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By: Valerie The Cowardice of Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter In Nathaniel

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, behavior is centered around a rigid

Puritan society that leads to great consequences in the lives of Hester Prynne

and Arthur Dimmesdale. Their act of adultery greatly effects their lives

and its result greatly alters their presence in the community. Hester handles

her situation with as much dignity and pride as possible while Dimmesdale,

the minister, acts in a different and cowardly manner. Hester openly confesses

her sin and bears the punishment, while Dimmesdale does not even contain

the strength to confess and tolerate the results that could be thrust upon

him. Arthur Dimmesdale’s inability to confess is strictly due to his

fear of confrontation thus characterizing him as a coward. The fact that

Dimmesdale does not publicly acknowledge or reveal his sin only contributes

in denouncing himself as well as his courage. His lack of a confession solely

results in the loss of power, self-esteem, and dignity. His great lack of

inner strength is easily grasped due to the lies he preaches every week for

seven painful years about truth and in the manner in which he avoids

confrontation. He spreads the word of holiness and goodness, yet he himself

does not abide these simple laws of the Puritan lifestyle. The minister can

only extol Hester when she refuses to reveal him as the father by expressing

“the wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart!”

(Hawthorne 69) rather than confess his own half of the sin. He can only praise

a woman who has more strength and power than himself, for degrading her would

be extremely hypocritical for a man in his position. For seven years, Dimmesdale

withers in his own cowardice while wearing a mask of purity. By being the

highly acclaimed preacher of his community, Dimmesdale feels it is his duty

to represent the model of a good citizen. His high position only invests

higher quantities of dread and fear within, digging Dimmesdale farther into

a hole of shame and failure. The minister’s meager attempt to admit

his part of the sin seven years after it has occurred is yet another

representation of his weakness. When he collects the courage to confess,

he chooses to do so at night when no one is around to witness his confrontation,

and cannot even remain solitary, but requests the presence of Hester and

her daughter, Pearl. It is not even possible for Dimmesdale to hold his own

composure, as he is “carried away by the grotesque horror of this picture

. . . and to his own infinite alarm, burst into a great peal of laughter”

(151). He is unable to acknowledge his sin during the day due to his fear

of the reaction of the community in dealing with the fact that their

well-respected minister has been a part of a great sin. When the minister,

Arthur Dimmesdale, does finally reach a point of confession, he does so in

the manner of a weak and cowardly person. He holds his sin for seven years

- seven years of silence and sinning, seven years of inflicting pain and

torture. Once he reaches a point near death, he chooses not to confess out

of goodness, but out of the knowledge that if he does, he will have a chance

of forgiveness from God. His confession does not contain even a slight shred

of dignity or courage – he has to coerce Pearl and Hester to join him on

the scaffold for fear of being alone. Dimmesdale completely avoids confrontation

by confessing before death. He does not suffer any public humility or

embarrassment as does Hester, does not witness the reaction of the community,

and escapes punishment. Upon the scaffold is the only place where Dimmesdale

“hast escaped” (253) the probing curiosity of Roger Chillingworth.

The confession of Arthur Dimmesdale only exposes his cowardice to his community

and denounces his position, rather than strengthens him. Arthur Dimmesdale

can evidently be characterized as a coward and false, not only to himself,

but to his congregation as well. The fact that he his held above the rest

in his community leads him to believe he is a model for those to follow,

and he is not able to deal with the fact that he has broken the mold. Dimmesdale

is aware that he has to still the voice of his conscience in order to make

peace with God and himself, yet fails to do so out of fear and anxiety, thus

becoming a “servant of the devil”(220). Due to the high pedestal

on which he is placed because of his part in the Puritan community, Dimmesdale

is invested with fear, cowardice, and inability to confess his sin, leaving

him a powerless and weak man.


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