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Excerpt from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Johnson

Excerpt from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Johnson (courtesy of Greenwood Press)

Claudia Johnson reminds us that on January 14, 1697, five years after he was an eager advocate of hanging accused witches in Salem, Samuel Sewall apologized for his role in that shameful episode. She notices some strong similarities between Sewall's apology and Dimmesdale's confession, similarities that may reveal the bad faith that marred the spirits of both the historical and fictional characters.

 

"For both men-learned in the scriptures, pillars of their churches, pious, and righteous-public confession of guilt had to be a very difficult thing. But there are also conditions that diminish the importance of both confessions. In the first place, both seem to arise from motives other than a true realization of having done wrong or sense of sorrow for the pain they had caused. Dimmesdale likely senses that he is dying and may very well confess as a last-minute "insurance" to give himself an outside chance of going to heaven. Sewall seems to be confessing because he has had so much terrible luck and obviously hopes that a confession will turn things around. Also, since Dimmesdale knows that he is near death, he will not now have to suffer humiliation and punishment by the community for what he has done. Similarly, Sewall can now apologize without fear of censure from the authorities because the whole view of the witch trials has changed. One might argue (uncharitably) that Sewall has just seen the way the wind blows and is now going along with the prevalent attitude, just as he did in the trials" (140-1).



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