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The Scarllet Letter Essay, Research Paper
The Scarlet Letter
But (Hester) is not the protagonist; the chief actor, and the tragedy of The Scarlet
Letter is not her tragedy, but Dimmesdales. He it was whom the sorrows of death
encompassed….. His public confession is one of the noblest climaxes of tragic
This statement by Randall Stewart does not contain the same ideas that I believed
were contained within The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I, on the contrary
to Stewart’s statement, think Dimmesdale is a coward and a hypocrite. Worse, he is a
self-confessed coward and hypocrite. He knows what he has to do to still the voice of
his conscience and make his peace with God. Throughout the entire story his
confession remains an obstacle . While Hester is a relatively constant character,
Dimmesdale is incredibly dynamic. From his fall with Hester, he moves, in steps, toward
his public hint of sinning at the end of the novel. He tries to unburden himself of his sin
by revealing it to his congregation, but somehow can never quite manage this. He is a
typical diagnosis of a “wuss”.
To some extent, Dimmesdale’s story is one of a single man tempted into the depths of
the hormonal world. This world, however, is a place where the society treats sexuality
with ill grace. But his problem is enormously complicated by the fact of Hester’s
marriage (for him no technicality), and by his own image of himself as a cleric devoted
to higher things. Unlike other young men, Dimmesdale cannot accept his loss of
innocence and go on from there. He must struggle futilely to get back to where he was.
Torn between the desire to confess and atone the cowardice which holds him back,
Dimmesdale goes slightly mad. He takes up some morbid forms of penance-fasts and
scourgings-but he can neither whip nor starve the sin from his soul. In his agony, he
staggers to the pulpit to confess, but his words come out generalized, and meaningless
declarations of guilt.
The reverend seems to want to reveal himself, but Chillingworth’s influence and his own
shame are stronger than his weak conscience. Dimmesdale cannot surrender an identity
which brings him the love and admiration of his parishioners. He is far too intent on his
earthly image to willingly reveal his sin. Once Hester explains Chillingworth’s plans, and
thus breaks Chillingworth’s spell, Dimmesdale begins to overcome him. He does it,
though, in a way which brings him even more earthly glory. Thus, he never loses his
cherished image, and consequently, is pushed down the “slippery slope” even further.
I, unlike the community, think there is a problem with Dimmesdale. During his struggles
to tell his parishioners the truth, they misunderstand his statements, he loses his faith,
which is never completely regained. Dimmesdale’s sin has eaten away at him, reducing
him to a shriveling, pathetic creature. The only thing that brings him any strength is a
re-affirmation of his sin with Hester, and the plot to escape the town (201): “It was
the exhilarating effect-upon a prisoner just escaped from the dungeon of his own
heart-of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of an unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless
region.” In short, fallen nature has set him free from his inner distress, but left him in an
“unchristianized” world, a heathen world, damnation. He has given in to sin. He has, in
effect, willingly agreed to commit more sins. Dimmesdale realizes he is doing this but is
too much of a coward to admit his original sin to the public. He becomes a figure that
no one can help but himself.
Dimmesdale begins as a fallen man, falls farther, and near the end is, according to
Mistress Hibbins, a servant of the devil (242). Hibbins’ words, however, should not be
taken lightly. She seems to be one of the only characters who shows herself to have a
mouth of truth. Dimmesdale attempts to recover, though, with a massive effort, when
he ascends the scaffold with Hester and Pearl. When Chillingworth exclaims, “Thou hast
escaped me!” (256), he is speaking not only for himself, but for Evil. Dimmesdale has at
least escaped damnation. He makes another small step forward when Pearl kisses him.
“A spell was broken” (256). The redeeming angel has pulled Dimmesdale clear of the
shadow of sin but not away from its’ presence. After the kiss, Dimmesdale returns to
speaking of God as merciful, and returns to praising Him. He claims, “Had either of these
agonies [Chillingworth's influence and the "burning torture upon his breast"] been
wanting, I had been lost for ever!” (257). He believes himself to be saved. I, on the
contrary believe that his attempt to confess was not a complete confession at all. He
never truly states that he had committed adultery with Hester, and that Pearl was, in
fact, his daughter. The reverend could bring them up to the scaffold, but still did not
have the courage to honestly confess. The sermon in which there was supposed to be
a “noble climax,” was empty of such a thing. An incomplete confession is a useless one
to the people of the town, and that is exactly what Dimmesdale had.
Dimmesdale’s problem, during the course of the story, is that he isn’t much of a priest.
He has lost his faith, and is thus false to himself, his congregation, and his god. Yet his
penance has been much more harsh. It seems that the heroic effort Dimmesdale makes
to climb back into the light is an effort that only a desperate man could have made. He
used all his strength to make one final grasp at redemption but still falls quite short.
Dimmesdale has the potential, though, of climbing much higher after death. Hester is as
Hester was and as Hester will always be. Dimmesdale, the weak, fallen priest, was
taken from earth at the height of his pathetic ascent because if he hadn’t been, he
would surely have fallen again. It is as if God was waiting for him to make his last,
valiant leap to reach Him, and then snatched him at the apex of his pathetic trajectory.
Dimmesdale is redeemed, but, it would seem, conditionally. If the Puritans believed in a
Purgatory, Dimmesdale would be there. However, with only a Heaven and Hell,
Dimmesdale must be admitted into Heaven, grudgingly.
Hawthorne writes, “According to these highly respectable witnesses, the minister,
conscious that he was dying,–conscious, also, that the reverence of the multitude
placed him already among saints and angels…”. Hawthorne simply can’t accept
Dimmesdale’s total redemption any more than he could Hester’s, the same reason being:
sin is permanent. When Hawthorne follows this passage with, “Without disputing a truth
so momentous,” it is clear he is being sarcastic.
All of these comments and observations make it quite clear that Dimmesdale is a
complete coward. He has the chance throughout the entire novel to confess. Despite it
all, he is caught up in the fame and the excitement of his reverend-hood, which pushes
him down the “slippery slope” inch by inch. His confession is never a true public one,
and because of that, I believe the last scene of the novel was not quite as noble as
Randall Stewart claims.
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