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The Scarlet Letter | Character Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2960 words Published: 17th May 2017

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Dimmesdale is the main male character in the world famous novel The Scarlet Letter, which is the masterpiece of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although Dimmesdale commits adultery, it is not until the final part of the novel that he confesses his crime. From the time he commits adultery to the time he confesses his crime, everyday, he is tortured mentally. The conflicts of superego and id are best manifested in Dimmesdale. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the psychological situation of Arthur Dimmesdale based on Freud’s psychological theory, especially the theory of id, ego and superego.

Illustration of Id, Ego and Superego

Freud is a famous psychologist, whose theory of psychology is a great contribution to the analysis of literature. [1] According to Freud, the mental processes can be assigned to three psychic zones: the id, the ego, and the superego.

The id as defined by Freud is identical in many respects to the Devil as defined by theologians. Consequently, it is can be seen from this definition that the id is as dark as Devil. It is the dark aspect of human nature that cannot be touched by others. What is the id? Id, in short, is what people want. It is people’s desire of all kinds-desire for power, for sex, for amusement, for good. But this is only one aspect of id. Every one wants these things. There is no one in the world who does not want power, sex or amusement. So it can be said that id is in the human nature. Another aspect of id is that it is characterized by a tremendous and amorphous order. Its order is to satisfy its desire, without an eye to the consequences. In other words, id is lawless, asocial and amoral. Its function is to gratify our instincts for pleasure without regard for social conventions, legal rules, or moral restraint. [2] If one only wants to satisfy his or her impulses for pleasures, disregarding social rules and moral criteria, he or she will come to his or her self-deconstruction or do harm to other people, even the society.

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As it is stated above, id has dangerous potentialities. Consequently, there must be something that can prevent the id from doing dangerous things. In the book: A handbook of Critical Approaches in Literature, which is written by John K. Willingham, it is written that ” in view of the id’s dangerous potentialities, it is necessary that other psychic agencies protect the individual and society. The first of these regulating agencies which protects the individual is the ego. This is the rational governing agent of the psyche. It regulates the instinctual drives of the id so that they may be releases in nondestructive behavioral patterns. In popular language, we may say that the ego stands for reason and circumspection, while the id stands for the untamed passions. Whereas the id is governed solely by the pleasure principle, the ego is governed by the reality principle. [3] While id is the dark aspect of human being’s personality, ego is the rational, logical, waking part of the wind.

As above has mentioned, ego is one of these regulating agencies that protect the individual and society, there is another psychic agency, superego. While ego is the rational, logical, waking part of the mind of each person, superego is the cultural taboos, such as social rules and moral criteria. In the book, A handbook of Critical Approaches in Literature, John K. Willingham also mentions that: “The superego serves to repress or inhibit the drives of the id, to block off and thrust back into the unconscious those impulses toward pleasure that society regards as unacceptable, such as overt aggression, sexual passions, and the Oedipal instinct. Freud attributes the development of the superego to the parental influence that manifests itself in terms of punishment for what society considers being bad behavior and reward for what society considers good behavior. An overactive superego creates an unconscious sense of guilt” [4] . If one only follows social taboos and neglects his or her own feeling and desire, probably he or she becomes a machine which is runned by rules.

Thus, the superego is in direct opposition to the id. The superego determines which desire the id contains can be fulfilled. And the ego, or the conscious self that experience the external world through the senses, between id and superego, and all three are defined by their relationship; no acts independently of the others; a change in one always involves changes in the other two. Then if can be concluded that the ego is the balance between the id and the superego. In this way, the ego is, to a large degree, the product of conflicts between what the society says we cannot have and what we want to have.

â…¢. Historical Background

As superego is what the society says, historical background must be introduced so that a better understanding of the mental struggle of Dimmesdale can be achieved. Puritans came to New England to practice their religion, which is their chief incentive when they came to the new world. In this new world, they established a small civilized community out of the wilderness. At the beginning, they had to fight against nature; here the nature refers to the environment that had not been intruded by human being, in order to live. But later, they combated human nature—suppressing natural joys and pleasure, negating all passion, which they considered as wilderness. Puritans pretended that their own civilization had not and should not have any of the elements of the wilderness in it. They are, in fact, the enemies of nature and pretend to embody everything that is the opposite of the wilderness and nature. They focus on society and civilization extremely. All that they embrace is part of civilization: the church, religious education, intellect rather than emotion; rigid forms and rules rather than freedom. [5] Because Puritans believe that God will punish the whole community if only one member of the community did bad behavior. So that is why Puritans are so aggressive in punishing moral infraction.

