“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.” Buddha spoke the truth. His words are still true today; people become the thoughts that travel through their minds, whether that is detrimental or beneficial varies on the person. This phrase is demonstrated in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Through a story of love, shame, and suffering, Nathaniel Hawthorne takes us through the journey that the body undergoes as the mind carries burdens and distress. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne proves to us that state of the body reflects the state of the mind, whether thoughts are secret or open.
Hester Prynne’s burden is worn on the outside of her body and not in her mind, thus relieving her of any physical hardships. While it is true that Hester experiences shame and isolation from society, she never experiences any physical pain or struggling. Her pain, whenever present, is completely removable because of the token she wears on her breast: the Scarlet Letter. Hester can easily remove the letter and all of her internal suffering will vanish: “The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief!…There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek…as if the gloom of the earth and sky had been the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow.” (158)
In this passage, Hester feels an enormous feeling of relief by taking off her token of shame. Since she wears her burden on the outside of her body and not internally, she can remove any feelings of remorse or mental torment. Hawthorne describes the burden “departed from her spirit,” indicating that by simply taking off the Scarlet Letter she relieves herself of all misery and completely escapes the feelings of judgment she feels from all the people of the town. Her spirit is freed, and her body echoes this feeling of freedom in the way she shows a “radiant and tender smile” which Hawthorne describes as “gushing from the heart.” He further emphasizes the point that it is the physical letter, not Hester’s mind, that is the vessel of her suffering by stating that the “gloom” had “vanished with her sorrow.” Hester experiences solely external suffering throughout the novel, mainly through humiliation and isolation from society. She is not physically affected by her sins, since the root of her suffering is not in her mind. Similar to the Scarlet Letter, Pearl is an outward embodiment of sin, clearing Hester’s mind of any distress. Pearl is a true symbol to Hester’s detachment from her suffering.
Hawthorne introduces Pearl with beautiful and near flawless qualities. “There was no physical defect. By its perfect shape, its vigor, and its natural dexterity…the infant was worthy to have been brought forth in Eden…The child had a native grace which does not invariably coexist with faultless beauty (71),” Hawthorne writes. Pearl’s “perfect shape” and “natural dexterity” provide Hester with a way to release herself of anguish. Although Pearl is the embodiment of her mother’s great sin, she is “faultless” and beautiful, strengthening the idea that Hester’s suffering is actually lessened by being physically perceivable in the world. In contrast to Hester, Chillingworth, whose evil intentions manifest themselves in his physical appearance, carries his strife and ill-will in his mind.
In the beginning of the novel, Chillingworth is described as an intelligent and peaceful-looking person, but as the plot progresses one sees his figure evolve into something much more dark: “Roger Chillingworth’s aspect had undergone a remarkable change while he had dwelt in town, and especially since his abode with Mr. Dimmesdale. At first, his expression had been calm, meditative, scholar-like. Now, there was something ugly and evil in his face…which still grew the more obvious to site, the oftener [the people of the town] looked on him. According to the vulgar idea, the fire in his laboratory had been brought from the lower regions, and was fed with internal fuel; and so…his visage was getting sooty with the smoke.” (100)
Here, Hawthorne makes it clear that Chillingworth’s intentions are surfacing on his physical appearance, and turning him into a tangible embodiment of the devil. Hawthorne describes the “ugly and evil in his face,” and that the townspeople were becoming more aware of his relatively sinful aspects. He ties Chillingworth’s “remarkable change” to his “abode with Mr. Dimmesdale,” implying that his involvement with him brought out his true motives, which were clearly evil. In the last sentence, Hawthorne incorporates images of “fire,” “internal fuel,” “sooty,” and “smoke” to enhance the image of hell and the devil that he has already put in the depths of our minds. Whereas Hester’s burdens are manifested in the physical world, Chillingworth’s evil struggle harbored in his mind and not available to the general public, yet he cannot escape the physical representation of his hidden thoughts. His outward appearance is a revealing aspect of his inward condition, drawing attention to and creating suspicion about his reasons for coming to Massachusetts.
Dimmesdale, who carries a crippling secret in his mind, deteriorates physically because of his secret guilt he harbors in his mind. Due to his strong beliefs and fulfillment to patriarchal duty, he is well revered in society and this extreme devotion is considered the root of his prevailing illness. However, Hawthorne makes it clear that his sickness does not come from his duties to God and the church: “It would be because of his own unworthiness to preform [his] humblest mission here on earth… His form grew emaciated; his voice, though still rich and sweet, had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay in it; he was often observed, on any slight alarm or other sudden accident, to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of pain.” (95)
In this quotation, Hawthorne uses specific words to portray an image of Dimmesdale’s deterioration. “Emaciated” and “decay” are both words of insufficiency, demonstrating Dimmesdale’s “decaying” mind and sense of values. His guilt has made him “melancholy,” although his voice remains “rich and sweet” as though to hide his inner emotions. Hawthorne describes how any slight alarm makes Dimmesdale put his hand over his heart, an indication of the pain. The “flush” of red preceding this action reveals a connection to the red “A” on Hester’s breast, subtly indicating the shared source of their struggle. The praise that Dimmesdale receives from society because of his gratuitous duties as a minister further embroils him in the self-loathing he has for himself. He is so consumed in his internal struggle that his body cannot function as it normally would. Similarly to Chillingworth, the secrecy of his thoughts determines his physical appearance and state of health, exposing his true self to the readers.
Though Dimmesdale and Hester share the same burden by committing a terrible sin, the way they carry that burden results in the differences of their physical states. Hester, on one hand, wears her weight for all of society to see, and she is exempt from all mental and physical suffering. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, keeps his sin a secret, making him physically ill and ultimately resulting in more suffering. Chillingworth is in a similar situation: with his true intentions remaining secret, he turns into a tangible expression of the devil. Through these three characters Hawthorne shows us that physical appearance is an accurate representation of mental states, and that no matter what drastic measures people go to hide their true feelings and intentions, their exterior will always give them away.