O was one of the top 1-3 students in the class. Quiet in class, she did her talking on the discussion board. Several times her work was chosen "best post" by the class. A science major, she wrote compact, precise posts always based on an obviously deep familiarity with the text. She did significant homework in preparation for posts that she carefully honed, almost into a formula. Now T was another story, a bit of a mystery. He seemed older than the rest of the class, acted somewhat aloof, and kept his distance mostly. It was hard to get to know him, for he never seemed to commit himself to issues. He never appeared visibly very involved, and I wondered if he was actively disappointed in the class, for he kind of complained in an early survey that I was spending more time on the student discussion board than on the classic texts. I thought of T as a "sleeper," a person with more potential than was being tapped. I paired him with a top student to see what would happen.
STUDENT WORK (8): "THE REALITY OF SIN"
Serve: Student O -- "The Reality of Sin"
As mentioned in class, this novel really shows the effects of sin on human lives. While Hester and Dimmesdale essentially commit the same sin, the way in which that sin affects their lives is very different. Everyone in the community knows Hester’s sin, and she lives each day wearing the scarlet letter where everyone can see it and be reminded of her sin. Still, Hester adapts her life to incorporate her sin. Her sin becomes part of her identity. On the other hand, Dimmesdale lives each day trying to hide his sin and trying to maintain his status in the community. His scarlet letter is hidden from everyone. Dimmesdale struggles to retain his identity despite his sin. In addition, the community imposes the punishment for Hester’s sin while Dimmesdale’s suffering is really self-imposed. While both characters suffer in distinct ways, who do you think suffers more as a result of his/her sin, Hester or Dimmesdale? Is Hawthorne trying to show us that one way of dealing with sin is better than the other, or what do you think Hawthorne is trying to tell us through the suffering of these characters? Any other thoughts on the effects of sin or the effect of their sin on Hester and Dimmesdale in particular?
Return: Student T
It seems as though Dimmsdale has a much more difficult time dealing with his particpation in thier sin. I remember hearing one time that the anticipation of pain is much worse than the pain itself. Hester is not waiting for her punishment to begin, she is living it every day, while Dimmesdale is torturing himself in anticipation of his sin being exposed. When I was a little kid, I was riding my rollerblades in the house after I was told specifically not to. In the process of having a great time tearing around my house at a hundred miles an hour, I put a hole in the wall with my skate. As I'm sure you can imagine, the horror of my parents finding out consumed me. I still remember the weight I felt before they found out. However, after they did find out, (becuase they ALWAYS do) I was able to continue on. Even though they did find out about the hole and were disappointed in me, I could start moving past the incident. However, I was only able to move past the event after it had been recognized and dealt with openly. I guess it's somewhat contridictory thinking that you feel better when you finally get caught. I think Dimmesadale is in a very similar position. He is waiting for his burden to be lifted, but the only way for this to happen is if he can admit his guilt. Hester has been able to move past the event and continue on with her life. Dimmesdale is stuck in constant uncertainty. It seems as though he is going mad because he cannot move past the event until it is publicly recognized.
I have been thinking about the treatment of Dimmesdale and Hester if they had both been exposed at the same time. If the community found out simultaneously that Dimmesdale and Hester sinned, how do you think they would have been treated. Specifically, do you think that Dimmesdale would have been treated less harshly because he was a man, regardless of the fact that he was a respected religious leader? I think it is unquestionable that men and women are treated differently today about their sexual activity, but what about during the time of Hester and Dimmesdale?
Fielding the Return: Student O
I also thought that Dimmesdale’s suffering was worse than Hester’s, and I like how you say “that the anticipation of pain is much worse than the pain itself.” I think that really sums up the difference in their suffering. I also think it’s important to mention two other significant factors that I think really increased Dimmesdale’s suffering, and those would be the role of Chillingworth and the community’s view of him as a great and holy religious leader. Chillingworth’s constant desire for revenge fuels his own life as it depletes Dimmesdale’s and increases his suffering. The community increases Dimmesdale’s suffering in that they refuse to believe that he could sin. He tries to free himself of his burden only to have that make the people more in awe of him. That actually leads me to the question you raise of how Hester and Dimmesdale would have been treated if their sin had been exposed at the same time. I do think that Dimmesdale would have been treated less harshly because he is a man but also because of his status as a respected religious leader (even though you say regardless of this). I agree “that men and women are treated differently today about their sexual activity,” and I think that the same was probably true then. It seems to me like the virtuousness of women has always been more strongly considered than that of men. In regard to Dimmesdale’s religious status in the society, I think that the people might have treated him the same as when he tried to reveal his sin. I think they would believe that Hester corrupted him and that he is more holy for revealing his sin. What are your thoughts on how they would have been treated? Do you think it would have been better for Hester to admit the name of her fellow sinner? Would it have been better for Dimmesdale if he had confessed in the beginning? Would sharing the sin publicly have made their individual sufferings at all less?
Volley1: Student T
You make the point that Dimmesdale tried to expose his sin to no avail. The people would not believe that their holy leader had sinned so horribly. Dimmesdale was not specifically stating what his sin was and who he sinned with. I think it would have been much more difficult for community to look the other way and hold their beloved leader on an even higher pedestal if he explicitly stated what his sins were, leaving no room for interpretation. Dimmesdale said he was trying to confess to his parishioners, but was he really? You also raised the issue of Dimmesdale's treatment had be been exposed at the time Hester was. One way to look at the situation is to suggest that Dimmesdale would be treated more harshly than Hester. Dimmesdale violated and offended his followers, and they might resent him for this. The community put him in a position of influence and leadership, and he failed them. There was a sacred trust placed in Dimmesdale that he ruined. The molestation scandals in the church today are a modern day example of this situaion. Priests are loathed even more than common pedifiles. It's bad enough for an everyday sicko to harm children, but for a priest to do it is incomprehensible.
