The Scarlet Letter

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter: Foil 3 key examples

Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—Hester, Arthur, and Roger:

Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth form the love triangle at the center of the novel's plot, but they also all serve as foils for one another. The narrator begins to establish Chillingworth and Dimmesdale as foils in Chapter 4, when Chillingworth visits Hester in the prison and swears her to secrecy about the fact that he is her husband:

“I will keep thy secret, as I have his,” said Hester.

“Swear it!” rejoined he.

And she took the oath.

As Hester notes here, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth have both sworn her to secrecy about their relationships to her. Despite their twin desires for secrecy, they have opposite responses to Hester's pregnancy and Pearl's birth. Chillingworth has a "chilly," inhumane streak that leads him to plot revenge in secret. He wants secrecy so that he can obsess over Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale, meanwhile, is "dim" and spineless, suffering in secret for his own sins. He wants secrecy so that he can obsess over himself. Hester's willingness to keep their secrets allows both men to destroy themselves, but in different ways. By placing these two characters side by side, the novel allows each of their flaws to stand out as they careen toward self-destruction.

Both men are in turn foils for Hester, who bears her shame and her love for Pearl openly instead of in secret. In Chapter 3, Dimmesdale tells Hester that she can lighten her punishment by revealing Pearl's father. Hester looks into Dimmesdale's eyes and refuses:

“Never!” replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman. “It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!”

By staring "into the deep and troubled eyes" of Dimmesdale, Hester conveys to him a double standard he has failed to accept: keeping the adultery secret is a choice he has made, and it is a choice that has never been available to her. She can't hide the fact that she has a child when her husband has been long absent, so she chooses to bear this fact as openly as she can. In Chapter 14, a conversation between Hester and Chillingworth demonstrates once more that Hester finds honor, openness, and self-determination to be the best way to deal with pain:

“I must reveal the secret,” answered Hester, firmly. “He must discern thee in thy true character. What may be the result, I know not. But this long debt of confidence, due from me to him, whose bane and ruin I have been, shall at length be paid.["]

Hester feels that she "must" tell Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband because she owes it to him to be honest. Although she has promised both men that she will stay silent about who they are, she eventually decides that their secrets are different. Keeping Chillingworth's secret turns out to be a bridge too far for Hester because it enables him to manipulate and harm Dimmesdale. Keeping Dimmesdale's secret does not harm anyone except Dimmesdale himself. Hester cannot force Dimmesdale to choose openness, but she can choose to be open herself about what she knows that might help him. Hester's commitment to honor, openness, and everyone's right to self-determination stands in sharp relief against both men's secret-keeping and manipulation.

Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Hester, Arthur, and Roger:

Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth form the love triangle at the center of the novel's plot, but they also all serve as foils for one another. The narrator begins to establish Chillingworth and Dimmesdale as foils in Chapter 4, when Chillingworth visits Hester in the prison and swears her to secrecy about the fact that he is her husband:

“I will keep thy secret, as I have his,” said Hester.

“Swear it!” rejoined he.

And she took the oath.

As Hester notes here, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth have both sworn her to secrecy about their relationships to her. Despite their twin desires for secrecy, they have opposite responses to Hester's pregnancy and Pearl's birth. Chillingworth has a "chilly," inhumane streak that leads him to plot revenge in secret. He wants secrecy so that he can obsess over Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale, meanwhile, is "dim" and spineless, suffering in secret for his own sins. He wants secrecy so that he can obsess over himself. Hester's willingness to keep their secrets allows both men to destroy themselves, but in different ways. By placing these two characters side by side, the novel allows each of their flaws to stand out as they careen toward self-destruction.

Both men are in turn foils for Hester, who bears her shame and her love for Pearl openly instead of in secret. In Chapter 3, Dimmesdale tells Hester that she can lighten her punishment by revealing Pearl's father. Hester looks into Dimmesdale's eyes and refuses:

“Never!” replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman. “It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!”

