A great deal of blood has been shed and many wars have been fought during the history of civilization; however, man's greatest battle and most formidable enemy is only himself. This has been made only more evident with the passage of time and the development of the human character. However, one factor that has remained constant in the human character through this development is conscience. Conscience can be man's saving grace or his damning affliction; its presence may simultaneously purify and mar. As contradictory as this may sound, it has been explored in depth by Nathaniel Hawthorne who chronicles one man's battle against himself in The Scarlet Letter. In this novel, an anguished Arthur Dimmesdale struggles to pacify his conscience and withhold the secret of his sin from being known. As his conscience continues to consume all that is his very essence, Arthur Dimmesdale illustrates Hawthorne's theme of a sin-stained conscience and redemption only through truth. The novel begins to delve into the heart and conscience of Arthur Dimmesdale when Roger Chillingworth questions him about his thoughts on sinners and their secrets. Feeling full well the torment of his own secret, Arthur proclaims that those who hold such "miserable secretswill yield them up that last daywith a joy unutterable." By this expression, Arthur offers a glimpse into his tortured heart and shows how heavy a burden his secret is. When Chillingworth further inquires about such sinful secrets, Arthur holds his hand to his breast, a motion that he carries out as "if afflicted with an importunate throb of pain." Evidently Arthur does this frequently, and the reader is presented with the thought that this gesture possibly is not done as much out of physical suffering as spiritual suffering. Not only is the health of Arthur's body in question, but the condition of his heart, his soul, is dubious. A supernatural light is later shed upon this question as Chillingworth uncovers the secret Arthur had tried to keep intact. It is visible to him as he pulls aside Arthur's ministerial robe: a scarlet letter A upon his chest. Although Hawthorne lets this aspect of the novel remain ambiguous, this engraving on Arthur's chest suggests that the burden of his sin had seeped so deeply within him, it has now forced its way outside; it is at all his levels. At this point in the novel, Arthur's sin had begun, if it had not already succeeded, in consuming him. Arthur's conscience was now stained with sin, and its weight will soon become too much to bear. As the story continues within the next few years, Arthur begins his progressive moral devolution and self-hatred. He despises the hypocrisy of such a vile scoundrel as himself preaching from behind the pulpit, yet can never bring himself to admit his corruption before his congregation. From this undesirable spiritual weight he seeks freedom. He had striven to find forgiveness in admitting his guilt at the pulpit, but he ended up only feeling more shamed when the masses viewed his confessions as only more proof of his saintliness. His inner turmoil led him to find other methods of penance: the scourge, fasting, and vigils. Arthur would whip his shoulders senselessly, fast rigorously to the point of where his knees trembled, and sit in either the darkness, the light of a single lamp, or in a mirror on the occasion of a night. On one such night, Arthur found temporary solace. The guilt of seven years caused him to steal swiftly to the scaffold, the same scaffold Hester Prynne was publicly shamed years ago - the same scaffold he should have been on. Climbing atop this structure and later being joined by Pearl and Hester, an electrical charge pulsed through his body and he was reawakened. However, he still refused to admit his crime in front of the town, and when he returned to the trappings of society, he was greeted again by his familiar hypocrisy. These acts of penance failed in purifying him, and only caused him to lapse further in his distortion of the world and its realities. Finally, when the book reaches its climax, Arthur succeeds in winning back the spirit that he had lost years before, and he prepares to tell his congregation of his horrible crime. With his last steps, he ascends the scaffold and completes something he feels he should have completed seven years earlier: he accepts his sin, he accepts Hester, and he accepts Pearl. He reveals to the world his humanity and in so doing, forgives himself and is himself forgiven. His conscience and the truth, which had been agonizing him before has purified him, and he is free to achieve the peace he was in search of. Arthur's embrace of his conscience and truth, as well as of the traits of the human character, lead to this and decisive victory in the battle against himself. In the novel, Arthur Dimmesdale proved to be an effective character in illustrating the theme of conscience and redemption through truth. Through Arthur's change from merely feeling the pains of his human weakness while being interviewed, to his attempts at relieving his pain through scourging, fasting, and vigils, to his ultimate acceptance of the truth at the final scaffold scene, Nathaniel Hawthorne succeeds in showing that redemption can be achieved through truth alone; complete atonement comes only with complete truth. This is universal - for all men - who possibly will, through the truth, finally conquer themselves.
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