhance the young man's guilt. Dimmesdale's physician, Roger Chillingworth, a curious man who came in around the time of Hester's sentence, is not shown to harbor much guilt within himself, but is seen in many instances exacerbating Dimmesdale's own self pity. During one scene, however, the physician shows some remorse for what he has been doing to the minister, and even goes so far as to say he is possessed by a fiend. In exasperation and fear, he shouts " 'And what am I now?' demanded he, looking into her face and permitting the whole evil within him to be written on his features. 'I have already told thee what I am! A fiend! Who made me so?' " (134) The tone of Chillingworth's voice suggests that he just then realized what had happened to him, and he felt guilty for some of it. Alternatively, Hester Prynne, the one bearing the true scarlet "A," has very little remorse for her original sin. She is commonly powerful and strong-willed, and, like nature and its storms, Hester has emotional responses to what other people do at the moment, rather than lamenting over her own depression. She is the most cut away from society, and rarely asks for any kind of permission before she decides upon anything.
Pride, an indulgent emotion centered on one's own opinion of oneself and how he/she has achieved or accomplished something important to him/her. This emotion is more commonly seen in Roger Chillingworth and Hester Prynne than Dimmesdale, but each of the characters have a time of pride and power not seen in other parts of the story. To start, Hester Prynne, being persecuted for her actions and forced to wear the scarlet "A" upon her bosom, is one of the more prideful characters in the story. She openly challenges that which the Puritans and other religions stand for. She is passionate and spontaneous, but her strong will saw her through it. At one moment, her persecution is analyzed as Dimmesdale lay in her arms in the forest, "Hester would not set him free, lest he should look her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her, -- for seven long years it had frowned upon this lonely woman, -- and still she bore it all." (153) Hester is a powerful example of pride. Her inner strength makes it so she can weather anything, and she is convinced of her righteousness even as the world frowns upon her actions and tells her she is wrong. In one look, Roger Chillingworth is an old, kindhearted physician who takes up residence with the reverend Dimmesdale. In truth, however, the old man -- being Hester's former husband -- is a focus point for Dimmesdale's self-destruction. Chillingworth has a lot of pride, stemming from his confidence and his conversations with Dimmesdale. " 'Some men deceive themselves,' said Roger Chillingworth, with somewhat more emphasis than usual, and making a slight gesture with his forefinger. 'They fear to take up the shame that rightfully belongs to them. . .' " this shows how Chillingworth's pride and confidence can tear into Dimmesdale's heart and convince him of his sin. Dimmesdale shows very little pride throughout the book, and, indeed seems selfless as he attempts to rid himself of the sin placed upon him --enigmatically, at least -- by society and having the constant reminders of Chillingworth to back them up. His moment of pride comes near the end of the book, where he finally admits to all that he has done, and throws himself to Hester in a defiant act against the piety he has grown to know.
All characters feel love, the warm emotion stirred up by a mental appraisal of another human being. This appraisal is met with warm feelings that seem centered around the heart. As interactions between the two characters continue, so do the feelings, and they can last forever, and make man do things and crimes he would never have originally intended to do. Hester is the most prominent in her love and passion. She is as spontaneous as nature itself, and she is constantly thinking about and worrying about her lover Dimmesdale. She maintains these feelings for the man, and it shows in her conversation with Dimmesdale. " '. . . The future is yet full of trial and success! There is happiness to be enjoyed! . . . Exchange this false life of thine for a true one. . . . Thou shalt not go alone.' " (155) Hester has the ambition and the love to make true her promise, and she loves Dimmesdale despite all the minister has done to her. Likewise, Dimmesdale loves, but he thinks and sees it a different way. The minister believes firmly in the thought of marriage and the sanctity of the church -- or, in other words, the approval of society. His passion is released only when Hester is near, and they are alone together. He is normally soft-spoken and silent, but his true passion and love emerges as Hester excites him and encourages their running away. " '. . . Or, if this be the path to a better life, as Hester would persuade me, I surely give up no fairer prospect by pursuing it! Neither can I any longer live without her companionship; so powerful is she to sustain, --so tender to soothe! O Thou to whom I dare not life mine eyes, wilt Thou yet pardon me!' " (15 cool Dimmesdale's thoughts show how much he loves her, and still carry a hint of society's pull on his actions. Roger Chillingworth, while not devoid of love, is the least likely character to be pulled into the idea of love. He has it, but it changes as the story progresses. Chillingworth originally came to Boston eagerly awaiting Hester and their home. Over the course of the story, however, Chillingworth falls in love with the thoughts and emotions he inspires in Dimmesdale. Like losing love once before, when Hester and Dimmesdale stand at the scaffold, he cannot allow it, and throws himself up to it and shouts " 'Madman, hold! What is your purpose? Wave back that woman! Cast off this child! All shall be well! Do not blacken your fame and perish in dishonour! I can yet save you!" (196) thus showing his love for the feelings he instilled in Dimmesdale, and the loss of another good thing seemed almost unbearable to him.
To conclude, the emotions present in the novel run roughly parallel, with minor differentiation, to the conflict of man vs. society. Each character in the story are held by powerful emotions that sweep him or her through daily life, and some are more powerful upon them than others. Each character harbors one emotion stronger than all the rest, and he/she keeps his/her mentality, be it for or against the society in which he/she lives. Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth are all playing the same game, and to decide whomever wins or loses, is the one who can be the most happy no matter what situation he/she may find him/herself in.
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