Shira SmallMs. ShapiroAP English Literature and Composition 1/2/17 Public Shame Versus Private Suffering The 1600s Puritan society in which Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter takes place was notoriously judgmental regarding matters of purity, especially sexual conduct. It is never easy for a woman to endure the embarrassment of being labeled overly promiscuous, but Hester endures an even more challenging battle given her surrounding environment. However, when it comes to adultery, both parties are subject to harsh criticism. Dimmesdale and Hester both experience the emotional burden of transgression, but their individual processes of enduring suffering differ drastically. Dimmesdale’s pain remains internal and he is eventually defeated, while Hester is ultimately able to survive years of public shame. Arthur Dimmesdale’s emotional and physical deterioration compared with Hester Prynne’s perseverance demonstrates the more destructive nature of private suffering over public shame. Initially, Hester Prynne’s suffering seems noticeably worse than Dimmesdale’s, as she endures ruthless public humiliation while he remains mostly unaffected by his secrecy. Although neither party feels fully at ease, Dimmesdale’s quiet embarrassment seems preferable to Hester’s outward ignominy. Before the reader is even introduced to Hester, she is spoken of with immense disdain by the local gossips. One such frustrated gossip declares, “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die” (45). By having her adultery exposed, Hester is automatically in a harder position than Dimmesdale because in addition to her innate embarrassment, she also must tolerate the public’s unforgiving scrutiny. The narrator describes Hester’s torment saying, “haughty as her demeanour was, she perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon” (47). Hester’s pain is explicitly heightened by “every footstep,” meaning her suffering is exacerbated by the large crowd which came to shame her. By being tried in such a public location Hester is made vulnerable and susceptible to society’s judgement on top of her own. The resulting combination of personal and public humiliation is far more painful than what Dimmesdale experiences at first. Although he may be struggling with an inner turmoil, initially Dimmesdale is far less affected by his adultery than Hester because the town adores him so immensely. In a positive description of Dimmesdale Hawthorne writes, “Therefore, so far as his duties would permit, he trode in the shadowy by-paths, and thus kept himself simple and childlike; coming forth, when occasion was, with a freshness, and fragrance, and dewy purity of thought, which, as many people said, affected them like the speech of an angel” (57). The people of Boston adore Dimmesdale and embrace him in every way. They equate his speech with that of an angel, perhaps one of the highest compliments they could give in such religious town. In contrast to Hester’s description as “haughty,” Dimmesdale represents “purity,” the value which Hester seemingly violates most. Even though he is completely blameless to the townspeople, he is still depicted as having, “an apprehensive, a startled, half frightened look” (57). His apparent anxiety shows that he feels at least somewhat guilty for cheating, but without the same scrutiny from the town which Hester receives, Dimmesdale is neither defined nor confined by his adultery. The notion that Dimmesdale could potentially lead his life in an unchanged, honorable way indicates that his suffering does not amount to Hester’s. Nonetheless, Dimmesdale does not fare as well later on and his suffering eventually surpasses that of Hester Prynne. Midway through her journey, Hester reestablishes herself and gains respect from the community. Meanwhile, Arthur Dimmesdale only becomes sadder and weaker. Over time, Hester’s community forgets and even forgives her sin so that her scarlet letter takes on a new meaning. “The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her,—so much power to do, and power to sympathize,—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (134). “A” no longer stands for adulteress but rather “Able,” signifying the changed lens with which the town views Hester. It became a symbol of empowerment and endurance, in contrast to its shameful roots. Hester still wears the “A,” as it is still a crucial piece of her identity, but now she can overcome the absolute negativity with which it had once come. Without being vindicated by the public, Hester might have lived with uncertainty regarding her morals and self worth. With the public’s forgiveness, Hester is relieved of one aspect of her suffering. Dimmesdale does not enjoy the same luxury. While Hester is beginning to redeem herself, Arthur is only sinking deeper and deeper into his misery. He resorts to self harm because without an outlet where he can alleviate his pain he feels as though he must take it out on himself. Describing Dimmesdale’s affliction, Hawthorne writes, “His inward trouble drove him to practices, more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome, than with the better light of the church in which he had been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly, because of that bitter laugh” (120). In a much darker depiction than before, Dimmesdale is now portrayed as highly distressed and unstable. There is no catharsis in his life and so he hurts himself with hopes of expressing the deep sorrow he cannot show to the outside world. Not only is he self mutilating, but in doing so he loses more and more respect for himself, as evidenced by his bitter laughter and subsequent self reprimand for laughing. In addition, “It was his custom, too, as it has been that of many other pious Puritans, to fast,—not, however, like them, in order to purify the body and render it the fitter medium of celestial illumination,—but rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance” (120). Dimmesdale starves himself to a dangerous degree, to the point where his internal suffering manifests in his outward appearance. Hester does not express her anguish through self harm and is beginning to regain respect from the community. At equal points in their journey, Hester and Dimmesdale are in drastically different emotional states. Hester and Dimmesdale’s disparate fates are in many ways the result of Hester having survived public shame and Dimmesdale succumbing to private suffering. Seven years after being accused of adultery, Hester is finally able to leave Boston and the painful past which went along with it. Her life was far from easy, and in many ways she shamed herself even after receiving the public’s forgiveness. Although Hester never goes on to live the life with Dimmesdale she longed to lead, she does eventually escape the town which had brutally branded her for so many years. When Hester chooses not to leave Boston and live through seven years of cruel humiliation, she also makes a decision not to fully forgive herself. By leaving, Hester enables herself to at last move on. Dimmesdale does not make it as far. Once he cannot endure his private suffering any longer, he confesses and immediately passes away. By the time he actually gets around to confessing it is too late for him and he can’t cope with secrecy any longer. He collapses for no apparent reason, but after years and years of agony with no escape, Dimmesdale never had high chances of survival. Chillingworth made matters worse by tormenting him incessantly, and it makes sense that after being cooped up with somebody so determined to destroy him Dimmesdale was even weaker than he might be otherwise. Hester too had advantages regardless of the preferable public shame from which she benefitted. Having Pearl as a devoted companion gave Hester a reason to fight through the ignominy she experienced. However, despite these varying circumstances, the significantly more destructive life Dimmesdale led is a large testament to the more detrimental effects of private suffering over public shame. Work CitedHawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. Print.