Last Updated on January 31, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649
Hester happens to see Chillingworth while walking along the seashore with Pearl. She tells Pearl to play while the adults talk. He mentions that one of the town’s magistrates once suggested removing the scarlet letter on her chest. She tells him that no one should remove the letter. “Were I worthy to be quit of it,” she says, “it would fall away of its own nature.” He doesn’t really care either way.
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Hester notes that Chillingworth has become old, ugly, and deceitful. His once studious manner has been twisted into something evil and hideous. Hester is taken aback by his appearance. She quickly changes the subject to that of her oath. Though she has never explicitly named Dimmesdale, Hester and Chillingworth both know he’s Pearl’s father. She wants Chillingworth to stop torturing the man.
Chillingworth himself seems somewhat appalled by the changes he has undergone. He refers to his “once human” heart and admits that it would’ve been better for Dimmesdale to die immediately than to suffer all these years. And yet he thinks the suffering isn’t enough. He feels personally slighted by Hester’s affair with Dimmesdale. He laments that he was once a gentle, middle-aged scholar. If he’s a fiend now, then it’s their fault for turning him into one.
Hester says that she must reveal the secret of Dimmesdale’s identity. She doesn’t want Chillingworth to keep their secret, either. It hasn’t been good for anyone involved. She and Chillingworth both pity each other for what they’ve become. She asks him to pardon her and Dimmesdale for what they did. He refuses, stating that it’s not within his power. He will let Hester do as she wants, even if it means revealing Dimmesdale’s secret.
One example of this can be found in the phrase “let the black flower blossom as it may!”
Colors. In this chapter, the most prominent colors are black and red. As always, the scarlet letter is linked to sin, shame, and lust. Here, it’s most often linked to fire imagery, as when it’s described as a “red-hot iron.” This is largely in keeping with traditional interpretations of the color red, which is associated with fire, heat, and even hell.
The Black Flower. In chapter 10, Hawthorne turned the ugly flowers on the dead man’s grave into symbols of the deep secrets that man harbored in his heart. In this chapter, Hawthorne replicates that symbolism with the “black flower” Chillingworth mentions. This flower is symbolic of the secret in Dimmesdale’s heart, which Hester and Chillingworth have decided to let blossom for the world to see.
Optics. When Hester confronts Chillingworth, it’s as if he’s able to see himself for the first time. His cruelty and thirst for revenge have disfigured him body and soul, turning him into a hideous, malicious man with little other than evil in his heart. He blames Hester and Dimmesdale for these changes but also understands his own culpability. His sudden self-perception speaks to the theme of optics, which has been woven throughout the entire novel. In this case, “optics” refers both to Chillingworth’s physical appearance and to his self-image, which undergoes radical changes in this chapter.
Revenge. Chillingworth’s primary motivation is revenge. It leads him to mark his identity, pretend to befriend Dimmesdale, and allow the minister to torture himself. Hester thinks this is revenge enough, but the physician disagrees. “He has but increased the debt!” Chillingworth cries. In other words, he’ll never stop torturing Dimmesdale. Nothing will ever rid him of his thirst for revenge. One could argue that the doctor’s quest for revenge has become an exercise in spite. He tortures Dimmesdale not because the minister deserves it, but because he wants to. This is what makes him a “fiend.”