The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Tools of Characterization
Hawthorne is fascinated by the relationship of the individual and community to sin. His characters struggle with archetypical ideas and situations that any of us might encounter: to cheat or not to cheat? to join a community or remain an outsider? to confess or keep a secret?
Thanks to this approach, our narrator tends to be straightforward with his characterization, informing us outright about their good traits and their bad traits. He likes to describe their attributes rather than relying on dialogue or action to convey their personalities and desires, like this moment when Chillingworth recognizes Hester on the pillory:
At his arrival in the market-place, and some time before she saw him, the stranger had bent his eyes on Hester Prynne. It was carelessly at first, like a man chiefly accustomed to look inward, and to whom external matters are of little value and import, unless they bear relation to something within his mind. Very soon, however, his look became keen and penetrative. A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions in open sight. His face darkened with some powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an effort of his will, that, save at a single moment, its expression might have passed for calmness. After a brief space, the convulsion grew almost imperceptible, and finally subsided into the depths of his nature. (3.3)
Here, we get a little insight into Dimmesdale's character—and we get to see exactly what happens to him at the moment he realizes that his wife is the one being publically shamed.
In early American Puritan society, every person has a specific job and role in the community. There are no artists, writers, dreamers, or poets; everyone is expected to contribute to the productivity and efficiency of the community. Let's examine our characters:
Hester becomes a seamstress, supplying government officials and most of the town with ornate, beautifully crafted garments. Some are horrified and others amazed when they see for the first time the scarlet A she has embroidered for herself. The mastery of the stitching and detail reveals her to be an artist, even though she has to work for a living. In her role as town seamstress, Hester shows imagination and creativity —qualities that her fellow townspeople don't value or cultivate in themselves.
Arthur Dimmesdale is a man of God and a spiritual leader of the townspeople, revered by all for the passionate way in which he delivers his sermons, and people look to him as their moral compass. In the eyes of the town, he serves his role in society beautifully. But we know that it's a lie. In the eyes of the community, Dimmesdale is the moral opposite of Hester Prynne, but in reality, he has sinned greatly. Occupation tells us nothing about character.
And there there's Roger Chillingworth, whose medical school and residency seem to have consisted of a few months being held captive by the American Indians—which seems basically equivalent to us saying we're doctors because we've seen every episode of House. Like Dimmesdale's, Chillingworth's occupation conceals a secret: he both heals and harms.