By staring "into the deep and troubled eyes" of Dimmesdale, Hester conveys to him a double standard he has failed to accept: keeping the adultery secret is a choice he has made, and it is a choice that has never been available to her. She can't hide the fact that she has a child when her husband has been long absent, so she chooses to bear this fact as openly as she can. In Chapter 14, a conversation between Hester and Chillingworth demonstrates once more that Hester finds honor, openness, and self-determination to be the best way to deal with pain:

“I must reveal the secret,” answered Hester, firmly. “He must discern thee in thy true character. What may be the result, I know not. But this long debt of confidence, due from me to him, whose bane and ruin I have been, shall at length be paid.["]

Hester feels that she "must" tell Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband because she owes it to him to be honest. Although she has promised both men that she will stay silent about who they are, she eventually decides that their secrets are different. Keeping Chillingworth's secret turns out to be a bridge too far for Hester because it enables him to manipulate and harm Dimmesdale. Keeping Dimmesdale's secret does not harm anyone except Dimmesdale himself. Hester cannot force Dimmesdale to choose openness, but she can choose to be open herself about what she knows that might help him. Hester's commitment to honor, openness, and everyone's right to self-determination stands in sharp relief against both men's secret-keeping and manipulation.

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Chapter 10
Explanation and Analysis—Roger and "The Black Man":

Roger Chillingworth and "The Black Man," or Satan, are foils for one another. The most direct comparison between the two of them appears in Chapter 10, when Chillingworth rips the clothing off Dimmesdale's chest to reveal what is beneath it:

With what a ghastly rapture, as it were, too mighty to be expressed only by the eye and features, and therefore bursting forth through the whole ugliness of his figure, and making itself even riotously manifest by the extravagant gestures with which he threw up his arms towards the ceiling, and stamped his foot upon the floor! Had a man seen old Roger Chillingworth, at that moment of his ecstasy, he would have had no need to ask how Satan comports himself, when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won into his kingdom.

The narrator does not describe exactly what Chillingworth sees, but the novel eventually reveals that Dimmesdale has his own scarlet A branded on his chest to match Hester's. Chillingworth is gleefully throwing his arms in the air and stamping on the floor because he has just found evidence of his long-held suspicion that Dimmesdale is Pearl's father. Dimmesdale still does not know that Chillingworth is Hester's husband, so the doctor now has a major advantage in his conflict with the pastor. Chillingworth's "moment of ecstasy," the narrator claims, mirrors the ecstasy Satan demonstrates when he lures a soul into hell. Chillingworth sees the A and knows that Dimmesdale's adultery has given him a one-way ticket to hell. Chillingworth, whose lust for revenge has long since sealed his own fate in hell, is as excited as Satan to welcome Dimmesdale.

Most of the characters in the novel are afraid of Satan, who they call "the Black Man." They avoid going into the forest because they think they might meet him there, in the dark. For instance, Mistress Hibbins, the resident witch, invites Hester to go with her to meet the Black Man in the forest. Chillingworth represents the monster that is scarier than Satan because no one knows to look out for him. Most of the townspeople are not afraid of Chillingworth immediately upon meeting him, but he delights in getting into people's heads and torturing them, just like Satan. He is even better than Satan at disguising himself in plain view, among humanity and in town. In Chapter 10, the narrator writes,

But what distinguished the physician's ecstasy from Satan's was the trait of wonder in it!

Chillingworth seems to be even more enthusiastic than Satan. Whereas it is Satan's job to tempt people to hell, Chillingworth is doing it just for the fun. In this sense, he is somehow a worse villain than Satan because he is a human who has taken it upon himself to destroy other humans' lives.

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Chapter 14
Explanation and Analysis—Hester, Arthur, and Roger:

Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth form the love triangle at the center of the novel's plot, but they also all serve as foils for one another. The narrator begins to establish Chillingworth and Dimmesdale as foils in Chapter 4, when Chillingworth visits Hester in the prison and swears her to secrecy about the fact that he is her husband:

“I will keep thy secret, as I have his,” said Hester.

“Swear it!” rejoined he.

And she took the oath.

