Those who keep their sins and feelings to themselves cause themselves only anguish and despair. In The Scarlet Letter, a romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is a young man who achieved fame in England as a theologian and then immigrated to America. In a moment of weakness, he and Hester Prynne, a young, beautiful, married woman whose husband is away in Europe, become lovers. Although he will not confess it publicly, Dimmesdale is the father of her child; also, he deals with the guilt by tormenting himself physically and psychologically, developing a heart condition in the process. Dimmesdale is an intelligent and emotional man, and his sermons are thus masterpieces of eloquence and persuasiveness. His commitments to his congregation are in constant conflict with his feelings of sinfulness and need to confess.
He lives behind a false self for many years while unknowingly living beside Hester’s husband, finally his true self appears and he is redeemed of his sins as he admits them publicly. Selfhood can be achieved when a hypocritical persona is rejected and the true self consistently emerges. Dimmesdale is shown as the protagonist of the romance through Hawthorne’s use of characterization, conflict, by showing the transformation of Dimmesdale, and by showing that Roger Chillingworth and Dimmesdale’s own guilt oppose him.
Hawthorne uses characterization throughout The Scarlet Letter to show Dimmesdale as the protagonist. The Scarlet Letter is a story of characters that have to live and deal with the effects of sin in different ways; of these characters, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is the character portrayed as the most inadequate. Despite this portrayal Dimmesdale was a stronger character than given credit for, his unbelievable amount of control in his way of handling his burdens displays his great sense of strength and intellect; although, he is very intelligent, his faults mask his dignity, Dimmesdale is aware that he is covering up his true self but hides these feelings to keep his reputation of being a pious, dutiful minister. His shortcomings and distress throughout the narrative conceal his pride, “Dimmesdale clearly suffers from an excess of self. His weakness and suffering throughout most of the romance, as I suggested earlier, have tended to blur for some readers the fact of his pride, which, like his scarlet letter, lies beneath and gives special form to his mask of saintliness” (Martin 124).
He is first characterized as a nervous and sensitive individual, despite his outer appearance, inside Dimmesdale is a very stable, strong person. Hawthorne states that he showed nervous sensibility and a great willpower, “His eloquence and religious fervor had already given the earnest of high eminence in his profession…expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast power of self-restraint” (Hawthorne 51). While this seems to give Dimmesdale great strength, it is also his largest flaw; moreover, his body refuses to do what his heart says is right. Dimmesdale instructs Hester to reveal the truth, but when she refuses he does not have the determination to confess himself.
Therefore, his sin becomes even larger than hers, because while hers is an exposed sin. He continues to lie to himself and his followers by keeping his secret hidden, so his is a concealed sin, while Hester wears her sin openly on her bosom. Here Hawthorne shows us just how strong Dimmesdale actually is, by allowing him to hide his sin and bear the weight of it, he creates an extremely interesting and tremendously strong character; further, the scaffold is the place that Dimmesdale shows the amount of pain and self-loathing he is truly capable of concealing.
Dimmesdale denies the fact that he is associated with Hester, and also that he is the father of Pearl multiple times, particularly during those crucial scaffold scenes. During those long seven years he made no move to lessen her load or his own. Seven years prior, Hester stood in this place and took the punishment for both of them while he quietly stood aside and led people to believe that he also condemned her. During the first scaffold scene Dimmesdale interrogates Hester, his purpose was to find out who the father of her daughter was, Dimmesdale pretended as if he had never spoken to Hester before, as did Hester. Dimmesdale acknowledges their relationship later on in the narrative, but at this time he must seem as if he does not know her because if the magistrates of Boston knew of their relationship, Dimmesdale would be treated with the same rejection as Hester. During the second scaffold scene Dimmesdale has had all that he can bear and lets out a yell that draws the attention of fellow villagers, “Without any effort of his will, or power to restrain himself, he shrieked aloud” (108). He curses himself for his silence and cowardice.