I have been thinking about how easily the Puritans were goaded into doing or accepting things. Their society shows what life is like if there is an ultra-importance placed on other people's opinions, especially the opinions of leaders. In their society it seemed as though many things were accepted without anyone deciding on their own if it was right or wrong. As bad as the movie was, the scene where the crowd decided to hang Dimmesdale instead of Hester illustrates this point. Chillingworth starts chanting to hang him, and the crowd brainlessly follows along. I guess it showed the absurdity of mob rule, but it seemed as though a certain form of mob rule pervaded their society. The Scarlet Letter highlighted the importance of individuality and independent thought.
Volley2: Student O
You bring up an interesting point when you compare how Dimmesdale might be treated for his sin by comparing it to the treatment of modern day priests for their wrongdoings. I guess I hadn’t really thought about the fact that Dimmesdale never did really admit to his sin even though he tried to tell the community that he was a sinner, and I think that does make a difference in how the community would treat him. You then bring up the idea of the Puritan society following “a certain form of mob rule,” and I think this goes along with the Puritans’ treatment of sinners. While adultery is considered a sin, it seems to me like the Puritans used sin almost like an excuse to stop individuality and free thought in their society. People who sinned weren’t following the beliefs of the leaders or the society in general and therefore they needed to be punished. The Scarlet Letter definitely “highlighted the importance of individuality and independent thought.” Hester’s actions show her desire to determine her own identity rather than have the society determine it for her. She adapts her sin to her life and creates her own identity in the society. While Hester is punished for her sin and for really acting out of her free will, I think the novel is showing the strength and personal growth that can come from acting against the “mob rule.” It seems to be saying that people need to create their own identity instead of simply following the one assigned to them by society.
Volley3: Student T
I agree with your point about people needing to create their own identity. It's much easier to follow the one society gives them, but ulitimately I think it is much less fulfilling. However, one thing I don't totally agree with is your comment that "People who sinned weren’t following the beliefs of the leaders or the society in general and therefore they needed to be punished." Hester and Dimmesdale also seemed to agree wiith the fact that what they did was wrong. Neither would have put themselves through the mental anguish they endured if they didn't think they sinned. If Hester didn't think she sinned, she probably would have just fled the community to aviod the unwarranted persecution. What do you think?
A lot of good things to say about this interchange, which, note, goes one step further than required. O gets things off to a good start with one of her model serves. She announces that the question at hand will deal with the different ways that sin affect Hester and Dimmesdale. She then frames the issue with a beautifully compact four or five point comparison and contrast of the two characters. After which she lays out three specific questions for T to focus on: "who do you think suffers more as a result of his/her sin, Hester or Dimmesdale? Is Hawthorne trying to show us that one way of dealing with sin is better than the other, or what do you think Hawthorne is trying to tell us through the suffering of these characters?" That's as delicious a serve delivery as you'll ever see.
T's return is as direct as you could hope for as well. He announces in the first sentence that he sides with Dimmesdale in the suffering contest, and at the core of the substantial support for his position is an anecdote at once personal and universal that is very easy to identify with. As if "that settles that" and O's initial question is answered, though, T builds on that train of thought and fashions a question in turn for O: "If the community found out simultaneously that Dimmesdale and Hester sinned, how do you think they would have been treated." That question not only flows organically from the first one -- O even says she was thinking about that scenario too -- but it's an interesting one.
Fielding T's return, O concurs with T's choice of Dimmesdale as the lead sufferer but has the savvy not to simply dead-end that thread but to enhance their joint position by adding "two other significant factors" that support it. She gives T more things to think about and provides more comprehensive support, this time from the text, as a complement to T's personal example. Good stuff! In regard to T's question about simultaneous exposure, O takes the position that Dimmesdale would have been treated less harshly, supports her position, and then does not simply turn to T for his opinion but, again with great savvy, gives him several other questions to consider as he offers his opinion: "Do you think it would have been better for Hester to admit the name of her fellow sinner? Would it have been better for Dimmesdale if he had confessed in the beginning? Would sharing the sin publicly have made their individual sufferings at all less?" O, then, is not interested in only T's flat opinion, but she is pushing the envelope to open up as many related dimensions as possible.
To keep things interesting T disagrees with O in his volley1, speculating that Dimmesdale would have been treated more harshly, again bringing in a strong analogy from outside the novel to support his view. Following the same pattern as O, T goes on to raise a new issue in his volley1, that of mob rule in the Puritan society. In volley2 O concedes agreement to T's position on Dimmesdale's potentially harder treatment, though this time she does not enhance it but moves right into elaborating perceptively on T's mob rule thread and taking it to a very telling conclusion about how it positively affected Hester's identity. Wonderfully, in the non-required sixth step in the interchange, T parses O's position exquisitely, calling attention to the fact that, at least on some level, Hester and Dimmesdale both recognize the Puritan authority. "What do you think" of that, ends T, as if, just as I see these interchanges in my dreams, the conversation has an ongoing rhythm, and indeed I would have liked to see O's response, for T's point is delightfully tricky.
In any event, this is a very strong interchange. Two engaged discussants. Each, in turn, raising significant questions for the other; each, in turn, agreeing and disagreeing with solid support for their positions; both committed to prolonging high-level conversation and adept at doing so.