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It seems clear that almost everyone in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlett Letter would ultimately have been better off if Arthur Dimmesdale had acknowledged much earlier than he did that Pearl was his daughter. Hester would have been better off; Dimmesdale would have been better off; Pearl would have been better off; and even Chillingworth might have been better off if the paternity of Pearl – and the fact of adultery – had been confessed by Dimmesdale much, much earlier than they were. Dimmesdale’s decision to conceal his responsibility led to years of loneliness and stigma for Hester, to years without a father for Pearl, and to the temptation to do great evil, to which Chillingworth succumbs. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale’s psychological and spiritual health were put at great risk, and his physical health ultimately deteriorated to the point that he died an unnecessarily early death. Most important for Dimmesdale, his neighbors, and many of Hawthorne’s readers, Dimmesdale put his eternal existence with God in heaven at risk – a fate far worse than mere physical death.
In Chapter IX, the narrator notes the physical deterioration of Dimmesdale:
with every successive Sabbath, his cheek was paler and thinner, and his voice more tremulous than before—when it had now become a constant habit, rather than a casual gesture, to press his hand over his heart . . . .
Dimmesdale is clearly suffering physically because he is suffering mentally and spiritually. Both his psychological and social health would be better if he had confessed his involvement with Hester much earlier, and the health of his soul would be better as well.
Of course, Dimmesdale would have paid a price if he had confessed: almost certainly he would have lost his clerical position; he definitely would have lost the respect (at least temporarily) of many of his parishioners; and he may even have been punished in some way physically. Technically, according to David Hackett Fisher (see link below), adultery was a crime punishable by death. Yet as Fisher notes, and as Hester’s own case shows, such sentences were rarely imposed, and one reason that Hester was punished as harshly as she was was because of her defiant refusal to name her partner. One woman who was put to death for adultery (according to Fisher) had confessed to adultery with twelve different men (!) – a case not exactly similar to the one-time indiscretion of Hester and Dimmesdale.
Whatever physical and social punishments Dimmesdale might have suffered if he had confessed his affair with Hester soon after it occurred, he would not have put his eternal salvation at risk. This, for many of Hawthorne’s readers, would have been the truly crucial point.
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