Student Question

In The Scarlet Letter, when does Dimmesdale confess?

Quick answer:

The question is answered in Chapter XXIII.

Expert Answers

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Interestingly, while the title of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel places the focus upon the character of Hester Prynne, the examination of the consequences of sin centers more around the character of Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who holds in his heart a formidable secret sin. Moreover, this sin remains hidden for most of Hawthorne's narrative.

Whereas Hester's sin is openly acknowledged, she can move forward with her life in acts of penitence and charity in order to attain some redemption from her sin. However, since the Reverend Dimmesdale's sin is cloistered, he must live a life of hypocrisy, a life which tortures him and destroys the very fabric of his being. In Chapter XII, the minister is so guilt-ridden that he stands on the scaffold, hoping that someone will come by to shame him and he can confess, but only Hester with Pearl finds him. Clearly, he is tortured by his hidden sin and wants to confess, but he is too weak on his own.

...while standing on the scaffold, in this vain show of expiation, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain. Without any effort of his will, or power to restrain himself, he shrieked aloud;

Later, when Hester meets him in the forest, she urges him to return to England with her where they can begin anew and he can put aside his past transgressions, but his terrible guilt will not let him. He is not brave enough to abandon his life in the Puritan colony; for, in a perverse way, he feels that he is doing God's work and is helping his congregation. So, he punishes himself with self-flagellation. However, even this physical pain does not assuage the torment of his soul. Thus, it is on Election Sunday, with the entire community present that Arthur Dimmesdale with Hester and Pearl beside him, exposes himself to the community as a sinner:

"At last...I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman, whose arm...sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from grovelling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!”

Thus, in Chapter XXIII, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale confesses his sin as he opens his vestment and reveals the A, the mark above his heart. 

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