Dimmesdale And Frome Essay, Research Paper
Arthur Dimmesdale of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome, the main character of Wharton’s classic Ethan Frome, though separated by over a century of time, find themselves in remarkably similar situations–a bleak existence, punctuated only be intermittent glimpses into a life that might have been. However, a difference in character leads each to ultimately confront their respective situation in opposing ways. Ironically, the one seeking a new, clean life is met by death and the one seeking a conclusive death receives, instead, a hellish life. Essentially, both Dimmesdale and Frome have weak and selfish characters, but Dimmesdale triumphs over Frome with a stronger heart and a more decisive mind in the end. Dimmesdale acquires these characteristics through a harsh penance and a lengthy repentance. Frome, however, hardly feels remorseful for his actions. Occasionally, a wisp of guilt enters into his mind, but it is driven out by defensive justifications of his actions.
Dimmesdale lives as a Puritan in 18th century Salem, Massachusetts while Frome exists in a stark austerity that symbolized the Puritan world in 20th century Starkfield, Massachusetts. An uneducated farmer, Ethan lives because he has to. There are obligations to fulfill and duties to perform, and all of this Ethan takes upon himself. But Ethan’s life matters little in Starkfield. “Most people were either indifferent to his troubles, or disposed to think it natural that a young fellow of his age should have carried without repining the burden of three crippled lives.” (Wharton 102) It seems that no one sympathizes with him in his plight. Dimmesdale is a revered minister of the Puritan town. He appears so innocent, so eloquent and so faithful, his followers proclaim him to come from God Himself. “They (the people) deemed the young clergyman a miracle of holiness. They fancied him the mouth-piece of Heaven’s messages of wisdom and rebuke, and love. In their eyes, the very ground on which he trod was sanctified.” (Hawthorne 125) As much as Dimmesdale is revered, Ethan is ignored; thus, Dimmesdale’s sinful actions would reverberate to a greater degree throughout the Puritan town. His deeds have more weight and more bearing, because he is such a respected person. However, at the same time, Ethan would be frowned upon for leaving Zenobia because of her illness(es). It would appear that Ethan was deserting his wife in her time of need. In that way, both Dimmesdale and Ethan are bound by society’s conventions. Dimmesdale may not have a personal life because he is a messenger from God and Ethan may not seek individual happiness because it is his place to care for Zeena.
Both Dimmesdale and Frome can be called weak because of their initial responses to their respective situations. Dimmesdale, after committing his sin, presses Hester to name the father of her child, half wishing she will speak the truth so he might share the punishment with her and be done with it. However, with the “wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart” (Hawthorne 63) Hester will not speak, and Dimmesdale is glad of it. He shows his weakness by selfishly allowing Hester to shoulder the blame in entirety for seven long years, and by failing to resolve the situation. He just doesn t know what to do, and turns to Hester in the later moments of his life, Think for me, Hester! Thou art strong. Resolve for me! (Hawthorne 171) Ethan Frome’s weakness lies more in his indecisiveness. He desperately want his own life but feels he will take away from the life of Zeena in order to achieve it. His ultimate sin is his attempt at suicide. As time passes, Dimmesdale musters enough courage, leading to his confession, while Ethan sinks deeper into despair, leading to his attempted suicide.
Dimmesdale’s eventual strength of character stems indirectly from the penances he performs and the fact that his sins, astonishingly and repulsively, heighten his popularity in the town. Because Dimmesdale is inherently weak, it is the hardest thing for him to confess his sins. He punishes himself to release some of his guilt by whipping himself, depriving himself of food, and keeping himself on vigils.
His inward trouble drove him to practices, more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome, than with the better light of the church in which he had been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly, because of that bitter laugh. It was his custom, too, as it has been that of many other pious Puritans, to fast–not, however, like them, in order to purify the body and render it the fitter medium of celestial illumination, –but rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance. He kept vigils likewise, night after night, sometimes in utter darkness; sometimes with a glimmering lamp; and sometimes, viewing his own face in a looking glass, by the most powerful light which he could throw upon it. He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify, himself. (Hawthorne, 126)
These methods have no improving affect on his state of mind. If nothing else, these penances increase his guilt because they are derived from old Roman practices that don’t keep with his Puritan faith. However, Dimmesdale becomes a more sympathetic minister because he can now relate to the people of “lower” morality, and consequently attains greater popularity. “But this very burden it was, that gave him sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind; so that his heart vibrated in unison with theirs, and received their pain into itself, and sent its own throb of pain through a thousand other hearts, in gushes of sad, persuasive eloquence.” (Hawthorne 124) Because his penances do not work, he realizes that the only way he is free is to either escape this town or confess all. His constant torture keeps him alert and sets an example for himself. He knows that this is not the way to live and steels himself for the moment of his confession, and consequently grows as a character.
