Student Question

How has Dimmesdale's character changed in The Scarlet Letter concerning hidden versus revealed sin?

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Dimmesdale is not just a weak character, he is actually an enigma. He is like a person who has had his soul taken away and replaced with another one. The reader never knows what kind of man Dimmesdale really was before Hester's sin. The reader knows that Dimmesdale was a good preacher, and the townspeople liked him, but the reader doesn't know if he ever went to brothels or if he even cheated on Hester when they were together in England. As far as we know, Dimmesdale might be an entirely different person than Hester's husband from England.

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After the minister's clandestine meeting with Hester in the forest, Hester has convinced him that they must leave the colony and return to England where they can live together as a family.  Arthur Dimmesdale departs, looking backward, uncertain of what he has truly experienced.  With the quandary of public hypocrisy and private suffering seemingly solved now, Dimmesdale's mind is free to consider other possibilities, and, like a child released from rules, his spirit feels a sense of release.  He considers that he yet has time to give the Election Sermon, deceiving himself that the townspeople will at least say he performed his duties to the end.  Having held his sin within his heart so long, Dimmesdale has become delusional.  Of this Hawthorne significantly writes,

No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

A transformation, however, does come over the spirit of Dimmesdale in his sense of release from his secret sin, as he feels that he has "flung down" his sin like "a cast-off garment."  Describing this sense of release in Dimmesdale, as "a revolution in the sphere of thought and feeling," Hawthorne portrays Dimmesdale as incited to commit "wild, wicked things" as an outlet to having held so long his secret guilt. Like Peter, who denies his Lord three times, Dimmesdale commits three acts of wickedness. Yet, these great temptations and his conversation with Mistress Gibbins cause the minister to return to his thoughts that he is a powerless victim of fate and must bear his cross of guilt and sin:

Tempted by a dream of happiness, he had yielded himself, with deliberate choice, as he had never done before, to what he knew was deadly sin. 

Realizing the great evil of his hypocrisy in concealing his sin for so long, Dimmesdale pulls back from his feelings of release in the forest with Hester; and, as he feels fate directing him more,

...Another man had returned out of the forest...with a knowledge of hidden mysteries which the simplicity of the former never could have reached.  A bitter kind of knowledge that!

When he enters his house, Chillingworth greets him, but realizes that the minister no longer trusts him.  Speaking of his forthcoming sermon, Chillingworth suggests that he give the minister medication, but Dimmesdale, sensing a looming fate that he must be punished for his sin, refuses him and, instead, speaks of going to "another world." 

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This theme is most evident in chapter 20 of the novel. The transformation begins after Hester and Dimmesdale had a secret meeting in the forest, and Hester convinces Dimmesdale that they need to leave behind the settlement and move back to England. At this point Hester is almost sure that Dimmesdale finally sees her point, and he assents. However, it is clear to the reader that he is dazed and confused. Part of it is because Hester has him realize that his role as a pastor is quite hypocritical. She is not judgmental about it, but she does point out that he is just not the image that he works so hard to keep.

"At least, they shall say of me," thought this exemplary man, "that I leave no public duty unperformed or ill-performed!" Sad, indeed, that an introspection so profound and acute as this poor minister's should be so miserably deceived!

Dimmesdale is, therefore free. He is free from his guilt of having sinned against Hester, because the latter has openly forgiven him. He is free from his committment as a priest because he now has a way out of the settlement. However, with freedom there is the danger of confusing becoming liberated with becoming a libertine. Unfortunately, Dimmesdale was too much a spoiled child of the people not to consider the latter alternative.

Hawthorne writes of Dimmesdale's sudden awakening quite symbolically. Just like the Bible uses the motif of "threes", Dimmesdale also does three particularly bad things. Twice he is mean and rude to a deacon and to a member of his church. Then, he wants to teach bad things to kids that are playing near the church. He wonder if this liberation has made him mad or if, instead, it had removed his soul away and given it to the devil.

Am I mad? or am I given over utterly to the fiend? Did I make a contract with him in the forest, and sign it with my blood? And does he now summon me to its fulfilment, by suggesting the performance of every wickedness which his most foul imagination can conceive?

Just in time, enters Mistress Hibbins, who basically tells him that she knows that he has been in the forest, and that he has been up to no good. This frightens Dimmesdale, who wonders if he has actually sold his soul. This shows the ambiguity and weakness of Dimmesdale's character.

As a result of this, Dimmesdale no longer dreams of a new life with Hester. He starts to shift again, as if he has again become liberated in a different manner and he starts speaking of leaving to "another world". He has come out of the forest knowing good and bad. His hidden sin made him an emanciated, shy and quiet enigma. His revealed sin made him wild with desire of being a libertine. He has perhaps finally met both sides, heaven and hell. It is now time to move on. And, again, he will move on without considering Hester nor Pearl.

Yes, to another world," replied the minister with pious resignation. "Heaven grant it be a better one; for, in good sooth, I hardly think to tarry with my flock through the flitting seasons of another year! But touching your medicine, kind sir, in my present frame of body I need it not.

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To preface this answer, it is important to remember that Hawthorne wrote this novel as an allegory.  An allegory is defined as a literary work with two or more levels of meaning, one literal level and one on a symbolic level.  In Chapter 20, Dimmesdale is confronted with the reality of his sin. He is a product of the Puritan Code that his passions could not outweigh.  Puritans so seriously regarded adultery, prohibited by the 7th Commandment, that it was punishable by death.  Dimmesdale, at this point, faces his demons.  As the pastor of the colony and the father of Pearl, he is torn by a guilty conscience but is too much of a coward to stand by Hester and to announce his indiscretion. After the confrontation with the eldest female member of his church and the meeting with his deacon, he made his decision.  Thus, he went back to his room and tried to write his sermon for the congregation, which he could not complete after he worked on throughout the night. 

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