Also in the second scaffold scene Dimmesdale denies Hester and Pearl again when Pearl asks him to stand with herself and Hester during the day in public, “Wilt thou stand here with mother and me to-morrow noontide?” Dimmesdale responded, “Nay, not so, my little Pearl!” (111). Finally the last time Dimmesdale stood on the scaffold he accepted Hester and admitted that he was indeed the father of Pearl, “The law we [himself and Hester] broke!- the sin here so awfully revealed!” (181). During the third scaffold scene the true sign of strength is revealed, to admit he is wrong takes strength, but the way that he held in his sin thus committing two, one of the original sin, and two of the concealment, then confessing after years of frustrating cowardice takes a stronger man. Dimmesdale is also characterized as a very hypocritical being. He has the town believe that he is a pious, dedicated minister, when in actuality he has sinned greatly, “But Dimmesdale’s burden keeps him on a level with the lowest. His congregation worships him; their adoration intensifies his guilty anguish; and his suffering heightens his fervor” (Male 334).
He is not brave enough to publicly admit his sins until the end of the narrative; moreover, he lives years hiding his secret of adultery. The only people who know his secret before he publicly condemns himself are Hester, Pearl, and Chillingworth. He suffers from this secret every day and night, he punishes himself physically and tortures himself mentally, as well as being tortured mentally and physically by Chillingworth, “Dimmesdale suffers worlds of penance; but, since he is not willing to sacrifice the public image of himself, it is penance without penitence. He knows that the morality of this colony calls for sin and iniquity to be exposed in the broad light of noonday, that confession is here a public matter” (Martin 124).
It takes Dimmesdale three trips to the scaffold for him to be able to reveal to the public that he is the father of Pearl and that he had hidden his sin for many years. His demise was from the drain of his will, which was worn and lacking. Dimmesdale was not courageous in his actions in the story but strong; he was able to carry the burdens, frustration, and pain throughout his life. Whether he was good, brave, or right in what he did is to remain unseen but the fact that he was strong is certain.
Rev. Dimmesdale is proven to be the protagonist of the narrative also by conflict, he proves to be a sinner against man, against God and most importantly against himself because he has committed adultery with Hester. His sinning against himself, for which he ultimately paid the price of death, proved to be more harmful and more destructive than this sin of the flesh, and his sin against God. Dimmesdale’s internal conflict causes him more anguish and discontent than any external conflict throughout the romance. His internal feelings of sin and his late night attempts to redeem himself on the scaffold are more of a mockery of ignominy than actual ignominy, “So long as they are covert, the minister’s gestures are but a mockery of penance, and his cloistral flagellations, fasts, and vigils are unavailing” (Male 334). Dimmesdale is not ignorant, he is very well educated, as Hawthorne states, “…Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale; a young clergyman who had come from one of the great English universities, bringing all the learning of the age into our wild forestland. His eloquence and religious fervor had already given the earnest of high eminence in his profession.” (Hawthorne 72).
This man’s morals had, until the adultery, been high. He is very spiritual because on top of being of the Puritan faith, he is a minister of the word of God. Throughout most of the novel, Rev. Dimmesdale is forced to hide his guilt of being Hester’s partner in sin, when in reality, he is not being forced by anyone, but himself, for he is the one who chooses not to reveal his secret to the town. Dimmesdale has a concealed sin that is eating at him. He just doesn’t have the courage to admit his wrongs. He seems to be a coward during these seven years of living with guilt. There is a scene in chapter three where Dimmesdale states, “Hester Prynne…If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow -sinner and fellow- sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life? What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him-yea compel him as it were-to add hypocrisy to sin?” (73).
