The Psychological Aspects of the Scarlet Letter

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The human mind and the morals of any individual person, no matter how good and pure, can usually be swayed by the power of temptation and emotions. Sin, especially, is a significant factor that greatly affects the conscious of human beings. In the novel The Scarlet Letter, sin is portrayed as the fuel that begins the fire. Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne exhibits the dark side of the human mind as the scarlet letter, along with hidden secrets, arouses the inner turmoil of the characters, revealed through prominent themes such as madness, vengeance, self-torture, and obsession.

In the The Scarlet Letter, Roger Chillingworth’s sole purpose is to exact vengeance on Arthur Dimmesdale, the man whom his wife had an affair with. This task is seen as the center of his life, consuming his time and his energy day by day. His obsession with Dimmesdale not only alters his state of mind and body, but also his morals and conscious. He is described as, “... a man who corrupts himself because he can neither forgive nor forget the corruption of others” (Evans). An example of this is his transformation from being an intellectual, physician, to a hatred filled stalker. Chillingworth is seen looking over Dimmesdale as he sleeps. As he looms over Dimmesdale, and discovers the A on his chest he is fixed with a, “wild look of wonder, joy, and horror!” as he confirms Dimmesdale's identity as the adulterer (Hawthorne 127). Unlike most people, Chillingworth is excited and filled with ecstasy at finding evidence of adultery and sin.

Another dark event seen in The Scarlet Letter is when Chillingworth shrewdly plays psychological mind games with Dimmesdale in order to further torment his conscious. Chillingworth psychologically tortures Dimmesdale under the guise of being a trusted friend and helper. He even looks loathingly at Dimmesdale when he is not looking, and if he looks back then he schools his features. Chillingworth takes pleasure in making comments that trigger fear and anxiousness in Dimmesdale, poking and prodding him with comments that remind him of his sin. Because of this, Dimmesdale feels a sense of distrust and unease whenever he is present around Chillingworth, but he has no rational or provable reason for his feelings so he is stuck suffering mentally and physically. Chillingworth’s purpose is to, “exacerbate, rather than relieve, the sufferings of others, especially Dimmesdale” (Evans). Chillingworth adds to the torment Dimmesdale has already been inflicting on himself on a daily basis.

Arthur Dimmesdale’s guilt gnaws at him through the entire novel. His self torture is his way of relieving himself from the guilt that constantly plagues his mind. Because of his this he cannot think of anything else. This is an example of Hawthorne's use of emotions and events to show its effects on the mind of the guilty. Dimmesdale continually tortures himself but to no relief. He tortures himself not out of worship but, “rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance” (Hawthorne 134). All of Dimmesdale’s actions are driven through his guilt. He not only physically tortures himself, he also constantly imagines possible consequences of his sin being revealed, rendering him subject to suffering because of his own guilty thoughts.

In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne displays the dark side of human nature as the characters are influenced by the heated emotions and immoral actions of themselves and others. Most prominently seen in the novel, Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale are seen as the ones who easily succumb and act on these fervent emotions. This leads them to deal with these emotions in various ways, either physically or mentally hurting themselves or others. The characters of The Scarlet Letter are quick to blame and antagonize based only off their own feelings, which throws each of them down a path of deception, wicknedess, and false reasoning.

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The Psychological Aspects of The Scarlet Letter. (2019, May 13). Retrieved February 29, 2024 , from

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