Although Nathaniel Hawthorne s The
Scarlet Letter is primarily the story of an adulteress atoning for
her sin and conquering the insignia which brings torment to her
spirit, the quest of the partner in her sin, Arthur Dimmesdale, is no
less important and even more painful. His quest, simply phrased, is
to glorify God through his priesthood and expiate his sin of adultery
– to save his soul – while protecting his reputation. To do so,
he tries to continue day by day to do the work of the Lord which he
so loves, while relegating to the darkest, most secret recesses of
his heart the crime which he so hates. Only in private does he
torture himself for both his original sin and his continued deceit.
He nearly fails in his quest to be a holy man, as the horrific deed
that he committed nearly kills him through self-hate and illness of
spirit. Eventually, however, he succeeds in conquering his fears of
humiliation and stands triumphant, publicly repenting for his
misdeeds and dying clean of soul.
It is not known
until well into The Scarlet Letter that Arthur Dimmesdale is Hester
Prynne s lover, but by this point, his conscience has already begun
inflicting a woeful penalty on his spirit: “His form grew
emaciated; his voice…had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay in
it; he was often observed…to put his hand over his heart
with…paleness, indicative of pain” (106). Although his reputation
is flawless and his parishioners believe that through death, he is to
be called to a higher plane of existence, Dimmesdale says with what
is believed to be humility that his looming death is “because of
his own unworthiness to perform his mission here on earth” (106).
In retrospect, this marks the beginning of a critical and fatal
duality of Dimmesdale s character: the public believes he is a saint,
while Dimmesdale knows himself the vilest sinner. His refusal to
confess his misdeed only compounds his guilt, which is symbolized by
his rapidly deteriorating physical condition. However, it remains his
strategy to hide his sin, letting it fester in the dark.
It is at this
point that Roger Chillingworth, physician and Hester Prynne s
husband, comes into Dimmesdale s life. Chillingworth s duty is to
administer medical treatment to the ailing clergyman. In doing so,
however, he comes to notice a strange quality to Dimmesdale s
character that leads him to suspicion. Without mentioning the nature
of his sin or naming himself as a sinner, the priest tells the
physician that “guilty as [men who hide their crimes] may be,
retaining nevertheless, a zeal for god s glory and man s welfare,
they shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in the view
of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be achieved by them; no
evil of the past redeemed by better service. So, to their own
unutterable torment, they go among their fellow-creatures, looking
pure as new-fallen snow; while their hearts are all speckled and
spotted with iniquity of which they cannot rid themselves” (116).
This quote manifests the very essence of Dimmesdale s quest: to
continue in the service of the Lord, while obfuscating from others
the flaw that, if they knew, would render him incapable of doing
At this point,
Dimmesdale s public appeal is greater than ever before. However, “it
is inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration
[tortures] him” (125). It slowly becomes evident that the two
halves of Dimmesdale s quest are incompatible. He cannot become a
truly holy man because he must perpetuate a monstrous fa ade to do so
– by which he commits yet another sin. Seeing that a “catch-22″
exists between being holy and keeping his reputation, he attempts to
convey to his congregation the truth about himself: “More than
once…he [tells] his hearers that he was…the worst of sinners,”
but such speech makes them think of him still more highly (126). What
Dimmesdale intends as a confession is viewed as a statement of virtue
and modesty. But the preacher knows his words would be viewed as
such, and only therefore does he come forward with his mock
confession. Still unable to risk baring his soul, he “[strives] to
put a cheat upon himself by making the avowal of a guilty conscience,
but [gains] only one other sin” (126).
impending failure of his quest for holiness, his “inward trouble”
drives him to inflict horrific tortures upon himself (126). He whips
himself until he bleeds; he fasts until weak; he keeps vigils at
night – all for the purpose of purifying himself and leaving him
free to pursue the glory of God. Still weak in resolve, however,
Dimmesdale cannot bring himself to do the only thing possible to
atone for his sins – he still cannot muster a confession. Thus, his
health grows worse with his self-inflicted punishments; his spirit
grows still heavier with accumulating sin. This series of punishments
and vigils climaxes when Dimmesdale ascends, under the dark of night,
the very platform upon which Hester served her sentence for adultery.
He envisions telling the townspeople of his dark secret, but
Chillingworth dissuades him and bids him come home.
Hester Prynne accosts Dimmesdale in the forest; together they make
plans to flee Boston and set up a new life. Although this would seem
a happy ending, it is a blatantly wrong choice as far as Dimmesdale s
quest is concerned, for try as he may, he can never escape his
conscience and the guilt it would incessantly inflict upon him.
Reunion and escape with Hester is contrary to his quest for holiness,
as is shown by his sudden and inexplicable urge to commit misdeeds.
In the end,
Chillingworth prevents the plans of Hester and Dimmesdale from
though his intentions in doing so are malevolent, Chillingworth thus
finally impels Dimmesdale to confess his sin to the populace. He does
so, announcing that “now…[Hester s partner in adultery] stands
before you!…He tells you that [Hester s scarlet letter], with all
its mysterious horror, is but the shadow of what he bears on his own
breast!” (221). At last, after confessing the sin that has plagued
him for years, he perishes on the scaffold. His repentance, though
sufficient to save his soul, is too late to save his life.
death of “triumphant ignominy” is, in fact, the successful
resolution of his quest (222). In confessing, Dimmesdale realizes at
last that the internalization of sin is not a prerequisite for
achieving holiness. In life he strives to achieve spiritual greatness
through the suppression of his sin; in death, he achieves purity by
opening his heart to the light of truth. By discarding the half of
his quest that was to obscure his transgression from the public eye,
he is finally able to fulfill the other half – to redeem himself.
By besmirching his name in the eyes of man, he achieves far greater
glory, at long last, in the eyes of God.
the address, Dimmesdale walked out of the church and spotted Hester
and Pearl. His hidden guilt overtook him and he called the pair to
his side. He climbed the steps of the scoffold where years before
Hester had stood and received the community s scorn. It was now his
turn to admit his part in Hester s shame. With a sudden motion, he
tore the ministerial band from his breast and sank dying to the
platform. When he exposed his breast, a cut scar of the scarlet
letter “A” was seen imprinted on the flesh above his heart.
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