In this scene it is almost as if we see Dimmesdale speaking as a hypocrite. Dimmesdale portrays himself very ironically; he is a very well respected reverend and yet, has, for the last seven years, worked on preaching the word of God, especially while he urges the congregation to confess openly to repent unto God. While, in reality, Dimmesdale is the one who needs a clean conscious. He feels like he needs to confess not only to the town but also too himself. Halfway through the novel Dimmesdale has yet to reveal the truth, which, so far, has been devouring him, physically and mentally. Since this good reverend is so spiritual, he cannot reveal his truths to the town so simply. He is of the Puritan faith and being a follower of that, the sin of adultery is a very grand sin; additionally, the whole town would look down on him as if he were a hypocrite, which in fact, he is, but his sin of adultery in that town would have been scoffed at just as Hester’s has. The reverend is very well liked by the townsfolk, “They fancied him the mouthpiece of Heaven’s messages of wisdom, rebuke, and love. In their eyes, the very ground on which he trod was sanctified.” (139).
He has been living without revealing his true self for seven years, and it was hard for him, mentally and physically. Mentally, his whole body shuts down because he cannot take it anymore, even though he does not give in to confess yet. He has become emaciated because he has let the sin against himself churn inside and on the outside he has spent many nights whipping himself. Perhaps this is a sign for him to feel he has punished himself, as God would have punished him, if he were on Earth. One day while Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth are talking about medicinal plants that Chillingworth found on an old grave that had no tombstone or marking whatsoever, Chillingworth says to Dimmesdale, “…They grew out of his heart, and typify, it may be, some hideous secret that was buried with him, and which he had done better to confess during his lifetime.” (129). It’s as if Chillingworth can tell that Rev. Dimmesdale is hiding something, something that could be the cause of his health depleting. Chillingworth then states that, “Then why not reveal them here?” (129).
Chillingworth knows, he simply knows that there is something else, something that Dimmesdale has not yet come forth to tell him. Dimmesdale, in chapter twelve, is finally realizing that it could be a better thing to disclose his secret to the town. He has become so weak that he has even thought about his own death; moreover, he has walked to the scaffold and climbed up as if he wants to proclaim something, and yet, it is nighttime and the whole town is resting. Some are at the deathbed of the ailing governor who has just died. They do not notice him. As Hester and Pearl walk by, Dimmesdale tells them, “Come up hither, Hester, thou and little Pearl…Ye have both been here before, but I was not with you. Come up hither once again, and we will stand all three together!” (148) Dimmesdale has obviously been thinking that he wants to reveal himself, he is struggling with internal conflict yet again, but his choice of the hour tells the reader that he cannot confess in the day, not yet. Pearl herself knows or at least feels that this is right, that the three of them together is a match, because she says, “Wilt thou stand here with Mother and me, tomorrow noontide?” (148). But Dimmesdale refuses, “Not so, my child. I shall, indeed, stand with thy mother and thee one other day, but not tomorrow” (148-149).
Dimmesdale is coming close to speaking, but he does not. He reveals his truths to the town after he has preached his finest sermon and after the town is holding him so very high on a pedestal. Dimmesdale says to the town, “…ye, that have loved me!-ye that have deemed me holy!-behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last!-at last!-I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman…” (237). Now that Dimmesdale has confessed his secret, he can die. He has admitted to being the father of Hester Prynne’s child, Pearl, and his poor corpse, which is so deathly, can rest in peace now. His mind is well aware that it can live on knowing that the truth is out but his body is so battered that it cannot go on living. Dimmesdale has sinned against God, and more importantly against himself. Yes, he has not lived a true life because for seven years he has lived in denial of his sin. It did prove to be more harmful in the end, since he died on the scaffold while standing next to his fellow-sinner Hester. He knew that he needed to reveal himself but in his Puritan ways, it was hard to confess.
The irony he portrays and the hypocrisy that he lives is such a grand sin in itself, he lived looking his sin in the face every single day, because he was a minister and not only would have to answer to the townsfolk after he had admitted but he had to face God everyday; his character has perhaps the central struggle in this novel, for he has the struggle within, and the struggle portrayed outwardly to the town, and Hester; in addition, he is definitely a very dramatic character in this novel, for Hawthorne stated, “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred.” (242). When Hawthorne made this quote in reference to Rev. Dimmesdale, he meant many things, he said that he should “be true” and “…show freely to the world,” because Dimmesdale should have showed his true feelings about Hester, and his feelings that he kept hidden for seven years about the adultery then, he would have much more relief.
