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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, numerous conflicts arise when Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale must decide between following the dictates of their society or the dictates of their own consciences. Hester is thrown into conflict with her community, and she also endures conflict with her daughter; Dimmesdale falls into a kind of hidden conflict with Roger Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale too endures conflict with Pearl. One of the most important conflicts of all, however, is the conflict that takes place within the mind, heart, and conscience of Dimmesdale himself. In some ways, he suffers even more than Hester does because he suffers in silence, and his conflict, from some perspectives, is a conflict with God. Dimmesdale, obviously, can never win such a conflict; he can only be defeated and even destroyed by it, and that is very nearly what happens to him.
The increasingly dark effects of this conflict on Dimmesdale can be traced throughout the novel. In one memorable passage, the narrator describes Dimmesdale’s decline by noting that
His form grew emaciated; his voice, though still rich and sweet, had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay in it; he was often observed, on any slight alarm or other sudden accident, to put his hand over his heart with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of pain.
Here the psychosomatic effects of the conflict taking place inside Dimmesdale’s conscience and soul are plainly visible, and, as the novel develops, those effects become obviously worse. In fact, his physical health is so obviously bad that many people in his community assume that he is destined for an early death. Even some of the local elderly people seem stronger physically than Dimmesdale seems:
The aged members of his flock, beholding Mr. Dimmesdale's frame so feeble, while they were themselves so rugged in their infirmity, believed that he would go heavenward before them, and enjoined it upon their children that their old bones should be buried close to their young pastor's holy grave.
By the end of the novel, Dimmesdale is so physically weak that he does indeed die. Before expiring physically, however, he displays spiritual strength by publicly confessing his sin and publicly atoning for it. Speaking of himself in the third person to the assembled community, he declares,
He bids you look again at Hester's scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! Stand any here that question God's judgment on a sinner! Behold! Behold, a dreadful witness of it!"
He thus reveals the scarlet letter that now exists on his own chest – a letter even more deeply impressed and embedded than Hester’s, but a letter that he has hidden until now, just before he dies.
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