How might one defend Arthur Dimmesdale (The Scarlet Letter) in a mock trial?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is one of the primary characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, a man consumed by guilt and shame for something he did before we ever meet him. The story is set in Puritan Boston at a time where the law and biblical precepts were virtually the same; therefore, sins/crimes were punished with strict biblical harshness. In this community there is little room for grace or redemption. Sinners are severely punished--if they are allowed to live. Adultery is a crime punishable by death in this community, and adultery is the sin which Arthur Dimmesdale committed. 

I presume a that the prosecutor in this mock trial will try to make the case that Arthur Dimmesdale should be properly punished (hanged) for his crime of adultery, which means the defense attorney will try to make the case that Dimmesdale does not deserve to be killed for this sin. The fact that he dies at the end of the story makes the timing of the trial a little odd, but we will presume he makes his confession on the scaffold and then lives to stand trial.

The primary argument, of course, could be that Dimmesdale did not commit adultery at all. Not one person has ever made a public accusation against him for this crime, and there is therefore no evidence with which to convict him. The gesture and statement he made on the scaffold (read them again) are not a direct admission of guilt. In fact, many who were there neither saw nor heard any evidence of guilt. 

According to these highly respectable witnesses, the minister, conscious that he was dying,--conscious, also, that the reverence of the multitude placed him already among saints and angels,--had desired, by yielding up his breath in the arms of that fallen woman, to express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man's own righteousness. After exhausting life in his efforts for mankind's spiritual good, he had made the manner of his death a parable in order to impress on his admirers the mighty and mournful lesson, that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike.

Call these witnesses to the stand to counteract those who claim to have seen or heard something different. Hester would certainly lie for him, if needed.

It would be difficult in this setting to argue that adultery may be a sin but it should not be a crime, but it is certainly possible to make this case to non-Puritans. 

If Dimmesdale eventually has to admit guilt for the crime, then make a case for mitigating circumstances and at least save his life--if he even wants you to, that is. In no particular order, these include the following:

  • Dimmesdale has more than made up for this one indicsretion by his tireless service to his church members. Call the witnesses we have met who adore him--there are plenty.
  • Dimmesdale was enticed by Hester (it is a common tactic to deflect blame by pointing a finger at someone else--and we know Puritans love to point fingers).
  • Dimmesdale could have left Boston at any time, with Hester or without; instead he chose to stay and serve.
  • Dimmesdale can serve as a living reminder to the fine people of Boston, just like Hester does with her scarlet letter, that this town does not tolerate sin.
  • Dimmesdale has a sensitive nature and has suffered enough punishment for his crime, living a kind of death for these many years; a literal death would end his suffering while letting him live would prolong his misery (Puritans love other people's misery).

This will be fun!

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