Interpreting Morality in The Scarlet Letter

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In Hidden in plain sight: The Scarlet Letter and American Legibility, Gilmore argues that the fates of characters in The Scarlet Letter follow directly from their decisions to keep or not to keep secrets. He cites Hester’s psychic liberation as a reward for her open admission and acceptance of her adulterous affair. In contrast, he notes that Dimmesdale is incapacitated by the guilt and self-loathing that follows from his reticence and secrecy. Gilmore surmises from these interpretations of the characters’ choices and consequences that Hawthorne disapproves of concealing one’s secrets. However, Gilmore fails to sufficiently analyze the motivations behind the secrets that these characters hold. By missing these motivations, Gilmore overlooks Hawthorne’s actual goal: to judge his characters based on the motivations underlying their actions. While Hester is forced to reveal herself as an adulterer, Gilmore’s analysis ignores her choice to selflessly keep Dimmesdale’s identity a secret in order to protect him. Not only must she live “[with] this burning shame [of the scarlet letter]… upon [her] bosom,” (52) but also she must endure alone the trial of living in disgrace. In fact, she chooses to do so. With Hester upon the scaffold, Dimmesdale offers her a chance to help herself, saying, "If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner… and thy repentance, may avail to take the scarlet letter off thy breast" (49). Hester rejects the offer resolutely. “Never!… It is too deeply branded… and would that I might endure this agony, as well as mine!” (49). Hester generously chooses to protect Dimmesdale’s identity and consequently his public image, at the expense of her own. The seven years of punishment Hester endures also destroy her
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