â…£. Conflicts manifested in Dimmesdale

As has mentioned above, the id is people’s desire of all kinds, such as the sexual desire, passion and ambition. All these three are possessed by Dimmesdale. Although these are in the nature of human being, they are considered as wilderness and suppressed by the Puritans’ society. Dimmesdale, in the eyes of local governors, his colleagues and the country members, is a holy minister. But first of all, he is a human being and a healthy young man, thus he possesses sexual desire, passion and ambition which is suppressed by the society. Dimmesdale is in a dilemma, on one hand, his id orders him to fulfill his pleasure, disregarding the social rules and moral criteria; on the other hand, his consciousness, reason and morality prevents him from doing bad things. Consequently, Dimmesdale is always in conflicts which can be explained by many examples in the novel.

As stated above, the id is our desire of all kind such as sexual desire, which is in the nature of human being. But the sexual passion is repressed by the superego. The scarlet letter A stands for adultery, which is the result from sexual passion of Hester and Dimmesdale. Thus, Dimmesdale does have. In order to satisfy his sexual desire, he slept with a woman who is already married to someone else. As it is said before, the Puritan society established cruel punishment for these who had committed crime and the punishment for adultery in that time was death sentence. If a woman commits adultery, one can easily see from her physical form. For example, people can easily see that Hester has slept with other man because of the absence of her husband, in that she gave birth to a child. Consequently, she is punished by the society. Dimmesdale is a man, one can not tell whether he has committed adultery or not from his physical form. But does this mean that he is free from the social laws? No. Superego manifests itself in punishment. Also, an overactive superego creates guilty feeling. Although Dimmesdale by concealing his secret isn’t punished, everyday he is tortured by his guilty feeling. The guilty feeling manifests itself in the physical decline of Dimmesdale: “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.” [6] In Hawthorne’s point of view: “evil educated”. The adultery committed by Dimmesdale is evil, because it not only breaks the law but also the moral ethics. Dimmesdale learns from the evil. And afterwards he obeys social rules. This can be explained by one example, that is when he returns from the forest where he and Hester held a long talk, he meets “the youngest sister of them all. It was a maiden newly-won-and won by the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale’s own sermon, on the Sabbath after his vigil-to barter the transitory pleasures of the world for the heavenly hope that was to assume brighter substance as life grew dark around her, and which would gild the utter gloom with final glory. She was fair and pure as a lily that had bloomed in Paradise. The minister knew well that he was himself enshrined within the stainless sanctity of her heart, which hung its snowy curtains about his image, imparting to religion the warmth of love, and to love a religious purity. Satan, that afternoon, had surely led the poor young girl away from her mother’s side, and thrown her into the pathway of this sorely tempted, or-shall we not rather say?-this lost and desperate man. As she drew nigh, the arch-fiend whispered him to condense into small compass, and drop into her tender bosom a germ of evil that would be sure to blossom darkly soon, and bear black fruit betimes.” [7] He wants to take advantage of her to satisfy his sexual desire, but the consciousness, the ego, stops him from doing wrong thing again. Then the result is that: “So-with a mightier struggle than he had yet sustained-he held his Geneva cloak before his face, and hurried onward, making no sign of recognition, and leaving the young sister to digest his rudeness as she might.” [8] This example can best explain that Dimmesdale learns from his misdoing and now he can balance the id and superego better. While superego is one of the psychic agencies that can repress or inhibit the drives of the id, such as sexual desire, if one only follows social rules, he might become something that is unnatural. For example, Dimmesdale leads the community to think that he is too pure to consider a sexual union even in marriage by refusing others’ suggestion that he should get married for the sake of his health.

