The Scarlet Letter Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis

Chillingworth begins a thorough investigation of Dimmesdale's character. In spite of the minister's apparent holiness, Chillingworth believes that Dimmesdale has inherited a distinct "animal" nature from his father. Well aware that the reverend is well-liked, Chillingworth proceeds carefully. When the minister is out of the house, the "leech" searches for clues. Dimmesdale can't see Chillingworth for who and what he really is. He continues to treat the doctor as a friend.

Chillingworth shows his patient some flowers he picked off a dead man's grave. This is an attempt to trick the minister into revealing his deep secrets. Dimmesdale counters by saying that revealing one's secrets in life isn't necessary. In the end, all will be revealed to God. Any confession of sin in one's lifetime is primarily for the purpose of solace. That is, being honest would make these people feel better, but wouldn't necessarily improve their chance of salvation.

Dimmesdale argues that some people must hide their deepest secrets so that they can continue to do good within the community. If they were to reveal themselves, he says, then their reputations could be ruined, and if that happens all their good work will be negated. In this, the reverend is of course speaking of himself, though he never says so directly. He changes the subject by asking his "friend" if his treatment has been working. Before Chillingworth can answer, Hester and Pearl pass by their house.

Chillingworth goes to the window. He wonders if Pearl is evil. Dimmesdale isn't sure. Hearing this, Pearl throws a burr at the Reverend and calls Chillingworth a "black man," meaning a devil. Hester and Pearl hurry away, and the men are left alone again. Chillingworth returns to the question of the minister's treatment. He admits that the minister's ailment perplexes him. He accuses the Reverend of hiding the true cause of his ailment. Chillingworth suspects it's a disease of the soul. This causes Dimmesdale to question whether this leech has the skills to treat him effectively. He hurries out of the room, declaring that God alone will be his doctor.

It doesn't take long for the men to reconcile. Chillingworth continues to treat the minister's strange illness. One day, Dimmesdale happens to fall asleep in a chair. Chillingworth sneaks up, opens the minister's shirt, and sees the true cause of the minister's ailment. Hawthorne doesn't reveal this until later, but Dimmesdale has been carving an A into his chest. This wound is slowly killing him.

Alliteration
 
Hawthorne often uses alliteration in this chapter. Examples of this include "sore sick" and "amplest apologies."
 
Allusions
 
John Bunyan (1628 - 1688). A Baptist preacher, author of The Pilgrim's Progress. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Bunyan was imprisoned for hosting a religious gathering outside the parish church. While he was in jail, Bunyan wrote his most enduring work, The Pilgrim's Progress. He's alluded to here for his acute insight into the nature of the Christian's soul.
 
Simile
 
Hawthorne alternately compares Roger Chillingworth to "a miner searching for gold" and "a sexton delving into a grave" in search of the minister's secrets. Note that both of these similes characterize Chillingworth as a man digging where he doesn't belong.
 
Symbols
 
The Ugly Flowers. Chillingworth picks these flowers off a dead man's grave—or so he says. It's quite possible that the leech has made up this story to manipulate Dimmesdale into revealing himself. When the physician says the flowers are representative of "some hideous secret" in the dead man's heart, it's abundantly clear that he's trying to figure out Dimmesdale's secret.
 
Themes
 
Illness. There are two different types of illness in the novel: that of the body in its weakness and that of the soul in its depravity. Most of the Puritans in Boston seem to think of sin as a kind of disease Hester and Pearl could spread to others. In Chapter 8, Hawthorne even described Pearl as the embodiment of "scarlet fever," one of the deadliest diseases in the colonies at that time. In this chapter, physical and spiritual illnesses collide in Reverend Dimmesdale. His guilt about his sin has led him to carve a scarlet letter A in his chest. This wound is no doubt destroying his health.
 
Secrets. Hawthorne continues to develop the theme of secrets, which is closely linked to the theme of guilt. Chillingworth uses the ugly weeds from the dead man's grave as the physical manifestation of that man's deepest secrets. In effect, he turns the flowers into symbols. One could argue that most of the symbols in this novel (the scarlet letter, the ugly weeds, Pearl, and Pearl's clothes) are in some way representative of secrets. Most of them, in fact, keep Dimmesdale's identity a secret.