The Scarlet Letter Essays and Criticism
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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A Characterization of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne unfolds its plot during the era of Puritanism, not less than two centuries ago, in Boston, Massachusetts. One’s attention is drawn to the character of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. As the father of a child, born out of wedlock to Hester Prynne, Dimmesdale is portrayed as a character who, though consumed with guilt for his part in an action which brings ignominy to Hester, is unable to publicly announce his culpability as a partner in this scandal.

Thus, the Reverend begins to lead a double life – a life which brings him torment. To the outside world, he is the model Reverend. He assumes the posture of one totally innocent regarding such misdeeds; in fact, he condemns them. As his parishioners note, “he took it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.” (Hawthorne). When Hester is forced to stand upon a scaffold in public view as atonement for her sin, The Scarlet Letter A (for Adulteress emblazoned upon the bosom of her garment, it is Dimmesdale who self-righteously implores her: “I charge thee speak out the name of thy fellow sinner and fellow-sufferer!” (Hawthorne 73). When the clergy elect to take the child, Pearl, away from Hester, considering her unfit to raise the child, Dimmesdale does nothing to stand in the way of proceedings to this end until Hester beseeches him to speak on her behalf. Only then does he come to her defense, saying: “This child of its father’s guilt and its mother’s shame hath come from the hand of God . . . It was meant for a blessing . . . for a retribution too. . . .” (Hawthorne 114). It was due to his persuasive argument that Hester was allowed to keep the child.

One is amazed by the fact that Dimmesdale can utter words of condemnation with such passion, yet keep his identity as the child’s father concealed. However, as a direct result of his guilt, the Reverend becomes increasingly ill. Those best acquainted with him attributed his decline to a too earnest devotion to study and fulfillment of parochial duties. Yet the Reverend is aware of the fact that the “poison of one morbid spot was infecting his heart’s entire substance. . . .” (Hawthorne 137). Knowing his public venerated him caused him agony: he knew he was being deceitful. Thinking of his grave, he wondered whether grass would ever grow on it, “because an accursed thing must there be buried!” (Hawthorne 139).

Thus, although he longed to speak out and tell the people who he was: “I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!” (Hawthorne 140), he could not. His own stance to the world was revealed when he stated those that are guilty go about “looking pure as new-fallen snow; while their hearts are all speckled and spotted with inequity of which they cannot rid themselves.” (Hawthorne 130). However, he realized that admission would be a great relief: “It must need be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it all up in his heart.” (Hawthorne 132).

It is through the character of Roger Chillingworth , Hester’s ex-husband who, while symbolically representing the Devil, acts as the Reverend’s physician and friend, that Dimmesdale’s character is revealed: his inability to step forward publicly and act in Hester’s defense. It is not by direct revelation that his thinking pertaining to this matter is exposed, but rather in response to a particular incident involving Chillingworth. Having gathered some herbs in a graveyard for medicinal purposes, Chillingworth states to Dimmesdale that the herbs grew out of the man’s heart “and typify, it may be, some hideous secret . . . which had done better to confess during his lifetime.” (Hawthorne 129). Chillingworth, knowing the Reverend’s physical illness is a manifestation of his spiritual sickness, makes the remark in order to elicit a response from Dimmesdale. It is...

(The entire section is 10,596 words.)