In The Scarlet Letter, how is the Rev. Dimmesdale responsible for his own fate?
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The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is the quintessential Puritan and suffers his fate because of his Puritan faith and weakness. With the theology of "the elect" and the depraved, Puritans were uncertain if one were saved or damned, so they tried to behave in as exemplary manner as possible. This demarkation of people as saved or "depraved," the ultimate implication of the doctrine of predestination, looms over the lives of the Puritans, leaving some such as Dimmesdale with a "misery unutterable" as Hawthorne describes another of his characters, Goodman Brown, who also suffers from his hypocrisy.
Puritans believed in the superiority of faith over good works, also. This belief is why Hester is doomed to wear the scarlet letter in the community, no matter her good deeds although she does attain some personal redemption from her admittance and acceptance of the truth about herself. Of course, it is important to remember that Hester Prynne is not a Puritan, and is not, therefore, burdened with the terrible Puritan guilt that Dimmesdale suffers.
The minister is, indeed, responsible for his own fate:
- The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is destroyed by his fears and belief in Puritan tenets.
Thus burdened by his Puritanism and his attempts to protect his state as a minister, feels tremendous guilt because of his hypocrisy. Moreover, his secret sin blackens his soul and he fears its revelation because he could no longer do God's work as a minister. In Chapter X, in response to Chillingworth's question as to why people do not confess their transgressions, the minister says without Divine mercy, there is no power to "disclose the secrets...buried in the human heart." Further, as Dimmesdale displays his fears, he also expresses his beliefs in the doctrines of Puritanism that prevent redemption,
"It may be that they are kept silent by the very constitution of their nature. Or...guilty as they may be, retaining, nevertheless, a zeal for God's glory and man's welfare, they shrink from disiplaying themselves black and filthy in the view of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be achieved by them; no evil of the past be redeemed by better service."
- The Rev. Dimmesdale rationalizes his behavior
Another reason that Dimmesdale offers for his hypocrisy is that he remains silent so that he may continue his ministerial work. Thus, he tries to justify his behavior as he has declared himself a sinner before his congregation and they have been spiritually moved. Yet, he really does not want to admit that he has sinned against the Puritan God that he purports to serve. When, for instance, Pearl asks him in Chapter XXII if he will ask her mother and her to join him on the scaffold on the next day at noon, he replies, "Nay, not so, my little Pearl." Then, Pearl retaliates with a trick played upon him. When he asks her why, Pearl tells the minister, "Thous wast not bold!--thou wast not true!"
Because of his weakness, Dimmesdale is unable to "Be true! Be true!" as Hawthorne urges in the last chapter; instead, he rationalizes that by hiding his secret sin, he is yet able to do preach and help people. He cannot tell the truth because he rationalizes that he is performing God's work, and because he fears that others will see the "black weed" of his soul and he will be condemned by his Puritan God. The psychological burden of his fear concealed sin becomes Dimmesdale's nemesis as he finally breaks on the New England Holiday.
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