In Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, to whom is Mistress Hibbens referring when she offers in Chapter 20 to introduce Reverend Dimmesdale to "yonder potentate you wot of"?

1 Answer | Add Yours

vangoghfan's profile pic

vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

In Chapter 20 of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, Reverend Dimmesdale, having just returned from a meeting with Hester Prynne and Pearl in the forest, is encountered by Mistress Hibbins, who is described in ways that associate her with Satan and that imply that she is a witch. Hawthorne describes the encounter as follows:

"So, reverend sir, you have made a visit into the forest," observed the witch-lady, nodding her high head-dress at him. "The next time I pray you to allow me only a fair warning, and I shall be proud to bear you company. Without taking overmuch upon myself my good word will go far towards gaining any strange gentleman a fair reception from yonder potentate you wot of."

The “potentate” to whom she alludes is undoubtedly the devil, but the passage just quoted deserves some further analysis.

The fact that Mistress Hibbins addresses Dimmesdale as a “reverend” person not only reminds us of his official position in the church but also calls attention to the hypocrisy of his behavior. Although he is revered and respected, he knows in his heart that he is guilty of illicit sex with Hester. Hester has suffered because of their sexual encounter, but Dimmesdale has not.  He has remained a revered person in the community. Moreover, he has allowed Hester to bear the sole blame and shame for their encounter.

Mistress Hibbins’ statement that she would be “proud” to accompany Dimmesdale during his next visit into the forest helps remind us that pride is considered by Christians to be the central sin because it is the root of all other sins. Dimmesdale himself has been guilty of pride (indeed, all fallen humans by definition are), but Mistress Hibbins’ profession of pride seems especially appropriate if she is indeed a witch associated with Satan. Ironically, her next sentence expresses a kind of false modesty that really only emphasizes her true pride.

By promising Dimmesdale a “fair reception” from the devil, Mistress Hibbins may be speaking with self-conscious irony, since by definition (at least from a Christian perspective) no welcome from Satan can be a good thing.

Notice, by the way, that Mistress Hibbins presumes that Dimmesdale already knows the devil.  Dimmesdale knows Satan, of course, because he has studied about Satan while preparing for the ministry and in his subsequent reading of the Bible. He has also presumably often spoken about Satan from the pulpit. He also knows Satan in the sense that all humans, according to Christian theology, know Satan: we are corrupted by sin from birth. Yet Mistress Hibbins seems to be implying that Dimmesdale has a deeper, more personal knowledge of the devil than he himself is willing to admit.

We’ve answered 317,487 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question