Expiation Of Guilt And The Scarlet Letter English Literature Essay

Although there are many differences between Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter and the film Dead Man Walking, these two works share a common theme, the necessity of the expiation of guilt in order to achieve salvation . Even though neither man is willing to repent for his respective sins for the majority of both works, the final scenes in both stories bring about a dramatic change in their attitudes toward the expiation of guilt. Arthur Dimmesdale, a Puritan minister who has had a sexual relationship with a married parishioner, and Matthew Poncilet, a convicted murderer, have to publicly confess, before their deaths, in order to achieve ultimate salvation. Despite their differences, The Scarlet Letter and Death Man Walking both discuss the theme of the expiation of guilt before death is the only pathway towards ultimate, personal redemption.

Arthur Dimmesdale is a respected and an intelligent minister in an early Puritan community. However, the “holy” minister is not exactly as holy as his parish community views him. The parish is completely unaware that he was involved in the adulterous crime of Hester Prynne, which leads to compounding guilt, which is symbolized by his outside ailing appearance. This guilt ultimately destroys his physical being and his sanity. Dimmesdale keeps his affair a secret due to his belief that, “the heart, making itself guilty of…secrets, must perforce hold them, until the day when all hidden things shall be revealed” (119). However, this concealment results in the continuing decline of his physical heath. As the novel continues, his physical health worsens as he continues to withhold his extreme feelings of guilt. He “[longs] to speak out, from his own pulpit, at the full height of his voice, and tell the people what he [is],” but is unable to confess openly to the community (130). Despite this inability, he continually tries to justify for himself, his decision not to repent until Judgment Day.

This denial is very closely reflected by that of Matthew Poncilet in Dead Man Walking. Even thought he has been convicted of the violent murder of a young man and the rape and murder of the man’s girlfriend, the viewer senses that Poncilet feels no remorse for his crime. He, like Dimmesdale, refuses to live up to his actions by his unwillingness to claim responsibility. This unwillingness is driven by a source of anger and desire for revenge directed towards the community which stem from his belief that the community treated him poorly because of his background and his poverty. This anger causes his to go as far as discussing his personal racist views in an interview. For example, he believes there is no proof of the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust; however, this in only one of a few actions he actually later regrets. Even as the execution date draws nearer, Poncilet continues to deny his involvement in the murder and rape by requesting a polygraph test to convince his mother and others of his innocence, but his denial ultimately gives way. Eventually, he begins to show signs of guilt by crying openly over his last visit, a major step in the process towards the expiation of guilt.

The expiation of guilt is a major focal point in both works which occurs shortly before their respective deaths. In the final scaffolding scene in The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale, after concluding a powerful sermon on Election Day, publicly confesses his sins of lust and adultery, while proudly displaying his “scarlet letter.” He is now able to pass away because he is finally at peace with himself and his conscience. In Dimmesdale’s case, public expiation of guilt is the only way for him to escape the vengeful interrogations of Chillingworth. Chillingworth, out of revenge, admits that “[Dimmesdale] hast escaped me!” (228). Dimmesdale’s original planns to escape to Europe, a plot foiled by Chillingworth, fail but now he is able to escape from him by going to Heaven, in ability only made possible by Dimmesdale’s confession .

Poncilet acts similarly to Dimmesdale by attempting to achieve salvation after months of denial and hatred. He begins his quest towards salvation by giving Sister Helen a confession or guilt and a graphic description of the events that transpired on that fateful night. Moments before his execution, when faced with the parents’ of the victims, he publicly admits his involvement in the crime. In addition, he apologizes and confesses to the parents of the young man and tells the parents of the young woman that he hopes they find some type of compensation in his execution. One can only imagine that he, like Dimmesdale, would achieve the same end result for his expiation of guilt, this being his admission into heaven.

There are many dissimilar elements between The Scarlet Letter and Dead Man Walking; however, the theme of the necessity for the expiation of guilt before one can receive personal salvation is a theme that links these two works. This theme is not only beneficial to the one asking forgiveness but also the healing of the victims, and a failure to do so only compounds the anger, hatred, and desire for revenge incited by the original crime.

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