As Hester notes here, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth have both sworn her to secrecy about their relationships to her. Despite their twin desires for secrecy, they have opposite responses to Hester's pregnancy and Pearl's birth. Chillingworth has a "chilly," inhumane streak that leads him to plot revenge in secret. He wants secrecy so that he can obsess over Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale, meanwhile, is "dim" and spineless, suffering in secret for his own sins. He wants secrecy so that he can obsess over himself. Hester's willingness to keep their secrets allows both men to destroy themselves, but in different ways. By placing these two characters side by side, the novel allows each of their flaws to stand out as they careen toward self-destruction.

Both men are in turn foils for Hester, who bears her shame and her love for Pearl openly instead of in secret. In Chapter 3, Dimmesdale tells Hester that she can lighten her punishment by revealing Pearl's father. Hester looks into Dimmesdale's eyes and refuses:

“Never!” replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman. “It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!”

By staring "into the deep and troubled eyes" of Dimmesdale, Hester conveys to him a double standard he has failed to accept: keeping the adultery secret is a choice he has made, and it is a choice that has never been available to her. She can't hide the fact that she has a child when her husband has been long absent, so she chooses to bear this fact as openly as she can. In Chapter 14, a conversation between Hester and Chillingworth demonstrates once more that Hester finds honor, openness, and self-determination to be the best way to deal with pain:

“I must reveal the secret,” answered Hester, firmly. “He must discern thee in thy true character. What may be the result, I know not. But this long debt of confidence, due from me to him, whose bane and ruin I have been, shall at length be paid.["]

Hester feels that she "must" tell Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband because she owes it to him to be honest. Although she has promised both men that she will stay silent about who they are, she eventually decides that their secrets are different. Keeping Chillingworth's secret turns out to be a bridge too far for Hester because it enables him to manipulate and harm Dimmesdale. Keeping Dimmesdale's secret does not harm anyone except Dimmesdale himself. Hester cannot force Dimmesdale to choose openness, but she can choose to be open herself about what she knows that might help him. Hester's commitment to honor, openness, and everyone's right to self-determination stands in sharp relief against both men's secret-keeping and manipulation.

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Chapter 16
Explanation and Analysis—Hester and Pearl:

Hester and Pearl are foils for one another, representing different degrees of resistance to Puritan social norms. For example, in Chapter 16, Pearl demonstrates that she thinks of herself not only as Hester's daughter but also as a little copy of her:

"I am but a child. It will not flee from me; for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”

“Nor ever will, my child, I hope,” said Hester.

“And why not, mother?” asked Pearl, stopping short, just at the beginning of her race. “Will not it come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?”

Pearl assumes that she, like Hester, will have a scarlet letter on her chest when she gets older. Her mistake is understandable given that her mother has had the scarlet letter for all of Pearl's life. Pearl has been raised in relative isolation by Hester and Hester alone, so she only has her mother as her model of an adult woman. Nor is Pearl entirely wrong that she will have a scarlet letter as an adult: she has been branded from birth by the circumstances of her existence, and people will always see her as the product of adultery.

Hester's statement that she hopes Pearl will not have her own scarlet letter when she gets older indicates that she still feels that wearing it makes her life more difficult. Hester had a lifetime of striving to conform to Puritan culture before Pearl was born. The fact that she had an affair with none other than her minister suggests that the religion was deeply important to her at one time. Hester bears her punishment and acts as though the public shame does not sting her, but the narrator reveals that she does find it painful to be branded an outsider. She does not see herself as a worse Puritan than many of her neighbors, who have also sinned. Although she makes the embroidered letter part of her image as a show of defiance, she thinks of herself as more than just an adulterer. Hester wants a better life for Pearl than she herself has had.

But to Pearl, the scarlet letter does not represent the same fall from grace as it does for Hester. Even if it is associated with sin, this does not bother Pearl. She merely sees it as the sign of a life lived to adulthood. Pearl's mistaken notion that she will one day develop a scarlet letter too allows Hester and the reader to see Pearl as the version of Hester that more successfully bucks Puritan culture. Pearl's incredible power is that she feels no shame, for herself or her mother. Whereas Hester struggles to fully free herself from the confining grasp of Puritanism, Pearl is never bound by it. At the end of the novel, the narrator suggests that she eventually went to England and married for love. In a very real sense, Pearl is the free person Hester never managed to become.

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