The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick in our society

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Oct. 17, 2017 - 16:56

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Reading nineteenth century American literature, we encounter a number of memorable characters. Among others, Rip Van Winkle, Huckleberry Finn, and Hester Prynne come to mind as they are unforgettably charming protagonists.

Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle is known to be an archetypal American man who “was a simple, good-natured man; he was, moreover, a kind neighbor, and an obedient, hen-pecked husband.” Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, too, is a typical American man who constantly wants to explore the wilderness, leaving his comfortable home and society behind. They say that Huck’s spirit of mobility and adventures still persists in the American mind, even though it has shrunk considerably nowadays, only existing in the imagination of the American people. As for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, she embodies the distinctive American spirit of defiance, self-reliance and independence. Hester valiantly challenges and overcome social prejudices of her times.

However, in nineteenth century American literature, perhaps the three most remarkable characters who are etched in our minds are Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and Ahab in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” The three men invariably exhibit how people’s personality not only affects them but also other people around them.

Dimmesdale is a Puritan minister who impregnates Hester, and yet he is not courageous enough to confess it in public. By pretending he is innocent, even though he knows he is not, Dimmesdale commits the sin of hypocrisy. Dimmesdale is a feeble-minded man who is torn between his present reality and his religious ideals, and agonizes, just like Hamlet, over his complicated predicament. Nevertheless, he is not a reliable person at all. His immediate concern is how to rid himself of his psychological burden, rather than how to protect Hester and her child Pearl. Indeed, Dimmesdale is a hypocrite who does not want to acknowledge that he is wrong in public.

Meanwhile, Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, destroys Dimmesdale’s soul by tormenting his vulnerable mind cruelly. With his utmost self-righteousness and wicked purpose of breaking the spirit of the poor Puritan minister, Chillingworth deliberately inflicts extreme pain on Dimmesdale’s conscience and finally drives him to death. Thus, Chillingworth commits the unpardonable sin of pride and self-complacency. Unlike timid Dimmesdale, Chillingworth firmly believes that he is absolutely right no matter what wicked things he does for vengeance. A man like Chillingworth is so self-righteous that he can kill people without remorse for personal vendetta. Indeed, Chillingworth is a blindly spiteful and vengeful man.

Another equally self-righteous person who destroys other people due to his firm conviction that he is absolutely right is Captain Ahab. Apparently, Ahab, who is not a wicked man, seems to be a much better person than Chillingworth. Nevertheless, it is Ahab’s firm conviction that destroys his crew and ship in the end. Ahab stubbornly believes that the gigantic white whale, Moby Dick, is an embodiment of evil and he is determined to pursue and destroy it. It never occurs to Ahab that he may be wrong. Thus he steers his ship in the wrong direction and consequently has his ship and crew sunk in deep water. Ahab is an arrogant, obstinate man who would never doubt his conviction or listen to others. In a sense, he is like a soulless zombie with whom you cannot persuade or negotiate. If your captain is a person like Ahab, you are doomed. He will lead you to harm’s way and will destroy you eventually.

Ironically, Ahab dies, while hanging onto the harpoon that he has lodged in the white whale he has been pursuing all through his life. But he could not grasp the meaning of the veiled Truth, that is, Moby Dick, which was shrouded like a Sphinx’s riddle. As Jacques Derrida puts it, “Truth is like a veiled woman,” and thus you cannot possibly be sure you know her a hundred percent.

We should be aware of these three types of people in our society. First, hypocrites who will not acknowledge their mistakes and will pretend they are unsullied and impeccable; second, vengeful, self-righteous men who believe whatever they do is right and thus think they have the right to destroy others for retribution; third, extremely obstinate people whose firm conviction leads people in the wrong direction and, as a result, inadvertently destroys them.

Dimmesdale’s sin is hypocrisy whereas Chillingworth’s sin is pride and self-righteousness. Compared to them, Hester’s sin is rather trivial; it is only the sin of passion. Regrettably, it is people like Dimmesdale and Chillingworth who condemn Hester and make her wear the Scarlet Letter on her chest. In fact, they should have worn it instead of Hester who has not done any harm to others. We should also remember that it is not Moby Dick’s monstrosity but Ahab’s blindly stubborn conviction that ultimately destroys his ship and the crew on it.

The fictional characters in nineteenth century American literature serve as a mirror reflecting our present reality. We should learn from them.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at -- Ed.