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Almost immediately after the appearance of Roger Chillingworth in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, he is described as follows:
At his arrival in the market-place, and some time before she saw him, the stranger had bent his eyes on Hester Prynne. It was carelessly, at first, like a man chiefly accustomed to look inward, and to whom external matters are of little value and import, unless they bear relation to something within his mind. Very soon, however, his look became keen and penetrative. A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions in open sight. His face darkened with some powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an effort of his will, that, save at a single moment, its expression might have passed for calmness. After a brief space, the convulsion grew almost imperceptible, and finally subsided into the depths of his nature. When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne fastened on his own, and saw that she appeared to recognize him, he slowly and calmly raised his finger, made a gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips.
This description is symbolically significantly in a number of ways, including the following:
- In the first sentence, Chillingworth’s gaze is emphasized. He scrutinizes Hester much as he later scrutinizes Dimmesdale. He is a man who examines others to find their flaws.
- In the second sentence, Chillingworth’s narcissism is implied: he pays little attention to the external world unless something in that world seems relevant to him and his own thoughts.
- He tends to look at people closely, in a “penetrative” way, as if to seek out their secrets.
- He is associated symbolically with a snake, a creature normally linked to sin and Satan.
- He is symbolically associated with darkness.
- He suppresses or hides his emotions; showing them openly would make him vulnerable and weak.
- He tries to impose control over himself as he later tries to win control over others.
- He realizes the importance of presenting an appealing view of himself: his “expression might have passed for calmness.”
- The final sentence of the passage associates him with secrecy, mystery, and indirection.
Chillingworth does blame Hester for her behavior, but he also blames himself. Even more than either of them, however, he blames the man by whom Hester became pregnant. As he puts it in the next chapter while talking to Hester,
“We have wronged each other . . . . Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay. Therefore, as a man who has not thought and philosophized in vain, I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between thee and me the scale hangs fairly balanced. But, Hester, the man lives who has wronged us both!”
It is this unknown man, most of all, whom Chillingworth blames and on whom he will seek to avenge himself.
Chillingworth is described as being slightly disfigured and his character appears to be almost that of a snake. Chillingworth does not blame Hester but rather blames himself and the man Hester had been with.
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