In the Scarlet Letter, why does Dimmesdale's confession need to be public?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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It is in chapter XXIII of The Scarlet Letter, which is aptly titled "The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter" that Arthur Dimmesdale finally comes forward and confesses to the shocked audience of magistrates, villagers, and other visitors that he has carved a scarlet letter on his chest, and that he has had a horrid secret of sin that has been hidden for far too long. 

In his view, the secret had to be publicly exposed for many reasons.

  • First, because Hester had the courage to publicly expose her own shame, pay for it, and suffer as a consequence.
  • Second, because he deserves to suffer the same public humiliation that Hester suffered as a way to receive proper punishment by his angry God.
  • Third, because it is merely the right thing to do; after all, he has been lying for seven long years to all of his parishioners. He has embodied the persona of a man of God who even judges and punishes Hester himself—only to be the one who committed the crime with her in the first place.

Therefore, feeling himself already about to die, and having told Hester that he would leave with her (which he, perhaps, knew would never happen), Dimmesdale elected the most popular day in the year, Election Day, to give his sermon and tell the world what he had done. 

I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman, whose arm...sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from grovelling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! ....it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!

All of these were the reasons Dimmesdale wanted to make his confession public. It was the only way to make up for all the seven years of infamy that his silence had caused Hester.

Now comes the ironic part. Nobody believes him. We find out later on that the villagers, so stuck in their ways and unable to think rationally, figured that something supernatural had taken place with the priest. It is not clear whether any of them actually realize what has taken place. It is an anticlimactic result, but nevertheless it shows that the man needed to do this in order to save his soul, according to what he believed. 

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