Trace the development (or lack) of one of the major characters in the story, from beginning to end.
From the opening of The Scarlet Letter, when Hester Prynne stands alone on a scaffold, condemned by the Salem community, until the end when she stands with Arthur and Pearl on that same scaffold, Hester is a remarkably strong character. Unlike Arthur Dimmesdale, her partner in sin, who appears strong initially but weakens throughout the story, Hester grows even stronger as the story progresses. Hawthorne's early descriptions of Hester are of her physical beauty: she is . . . tall, with a figure of perfect elegance," with "dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine . . ." (Hawthorne, 1334). Within Hester's proud, haughty bearing when we are first see her, we also glimpse traces of her rebellion and impetuousness (some of which become evident in Pearl), which, as her strength and seriousness increase, vanish by the end of the story.
One of the clearest examples of Hester's increased strength can be seen in Chapter VII, "The Governor's Hall," to which Hester must go when Pearl is three years old, to defend her custody of Pearl. Here, Hester alludes, to Governor Bellingham, to the strength that her having to wear the scarlet letter, with all it symbolizes, brings her in raising Pearl: "this badge hath taught me, -- it daily teaches me, -- it is teaching me at this moment, -- lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better" (1365). It is that same strength that causes Hester to forcefully declare to the Governor a few minutes later, "I will not give her up!" (1366).
Hester grows not only in strength, but in compassion. Despite her status as an outcast, and her persecution by others, she finds it in her heart to minister to those in need: "Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one" (1393). As Hawthorne explains, ". . . her life had turned, in a great measure, from passion and feeling, to thought" (1394). Hester's deepening compassion extends to the ever-weakening Arthur, whom she encourages, when they are alone in the forest together, to flee Salem, even without her, and make a new start for himself, in London, Germany, France, or Italy. At the end, it is not Hester's despair (for she is strong enough to continue to bear her burden alone, as she has done throughout the story) but his own wretchedness that causes Arthur to confess his own sin to his parishioners. Long after Arthur has confessed publicly to his congregation and died on the scaffold, Hester lives on in Salem, alone, solemn, and ascetic, yet revered in her old age by the same community that scorned her earlier. As Hester grows in wisdom and fortitude, her strength and compassion outlast Salem's condemnation of her sin.
2. What does Dimmesdale mean when he says "Is this not better than what we dreamed of in the forest"?
In Chapter XVII, "The Pastor and His Parishioner," when Hester and Arthur sit alone in the forest together, and Arthur expresses despair that Roger Chillingworth (who continues to live with Arthur, knows of Arthur's and Hester's secret) Hester suggests to Arthur that he leave Salem and make a fresh start elsewhere. But Arthur quickly refuses: "It cannot be', answered the minister, listening as if he were called upon to realize a dream" [emphasis added] (Hawthorne, 1412). Near the end of the story, as they stand together with Pearl on the scaffold, Arthur inquires of Hester, "Is this not better than what we dreamed of in the forest?" (1442), He refers here to Hester's earlier suggestion to him in the forest to leave Salem, and perhaps even to his own (short-lived) reverie of doing so. Arthur, however, would have considered flight from Salem out of the question. He believes it his duty to his congregation to stay, and that it his destiny to suffer, day by day, from his earlier sinfulness.
To Arthur then, his public confession to his assembled congregation in Chapter XXIII as he stands, near death, on the scaffold, Hester and Pearl at his side, is indeed "better than what we dreamed of in the forest." For that confession represents, at least to him, the opportunity to possibly redeem himself in the eyes of Hester, Pearl, his parishioners, and, most importantly, perhaps in the eyes of God.
But Hester's answer to Arthur's question, "I know not! I know not! . . . Better? Yea; so we may both die, and little Pearl die with us!'" (1442) indicates that Hester's own thoughts are on the here and now, particularly the earthly survival, happiness, and welfare of their child and themselves. Hester, for her own part, has grown stronger with the passage of time, while the passage of time, combined with his feelings of guilt and Chillingworth's scrutiny, has weakened Arthur, now to the point of death. Still, Arthur believes, confession of the sort he how offers is better than his fantasy, however fleeting, of running away. Hester, however, disagrees.
3. Argue whether Dimmesdale does or does not redeem himself by the end of the Scarlet Letter.
Rather or not Arthur Dimmesdale redeems himself at the end of The Scarlet Letter is open to interpretation, but it is my opinion that he does not redeem himself. In order to redeem oneself, one must not only confess one's mistakes or sins, but make amends as well. However, since Arthur Dimmesdale dies almost immediately after his confession, he has no opportunity to redeem himself.
Hester's forceful suggestion to Arthur in Chapter XVI, as they sit together in the forest, with Arthur in deep despair: "Preach! Write! Act! Do anything, save to lie down and die!" (Hawthorne, 1413), had Arthur taken it, might have offered him the opportunity to redeem himself by balancing past sins against future good works. Instead, however, Arthur remains paralyzed by the feelings of guilt that his sin, the secrecy of that sin, and Hester's and Pearl's subsequent suffering from that sin causes himself and them. Therefore, Arthur is unable to act constructive for himself or them. Arthur clings to the belief, however, even up to the moment of his death, that his earthly agony is the only condition of possibility for his redemption in the afterlife. As he dies, he gasps,
God knows; and He is merciful! . . . By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people!
Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be his name! His
Will be done! Farewell! (1444)
Arthur's death, instead of redeeming him, merely leaves a greater hole in the lives of Hester, pearl, and his parishioners, all of whom must now carry on without him. Even Roger Chillingworth grows bereft; after Arthur dies Chillingworth literally withers up and shrivels away. It is not clear, then, that Arthur's confession and subsequent death redeems him, since neither the confession nor the death benefits anyone except possibly Arthur, in that he is relieved of his earthly suffering.
4. How does Hester act in accordance with the Emersonian tenet:" nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of her own mind."
Emerson's tenet has to do with being true to oneself, and Hester's life in Salem, as depicted by Hawthorne, is an excellent example of that tenet in operation. Hester has no choice but to act in accordance with that tenet, since in the absence of friends, family (except for Pearl), outside encouragement, and social support, the "integrity of…