Ethan, on the other hand, never realizes where his morals lie. He desperately wants to become strong and independent and learned, but he can’t quite seem to achieve it. Wavering between decisions, his life resembles a seesaw. At one moment he needs to be faithful to Zeena, and at the next, Mattie. Because Zeena appears so unattractive and unpleasant, Ethan doesn’t realize the wrong he is doing. In fact, he has very little understanding of anything at all throughout the novel. Confused impulses struggled in him as he strode along to the village. HE had made up his mind to do something, but he did not know what it would be. (Wharton 100) He isn’t always aware of the consequences of his actions. When things get too heavy for him, he opts for the easy way out, which also happens to be the morally wrong way out. He feels that There was no way out none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished. (Wharton 97) Ethan, for lack of better ideas, feels suicide is his only option. His attempt fails, however, and for ever after, his life seems a punishment for that one wrong decision. His penance is the rest of his life.
Remorse enters the minds of both Ethan and Dimmesdale, but for different reasons. Dimmesdale feels regretful that he tried to hide behind his holiness for so long, but Ethan feels sorry his plan didn’t work.
Dimmesdale, in accordance to his cowardly nature, never tells anyone of his secret until he realizes Chilingsworth’s ultimate plan. Dimmesdale’s plan to escape his past leaves him feeling elated and relieved. Energy, absent for so long, floods his body. When Chillingsworth proves to be a tenacious leech, gaining passage on the same ship on which Dimmesdale and Hester are planning to make their escape, Dimmesdale realizes the only way to cast off Chillingsworth is to confess. Dimmesdale feels guilty for pretending to be clean and free. He believes he is never to be forgiven by God — he’ll never be able to repent enough or feel sorry enough. He tells Hester when she hopes of a celestial meeting, The law we broke! the sin here so awfully revealed! let these alone be in thy thoughts. I fear! I fear! It maybe, that, when we forgot our God it was thenceforth vain to hop that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. (Hawthorne 222) Therefore, Dimmesdale feels guilty and sorry not because he is about to confess or because the town will find out that he is an awful sinner, but because he made any effort to conceal his sin. In other words, Dimmesdale is regretful for the right reason.
Ethan, though, can only be sorry that he is still alive. Through the novel, he doesn’t change much. He starts as a passive, melancholy young man, and when he meets Mattie, a spark of ambition from his youth reenters his body. However, it is quickly extinguished in the “smash up”. He continues to live as a “bleak” and “unapproachable” man, “so stiffened and grizzled” (Wharton 1) that he appears to be many years older than he actually is. His life is possibly made worse by the change in Mattie Silver. He now has to live with two silent, yet querulous, women.
Hester’s husband Roger Chillingsworth and Ethan’s wife Zenobia play large roles in their spouses demise. Chillingsworth preys on Dimmesdale, hoping to find out his secret and if he indeed is the father of Hester’s child. Under the influence of Chillingsworth and his doctoring, Dimmesdale grows pale and weak, but holds on fiercely to his secret. Zenobia is not so forceful upon Ethan, but still devises way to let Ethan know that she is watching, with actions such as hiding the key to the door and constantly feigning sickness. Chillingsworth influence has the opposite effect than was intended. He aims for Dimmesdale to confess only to him (Chillingsworth) or pine away without telling anyone, by which Chillingsworth would get his revenge. However, when Dimmesdale finds out that Chillingsworth is Hester’s husband and can’t be trusted, he immediately rejects the doctor’s care. Dimmesdale has his piety yet and realizes by not confessing his sin, he is playing right into Chillingsworth’s hands. With his confession, Dimmesdale thwarts Chillingsworth s plan for vengeance. Zenobia’s goal is to remain in constant control. For this, Ethan must remain alive and at home. Zenobia is successful in her plan as Ethan and Mattie are always in constant need of her after the “smash up”. Dimmesdale’s refusal to give in to Chillingsworth gives merit to his character, which was still strong and able to repel Chillingsworth s schemes to cowardice. Zenobia, however, proves too strong for Ethan.
Arthur Dimmesdale proved to be a stronger and more moral character than Ethan Frome. In both of their cases, death could be thought of as a reward. Dimmesdale experiences a relieving death, carrying him a way from the torture of his life. He most probably doesn’t know that he is going to die. Dimmesdale approaches the Election Sermon with vigor, looking forward to the new life ahead of him, but makes a last minute change in his speech when Chillingsworth announces he is leaving Salem on the same ship on which Dimmesdale will be traveling. He dies after making a clean breast of things. It is a merciful death, sparing him from the townspeople’s scornful reaction. In Ethan’s case, he is forced to live when the only thing he desires is death. He is punished for his immorality and his indecisiveness. Although slightly different in morals and nature, both Arthur Dimmesdale and Ethan Frome get exactly what they deserve, even though what they receive is nothing like what they had wished for.