The theme of the evil of manipulation recurs in a number of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories. In the novel The Scarlet Letter, how is this theme important to the development of the plot and the development of the 3 main adult characters?
Hawthorne is interested in showing the effects of guilt on the human psyche in his novel The Scarlet Letter. Each of the three main adult characters, Hester, Roger Chillingworth, and the Reverend Dimmesdale suffer from different kinds of guilt. It is Chillingworth’s guilt that is important to the theme of manipulation in the story.
Early in the novel, Hester is forced to stand upon the scaffold with her infant as punishment for her crime of adultery. Coincidentally, this happens on the same day that her much older husband arrives unannounced in Boston for the first time. When he sees what Hester has done in his absence, he makes her promise not to reveal that he is her husband. He also asks her who the father of the child is, but Hester refuses to name the Reverend Dimmesdale, which leads to the following passage from chapter 5:
“Thou wilt not reveal his name? Not the less he is mine,” resumed he [Chillingworth] with a look of confidence, as if destiny were at one with him.
This passage sets up Chillingworth’s character and motivations for the rest of the story. Once he suspects that his target is the Reverend Dimmesdale, he devotes himself to manipulating Dimmesdale for the purpose of making his life miserable. Since Dimmesdale’s health takes a turn for the worse after Hester’s public humiliation, Chillingworth becomes his personal physician and then his housemate. This leads to a close personal relationship in which Chillingworth becomes Dimmesdale’s confidant. All the while, Chillingworth uses his position of physician to actually make Dimmesdale sicker that he would be otherwise.
Dimmesdale remains ignorant of Chillingworth’s true identity and intentions until chapter 17, when a chance meeting in the forest with Hester finally brings out the truth. Hester, seeing how Dimmesdale has been destroyed by his guilt, much of which has been magnified by Chillingworth’s physical and psychological manipulations, finally breaks her vow of secrecy to Chillingworth and tells Dimmesdale the truth.
“O Arthur,” cried she, “forgive me. In all things else, I have striven to be true! Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast, and did hold fast, through all extremity; save when thy good—thy life—thy fame—were put in question! Then I consented to a deception. But a lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side! Dost thou not see what I would say? That old man!—the physician!—he whom they call Roger Chillingworth!—he was my husband!”
As we can see from the passion of Hester’s revelation, she has suffered as a result of her promise to keep Chillingworth’s secret, because she knows that this secret has made Dimmesdale’s torment worse.
After this revelation, Dimmesdale changes irrevocably. Although he is now free of Chillingworth’s machinations, he is still guilty of betraying himself and his flock through adultery. He soon confesses to the townspeople and dies on the scaffold, thanking God for his mercy.
As for the great manipulator Chillingworth, once Dimmesdale dies he no longer has any reason to live. “All his strength and energy—all his vital and intellectual force—seemed at once to desert him.” He dies within the year. All of his manipulations have served only to leave him empty and broken. Ironically, Dimmesdale dies believing that his sufferings have brought him closer to God.