When Hawthorne says “…if not your worst…whereby the worst may be inferred,” he is saying that if you cannot at least get out the worst trait that you have been indicted of, you should try to get a point across that would aid in the finding of that worst trait. By this quote, it appears that Hawthorne thought that if Dimmesdale had only confessed earlier, he had the opportunities, he could have admitted his sins each time he was at the scaffold, then he would have saved himself from all the torment he had put himself through; additionally, it appears that Hawthorne meant that the town, itself, would still have scoffed but wouldn’t have remembered the sin of adultery as much now, as back then when Hester got accused as well.
Dimmesdale is shown at the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter by being opposed by his own conscience and by Roger Chillingworth. Chillingworth opposes Dimmesdale in the sense that, he knows that Dimmesdale has repressed sin; and, he desires to find out what that sin is, “This man, pure as they deem him,- all spiritual as he seems,- hath inherited a strong animal nature from his father or his mother. Let us dig a little farther in the direction of this vein!” (94). Dimmesdale thought that he had a friendly relationship with Chillingworth, “He therefore still kept up a familiar intercourse with him, daily receiving the old physician in his study; or visiting the laboratory, and, for recreation’s sake, watching the process by which weeds were converted into drugs of potency” (95), but in actuality Chillingworth was torturing Dimmesdale without Dimmesdale knowing it.
Chillingworth constantly tortured Dimmesdale physically and mentally. Chillingworth is always giving the minister drugs that he makes with weeds. Many times the physician acquires these weeds from the town cemetery, these weeds are also characterized as, “unsightly,” “ugly” or, “dark and tangled,” this suggests that the medicine that Dimmesdale is taking is venomous. Chillingworth is generally characterized as an evil person, and many of the actions he takes suggest that he represents the devil; moreover, he even notices this similarity in himself, “I have already told thee what I am! A fiend!” (158). Chillingworth is given the name “The Black Man” by Pearl, this clearly shows that he is representative of the devil.
Dimmesdale is also shown as the protagonist through his opposition to his own conscience, he opposes himself in many ways. Dimmesdale’s true self which he reveals at the end of the narrative is the protagonist when compared to his true self throughout the rest of the narrative. His true self during the majority of the narrative is a man who has sinner and refuses to publicly admit it. During this time he privately hurts himself and damages his mind and his body. Although, that the end of the romance, he repents and is able to die. He was not able to die until he disclosed his secret because without divulging his sin he would not be close enough to God, and he believed that he would not be in Heaven after his death.
Dimmesdale ultimately was transformed from a man too timid to share his sin publicly, to one who proclaims to the entire town that he is the father of the illegitimate child whose mother has been accepting his sin for years. He was too coy to publicly come form as Pearl’s father that he went to the scaffold in the dead of night to “repent,” although this action was more a mockery of penance than actual ignominy, “No eye could see him…Why then had he come hither? Was it but the mockery of penitence? A mockery indeed…” (107). Dimmesdale was changed from the apprehensive, seemingly pious and innocent minister to the man that proclaimed his sin openly, “The new man is really Arthur Dimmesdale. Having achieved individuation in the forest, he now returns to join the procession only to rise above it” (Male 341). Hawthorne shows Dimmesdale’s complete transformation through characterization and conflict, Dimmesdale could only die after he redeemed himself through ignominy.
Thus, Arthur Dimmesdale is established as the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne shows this through characterization, internal and external conflict, transformation, and Dimmesdale’s opposition of Roger Chillingworth and his own conscience. Those who keep their sins and feelings to themselves cause themselves only anguish and despair, Arthur Dimmesdale did this throughout the majority of The Scarlet Letter, he internalized his feelings and sins and was not able to express them until the final scaffold scene when he threw himself at the mercy of God as he died with a clear conscience. Sense of self can be attained when a deceitful facade is rejected and the true self steadily materializes.