In Chapter 17 of The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne, what is "the secret poison of his malignity, infecting all the air about him"?

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ms-mcgregor's profile pic

ms-mcgregor | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In Chapter 17, Hester meets Dimmesdale in the forest to reveal the truth about her former relationship with Roger Chillingworth, the fact that they were once married. Hawthorne writes:

"She [Hester] doubted not, that the continual presence of Roger Chillingworth,--the secret poison of his malignity, infecting all the air about him,--and his authorized interference, as a physician, with the minister's physical and spiritual infirmities,--that these bad opportunities had been turned to a cruel purpose."

Thus, "The secret poison of his malignity" is Roger Chillingworth. He is the one who, although he seems like a kindly physician, he is actually secretly torturing Dimmesdale and keeping Dimmedale's conscience " in an irritated state" in order to " to disorganize and corrupt his spiritual being." 

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favoritethings | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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When Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest, she plans to to tell the minister, her co-sinner and Pearl's father, that his doctor, Roger Chillingworth, is actually her husband (whom everyone believes to be dead).  Though Chillingworth had made her promise not to give away his real identity, Hester feels an obligation to tell Dimmesdale now because she sees the way his health is suffering and she knows that her husband has something to do with it.  The narrator refers to

the continual presence of Roger Chillingworth, -- the secret poison of his malignity, infecting all the air about him, -- and his authorized interference, as a physician, with the minister's physical and spiritual infirmities, -- that these bad opportunities had been turned to a cruel purpose.

Therefore, "the secret poison of his malignity" actually refers to Chillingworth's evil purpose to ruin Dimmesdale because he is Hester's co-sinner.  Chillingworth's desire to exact revenge on Dimmesdale, for sleeping with his wife, is secret (because he's kept his identity a secret), and it infects "all the air about him" because it has become, really, his sole purpose for living.  It is all he thinks about, the only thing that occupies him.  This "malignity" refers to the evilness within Chillingworth.

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