How do the townspeople interpret Dimmesdale's understanding of human frailty?"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In the latter chapters of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, as Dimmesdale suffers from the torturous guilt of his secret sin of passion with Hester Prynne, he attempts ways of purging this guilt: he performs self-flagellation and he attempts to explain his frailty to his congregation. However, the more that he deprecates himself, the more that the townspeople perceive him as a holy man.  In Chapter XI, Hawthorne writes,

To the high mountain-peaks of faith and sanctity he would have climbed, had not the tendency been thwarted by the burden, whatever it might be, of crime or anguish, beneath which it was his doom to totter....But this very burden it was that gave him sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his heart vibrated in unison with theirs, and received their pain into itself, and sent its own throb of pain through a thousand other hearts, in gushes of sad, persuasive eloquence. Oftenest persuasive, but sometimes terrible!  The people knew not the power that moved them thus....The aged members of his flock, beholding Mr. Dimmesdale's frame so feeble, while they were themselves so rugged in their infimity, believed that he would go heavenward before them.

Sadly, this adoration of Dimmesdale as he attempts to open his soul to the townspeople further adds to the agony of Dimmesdale whose natural impulse is to adore the truth.  Thus, with this added deception, Dimmesdale feels all the more the hypocrite.

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mkcapen1 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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The Reverend Dimmsdale in the book "The Scarlet Letter" is identified by the congregation as a good and Godly man.  They believe that his gestures towards Pearl and her mother are part of his spiritual realm and that he is good of heart.  They do not know his secret and he is careful to mask it around the congregation.  The Reverend is also sickly and frail himself which would help him to understand it in others.

Roger Chillingsworth becomes very close with The Reverend. He becomes aware that the man keeps deep secrets that haunt his soul.  He is also becoming aware that the Reverend never lets him give him a physical by allowing him to open his shirt.  These things lead to Roger opening the passed out Reverend’s shirt to find out the truth.


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