In The Scarlet Letter, does Dimmesdale kill himself or does the letter A on Hester's chest kill him? I am writing an interpretative essay on The Scarlet Letter. I need places in the book to back...

In The Scarlet Letter, does Dimmesdale kill himself or does the letter A on Hester's chest kill him?

I am writing an interpretative essay on The Scarlet Letter. I need places in the book to back the opinion.

Expert Answers
M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

From an interpretive perspective it is arguable that the primary factor that motivates Dimmesdale to engage in the practice of self-mutilation is the fact that he is the cause of Hester's punishment of wearing the scarlet letter for the rest of her life as a token of shame.

Dimmesdale has a strong reputation that precedes him and, as a result, he ends up believing in it: the townsfolk see him as a sort of deity; he is referred to as the "divine" one and seen by everyone as the epitome of the puritanical way of life. Surely the attention of his parishioners must have fed Dimmesdale's ego, which is perhaps the reason why his speeches had always been so eloquent and powerful. Even though he is a young man, he enjoys the respect and support of the aldermen of the province. All of this points to a man who is of excellent character and impeccable integrity.

Yet, he is not any of those things: Dimmesdale is a hot blooded man with weaknesses like any other person. His attraction and desire for Hester denotes vulnerability, and even a hint of arrogance: did he think for one moment about the consequences of his actions, or did he assume that he was in a position above such consequences?

Add all of this to the moment when consequences actually happen and Hester finds out that she is pregnant with his child. Her act of shame is made public, and Hester becomes a pariah. All of this is forever sealed by the scarlet letter, which is a daily reminder of the shame of the affair. All of that shame is the product of the weaknesses of a man whose parishioners see as a demigod.

He stood, at this moment, on the very proudest eminence of superiority, to which the gifts or intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England's earliest days, when the professional character was of itself a lofty pedestal.

The sight of the scarlet letter represents Dimmesdale's fall from the high pedestal that he has built for himself thanks to the devotion of his people. Such fall must have proved to be a fatal blow to him; and it is killing him slowly through guilt.

Not only is Dimmesdale incapable of coming out with the truth voluntarily; he also continues his career as the respected man of the robe that everyone thinks that he is. He continues his speeches, and his sanctimonious advices. Life, to him, becomes a perennial need for self-punishment since he refuses to let go of his image even until the very end. When he finally resolves to tell the truth his words confirm that Hester's shameful token of the scarlet letter is what has affected him the most, and what drives him to carve his very own letter on his chest. 

"...look again at Hester's scarlet letter! ... with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what (Dimmesdale) bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! Stand any here that question God's judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold, a dreadful witness of it!”

Remember that Hawthorne's narrative is more lenient to Hester than to Dimmesdale; the reverend is not supposed to come across as a tragic hero. He is supposed to represent the double standards of the Puritanical rule and, for this reason, his pain must come from something that puts the shame back on him, rather than from true repentance.

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The Scarlet Letter

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