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While he represses his sexual passion and pretends to be saintly, he attempts to confess the truth of his passionate nature as well as his act, of course in comfortably safe and general terms. At the same time, he also attempts to confess his evil. And this can be seen in his midnight vigil. He stands on the scaffold, and speaks out the secret which he dare not say in the broad daylight.

Dimmesdale not only possesses sexual passion, but also the passion of another kind, anger. Dimmesdale, a pale and passive minister in others’ eyes, possesses anger, which is a decided part of his basic nature, which is the id of Dimmesdale. But it is not like sexual passion which he suppresses and refuses to acknowledge to the rest of the community, Dimmesdale loses his temper twice in the novel. The first time he loses his temper in when Chillingworth asks him to confess his secret to him, but Dimmesdale refuses and walks out of the room. And the old physician observes: “But see, now, how passion takes hold upon this man, and hurrieth him out of himself! As with one passion so with another. He hath done a wild thing ere now, this pious Master Dimmesdale, in the hot passion of his heart.” [9] 

Another example is when in the forest, Hester tells Dimmesdale the identity of Chillingworth, Dimmesdale’s fury is described as “the violence of passion”. [10] 


The id refers not only to sexual desire and passion, but also ambition, which is also, lies in human being. Ambition, on one hand, is the content of the id, which is the nature of human being; on the other hand, it relates to the society, relates to what the society thinks and says. Dimmesdale, as described in the novel, is “young clergyman, who had come from one of the great English universities, bringing all the learning of the age into our wild forest land. His eloquence and religious fervour had already given the earnest of high eminence in his profession. He was a person of very striking aspect, with a white, lofty, and impending brow; large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth which, unless when he forcibly compressed it, was apt to be tremulous, expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast power of self restraint. Notwithstanding his high native gifts and scholar-like attainments, there was an air about this young minister-an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look-as of a being who felt himself quite astray, and at a loss in the pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own. Therefore, so far as his duties would permit, he trod in the shadowy by-paths, and thus kept himself simple and childlike, coming forth, when occasion was, with a freshness, and fragrance, and dewy purity of thought, which, as many people said, affected them like tile speech of an angel.” [11] He comes to the new world to the new world to fulfill his ambition that is his desire to be a great and reverend minister in the Puritan world. What Dimmesdale concerns most is not his lover Hester nor his child Pearl, but what other people think about him and how it will affect his career. In the governor’s hall, when the governor and others want to take Pearl away from Hester, Dimmesdale does not stand out to help Hester until she asks for help. He helps Hester not because his love for her, but he is afraid that Hester may not keep the secret any longer. It is for his own sake the he speaks for Hester.

In the forest, when Hester reveals the identity of Chillingworth to him, he only thinks of his secret being exposed. He confesses to Hester that he has lived with horror that someone might figure out that Pearl looks like him and suspect that he is her father. When Dimmesdale returns to the town from his meeting with Hester, he feels relieved that she has not planned to leave Boston immediately. This can best illustrate his base ambition.

“The minister had inquired of Hester, with no little interest, the precise time at which the vessel might be expected to depart. It would probably be on the fourth day from the present. ‘This is most fortunate!’ he had then said to himself. Now, why the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale considered it so very fortunate we hesitate to reveal. Nevertheless-to hold nothing back from the reader-it was because, on the third day from the present, he was to preach the Election Sermon; and, as such an occasion formed an honorable epoch in the life of a New England Clergyman, he could not have chanced upon a more suitable mode and time of terminating his professional career. ‘At least, they shall say of me,’ thought this exemplary man, ‘that I leave no public duty unperformed or ill-performed!” [12] 


It can be concluded that, the scarlet letter A on the bosom of Dimmesdale may stands for adultery, which is his sexual desire; anguish, his strong passion; and also ambition, his desire to success. Thus the scarlet letter A is the id of Dimmesdale, which is also his basic nature. But the society in which he lives fight against all these human nature, Dimmesdale on one hand wants to satisfy all his desire; on the other hand, he is aware of social rules and moral ethics and cares about what the society says. Consequently Dimmesdale is in a dilemma.


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