How does the congregation react to Dimmesdale's self-condemning sermons in The Scarlet Letter?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Dimmesdale's protestations that he is a sinner and unworthy work in a reversal of Queen Gertrude's words from Hamlet, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks," suggesting that the player queen lies about not remarrying after her husband is slain. In the minister's case, he tells the truth, but the congregation refuses to believe him, feeling that he humbles himself before his flock in the hope that they, too, will confess their sins.

In Chapter XI, Dimmesdale's hypocrisy tortures him and he suffers from "the agony with which this public veneration tortured him" is terrible. Therefore, he again attempts confession at his pulpit, telling his congregation,

"I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!"

When he finally does speak, Dimmesdale tells them he is a "'wretched body shrivelled up before their eyes by the burning wrath of the Almighty," and, hearing this, they revere him all the more, saying,

"The saint on earth! Alas, if he discern such sinfulness in his own white soul, what horrid spectacle would he behold in thine or mine!"

The adoration which the congregation affords the minister disturbs him all the more because he "loved the truth, and loathed the lie, as few men ever did." Thus, the effect of his confessions wears more heavily upon him than his secret sin has done. Dimmesdale is driven by his guilt and sense of hypocrisy to self-flagellation until his knees "trembled beneath him." At night he keeps vigils and is tortured by visions of "diabolic shapes" and other grotesque fantasies. His psychological torture increases because he is one thing to himself, but another to the townspeople, and he lives a lie.

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The Scarlet Letter

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