Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester’s Quest for Identity in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter

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Dimmesdale and Hester’s Quest for Identity in The Scarlet Letter

While allegory is an explicit and tempting reading of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, I see in this novel also the potential of a psychological reading, interpreting it as a search for one’s own self. Both Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne goes through this process and finally succeeded in finding the duality of one's personality, and the impossibility of complementing the split between individual and community identity. However, they were compelled to take different paths on this journey, and they react quite differently when they finally arrive at the conclusion of this search.

Dimmesdale and Hester start out from the same point: their adultery. This "sin"
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Indeed, Dimmesdale longs to speak out that secret, and lighten the burden on him. Why, then, does he not? Dimmesdale, in his own words, answers thus:

Guilty as they may be, retaining, nevertheless, a zeal for God’s glory and man’s welfare, they shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in the view of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be achieved by them; no evil of the past be redeemed by better service. So, to their own unutterable torment, they go about among their fellow-creatures, looking pure as new-fallen snow; while their hearts are all speckled and spotted with iniquity of which they cannot rid themselves. (132)

In other words, the fear of social rejection prevents him from speaking the truth. This fear is not just simple cowardice, but is strengthened by his social stance, his identity. He builds his own identity with relation to the society, because he cannot turn to himself. He sees himself as being filthy, wretched, and sinful. He needs to turn to the community for acceptance. He establishes himself as the pillar of his community. The loss of social acceptance, or, moreover, the abhorrence and rejection of his fellow-citizens, then, would mean more than a cruel reminder of his crime, but the collapse of his whole identity.

With this strong dependence on the society, Dimmesdale becomes a "social man", instead of an "individual
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