Monday, July 16, 2012

The Scarlet Letter and the Schemes of the Enemy

I recently re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. It was the first time I had read it since high school (and I am not even certain that I really read it in high school. This post is by no means meant to be a thorough examination of the book or even a review of it. I simply want to cherry-pick a powerful theme near the center of Hawthorn's story.
The whole idea of The Scarlet Letter has become part of our American vernacular. Hester Prynne is forced to wear an embroidered 'A' on her clothing as a result of her adultery. Her partner in crime, the reverent Dimmesdale, remains hidden because both he and Hester refuse to identify him as the father of the child born to Hester while her husband is away (and presumed to be dead).

Near the center of the book is the examination of how the two adulterers deal with the aftermath of their actions. Hester is publicly shamed and exposed, which is painful, but she is able to bear up under her suffering. Eventually she even gains the respect of many of the townspeople who at first scorned her. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale is publicly celebrated as a wonderful and sacrificial minister, while he is tormented by his internal guilt and shame. As the story plays out, Hawthorne seems to be saying that hidden shame is more destructive than public shame.
During the story, Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband, who keeps his identity hidden, finds out the truth about Dimmesdale. When he finds out the information, he chooses to exact revenge by tormenting the minister in the worst way that he can imagine. To our surprise, he does not publicly expose him. Instead, he works to keep him in the prison of his own secret guilt and shame. The plan works powerfully, as Dimmesdale finds himself physically and mentally suffering from the oppression of his secret.
As the book draws to its conclusion, Hester and Dimmesdale hatch a plan to run away and start a new life. Everything seems to be coming together and it appears that they will secure their happiness by escaping from the presence of those who magnify their guilt. But Chillingworth finds out about it and plans to join them on their secret journey. Dimmesdale despairs when he realizes that, no matter where he turns, he will be tormented by his accuser.
And that is what Chillingworth is: An accuser. He stands by, consistently reminding the reverend of his secret sin and hypocrisy. Dimmesdale can find no way to gain freedom from the satanic condemnation of this vengeful man.
Chillingworth comes to embody Satan, the accuser of humanity. And it is interesting to see the accuser bring private condemnation, while, at the same time, seeking to keep his victim from being publicly exposed.
In the powerful conclusion to the story, Dimmesdale finally reveals his shame and publicly confesses his sin. He confesses on the scaffold, where Hester previously experiences public shame. When Chillingworth sees that the reverend is about to confess, here is what he says:
"Hadst thou sought the whole earth over, there was no one place so secret--so high nor lowly place, where thou couldst escape me--save on this very scaffold."
And when Dimmesdale finishes his confession, Hawthorne writes this:
Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed. "Thou hast escaped me!" he repeated more than once. "Thou hast escaped me!"
Dimmesdale could only escape his accuser by confessing his sin and, thus, breaking the power of his accuser. Hawthorne goes on to tell us that Chillingworth was so sapped of power that he died within the year.
Throughout the book it is haunting to watch both the mercenary nature and the cunning strategy of Chillingworth, the accuser. In Ephesians 6 and 2 Corinthians 10, the Apostle Paul speaks about our enemy, the devil, having schemes. He has strategies. He is both cunning and mercenary in his quest to kill and steal and destroy (John 10:9-10).
And, which would the accuser rather have? For our embarrassing sins to be publicly exposed, or for us to successfully keep them secret and have only to deal with inner shame? Both the Bible and our personal experience would lead us to believe that he wants the latter. He wants to keep us imprisoned by our secret sins. Then he can condemn us privately, while bringing extra condemnation for our hypocrisy while we seem to get off the hook, without public consequences.
But Satan's power is broken when we confess not only to God, but to one another. As long as it is private, his power to condemn is magnified. When our sin is exposed, his ability to bring shame and fear have all but been exhausted. This must be the reason why Scripture not only calls us to confess our sins to God (1 John 1:9-10), but also to one another (James 5:16).
We are afraid to do this. It seems like things will get worse if we talk to a brother or sister in Christ about our shameful struggles and failures. Instead, the enemy of our souls, the accuser, will only be left to repeat the defeated words of Chillingworth, "Thou hast escaped me! Thou hast escaped me!"

1 comment:

  1. Reminds me of the Screwtape Letters, where he talks about the man hiding his problem instead of sharing it with others.

    P.S. Why are the three paragraphs whited out?