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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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Dimmesdale nearly buys the shining vision of a new life that Hester holds out to him in the woods. And yet, with his last ounce of strength, he rejects it. He crawls to the scaffold-and confession-instead.

Is Dimmesdale right to choose confession over escape; the shreds of his religious belief over Hester and love? Your answer will depend on your own definition of the good life, and on where you think Dimmesdale has been headed all along.

Some readers believe that Dimmesdale's decision is the only possible ending to his long and tortuous struggle to return to God. Others see it as a desperate flight from his true, but never acknowledged, self.

Let's look at the second argument first. According to this view, Dimmesdale found out something essential about himself when he fell in love with, and made love to, Hester Prynne. He found out he was not a pure, ethereal scholar-priest, but a man with a man's heart and a man's desires. What should he have done about it? What all men do, when they are ready to grow up. Accept responsibility for a wife and child. Marry the woman (or live with her, in this case) and keep a roof over her head.


The first argument runs somewhat differently. The real Dimmesdale (it goes) is no lover at all, but a Puritan minister from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. In Hester's arms, he may have yielded temporarily to the claims of the flesh. But he never altered his basic commitment to the spirit, and to God. The point is not whether we believe that Dimmesdale's love for Hester is sin. The point is that he believes it, with all his heart. There is only one way he can expiate that sin. And that is to stand on the scaffold and confess.

The chilling fact about either argument is that it leaves half of Dimmesdale out. The flesh has to go or the spirit. There is no way of integrating both. Dimmesdale is given a stark choice, and he is given it by Hawthorne: To deny love and desire (and their consequent human commitments) in the only final way possible, in death; or to live, and submerge his finer qualities in a life too closely tied to earth.

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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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