In the Scarlet Letter, uses many devices to enhance the quality of the novel’s plot and story line. One of these devices is the creative use of physiognomy to better establish the depiction and conflict within each of the characters.
Hawthorne’s use of physiognomy serves to create a physical image that also illustrates a character’s feelings or mental state as a result of the things they have been met with. In the story’s incipient stage, Hester Prynne, the story’s protagonist, was portrayed as wearing colorful, sinful garments, and along with her scarlet A, these things represented her sin of adultery quite obviously.
Now, seven years later, Hester has long since repented of her sins and suffered publicly for them, and even overcome her afflictions that came from them. As her conflict and personal situation has changed, so has her description. She is now described as having a much more austere wardrobe and having cut off her rich, luxurious hair.
As she has forgotten any desire to commit her awful sin, she also lost her brazen personality. In direct relation to the fall of Hester is the gradual demise of her fellow sinner Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale finds that he cannot seem to admit to his sin, lest he loses his credibility and become known as a hypocrite.
So instead of liberating himself by confessing and suffering the consequences of his sin, he emaciates himself by the guilt of his sin. Fasting, conducting vigils, and scourging himself are only the intentional and physical things that happen to Dimmesdale as a result of him not confessing his sin. He also suffers mentally and especially spiritually from his unconfessed sin and the remorse that he acquires with that.
In addition to the sufferings and triumphs of Dimmesdale and Hester, the reader also sees the effects their sins are having on one other individual, emotionally and physically.
This individual is Roger Chillingworth who we have already learned is Hester’s husband who should have come with her to the New World but was late, and when he finally arrived, he found Hester on the scaffold being patronized for the sin that directly betrayed their sacred bond. Chillingworth goes from a calm, quiet, studious, old man with great knowledge and good judgment to someone who the townspeople say may even be an agent of the devil.
The author says that Chillingworth’s kind demeanor has turned into one of ferocity and guardedness, his usually sweet smile has become one of falsity and quiet revenge, his eyes took on a glare of red light as if his soul were on fire. Although each of these descriptions has merely reinforced the ideas already put in place by other means of characterization about each character, the reader can surely say that through his use of physiognomy, Hawthorne has made clear the effects of an individual’s thoughts, actions, and feelings have on his person.
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