Student Question

How does the congregation react to Dimmesdale's self-condemning sermons in The Scarlet Letter?

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Dimmesdale's protestations that he is a sinner and unworthy work in a reversal of Queen Gertrude's words from Hamlet, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks," suggesting that the player queen lies about not remarrying after her husband is slain. In the minister's case, he tells the truth, but the congregation refuses to believe him, feeling that he humbles himself before his flock in the hope that they, too, will confess their sins.

In Chapter XI, Dimmesdale's hypocrisy tortures him and he suffers from "the agony with which this public veneration tortured him" is terrible. Therefore, he again attempts confession at his pulpit, telling his congregation,

"I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!"

When he finally does speak, Dimmesdale tells them he is a "'wretched body shrivelled up before their eyes by the burning wrath of the Almighty," and, hearing this, they revere him all the more, saying,

"The saint on earth! Alas, if he discern such sinfulness in his own white soul, what horrid spectacle would he behold in thine or mine!"

The adoration which the congregation affords the minister disturbs him all the more because he "loved the truth, and loathed the lie, as few men ever did." Thus, the effect of his confessions wears more heavily upon him than his secret sin has done. Dimmesdale is driven by his guilt and sense of hypocrisy to self-flagellation until his knees "trembled beneath him." At night he keeps vigils and is tortured by visions of "diabolic shapes" and other grotesque fantasies. His psychological torture increases because he is one thing to himself, but another to the townspeople, and he lives a lie.

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In The Scarlet Letter, when Dimmesdale does actually admit his sinfulness to his congregation, how do his church members react?

When the final revelation comes that the reader has known for quite a while, it is nothing short of miraculous. The exposure of Dimmesdale's own, guilt-wracked Scarlet Letter on his breast and the revelation of his sin is something that strikes those who witness his very public declaration with fear and wonder. Note how the text talks of how people responded:

The multitude, silent till then, broke out in a strange, deep voice of awe and wonder, which could not as yet find utterance, save in this murmur that rolled so heavily after the departed spirit.

The final concluding chapter to this tale explores some of the meanings that attached themselves to the minister's startling declaration. The one that seemed to be accepted by most of his congregation is that Dimmesdale, conscious of his position as pastor until the last, used his death as a kind of parable to teach them all:

...the mighty and wonderful lesson that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are all sinners alike.

This is something that only serves to still increase the respect and awe with which Dimmesdale was held and thought of by his congregation. It is perhaps ironic that Dimmesdale's death that was due at least in part to his fear of what would happen if he did confess only served to increase his standing still further amongst his congregation.

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