One could say that Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is poisoned, or that he merely died of guilty conscience. In the Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Reverend Dimmesdale commits adultery with Hester Prynne, and so she bears a child. Dimmesdale does not admit his sin to the people in the community. Keeping the sin a secret for as long as he does creates guilt and suffering which manifests in him until his death. Chillingworth is Hester’s husband who is symbolic of a leech because he lives off of Dimmesdale for a “host” making Dimmesdale’s life miserable in order to retaliate. Dr. Kahn suggests that Chillingworth poisoned Dimmesdale over a long period of time; there were references to Deadly Nightshade, and shows symptoms of the use of Atropine. Atropine is a drug that comes from a plant called Deadly Nightshade, or Belladonna (Fair-weather). Poisonous plants and symptoms are arguable reasons for Dimmesdale’s death by Dr. Kahn. However, Dr. Kahn’s theory that Dimmesdale is poisoned by atropine is false, and Dimmesdale’s death is caused by a prolonged depression brought on by guilt.
Dr. Kahn suggests that Reverend Dimmesdale’s death is because Chillingworth has been poisoning him with Atropine in small amounts for a very long time. “Dimmesdale’s symptoms developed over a prolonged period, indicating that they are probably the result of chronic poisoning” (Kahn). Although Dr. Kahn argues that Chillingworth poisons Dimmesdale with atropine, and or deadly herbs, there is not enough evidence to prove this idea true. “You wrong yourself in this…you have deeply and sorely repented” (Hawthorne 173). Hester is telling Dimmesdale that he has been punishing himself for his sin even though it has long past. The sin and guilt that has been festering in Dimmesdale is too much for him to handle. “Continual presence of Roger Chillingworth, — the secret poison of malignity, infecting all the air about him…these bad opportunities had been turned to a cruel purpose” (Hawthorne 174).
Although it may seem as though Hawthorne is describing Dimmesdale being poisoned by Chillingworth, Hawthorne is simply describing the mental torture that Chillingworth puts Dimmesdale through. It shows the effects of Chillingworth living with Dimmesdale. Hester knows that this is a bad environment for Dimmesdale because Chillingworth is making Dimmesdale feel even worse about himself, and he is also depressed. Dimmesdale does not even realize his motives. Instead of Kahn’s theory of how Chillingworth poisoned him for a long period of time, it is more likely that Dimmesdale died of a prolonged period of stress and torture that came with the guilt of his sin.
Dr. Kahn also makes references to poisonous plants throughout the Scarlet Letter. However, the references to poisonous plants may very well just be added description, or an interest the author might have. “in due course of time, would be seen deadly nightshade, dogwood, henbane, and whatever else of vegetable wickedness the climate could produce” (Hawthorne 158). Hawthorne does mention the poisonous plants, and also relates the plants to Chillingworth. Hawthorne is not trying to point out that Chillingworth uses these deadly plants and herbs to poison Dimmesdale, but it is symbolic of evil in him because it is saying that Chillingworth is so evil that poisonous plants will grow out of his burial site. Chillingworth is picking herbs at the beginning of chapter fifteen, and she[Hester] wondered what sort of herbs they were, which the old man was so sedulous to gather (Hawthorne 158).
The author is simply describing Chillingworth as an evil person, and uses the herbs as a symbol of evil in order for the reader to further make him out to be a bad person. According to an interview with Helen Fairweather, deadly nightshade plants are, “scattered around Southern Europe, some of Asia and Algeria, and it is planted in England, and North America” (Fairweather). This suggests that nightshade plants were around at the time, and were a common interest to doctors like Chillingworth then.
Hawthorne has to set the scene for the reader to develop an understanding of the plot, so poisonous plants may just be a description of the setting in the story. Hawthorne had an interest in deadly plants like nightshade. “the writer was deeply engaged in reading everything he could lay his hands on. It was said…he read every book in the Athenaeum” (Kahn). Dr. Kahn says that Hawthorne had an interest in reading and especially the books on nightshade. The author of the Scarlet Letter liked to read about poisonous plants, so he included references from his knowledge of the plants in his story.
Dr. Kahn suggests that Dimmesdale showed many symptoms of atropine poisoning, but the symptoms which he showed could have been signs of depression, stress, heartbreak, disease, or guilt. “even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart” (Hawthorne 228). According to Dr. Kahn, the red stigma on Dimmesdale’s chest is “the rash, that is, of atropine poisoning” (Kahn). However, throughout the book, there is mention to the red letter “A”. Hester wears an “A” on her clothing for adulteress as a punishment and constant reminder of her sin. The red stigma on Dimmesdale’s chest may be an “A” he inflicted upon himself during repent. This would make sense because Dimmesdale feels guilty for keeping his sin a secret while Hester was punished for hers, so he punished himself.
Many symptoms Kahn describes like un-coordination, rapid weak pulse, convulsions, hallucinations, speech difficulties, and paleness could easily be signs of other problems besides atropine poisoning. Dimmesdale feels guilty and sad for not telling the townspeople the truth about what he did so he finds it hard to talk, let alone punish Hester. “The trying nature of his position drove the blood from his cheek and made his lips tremulous” (Hawthorne 63). Dimmesdale is nervous in front of the townspeople having to make the decision on punishment for Hester, while Hester is standing on the scaffold by herself, and he becomes pale from the position he is in.
When Dimmesdale has heart problems it may have been because of his heartache and depression from the unavailability to be there for Hester and Pearl. As Hester was begging him to let her keep Pearl, he showed these signs of pity and heartache. “the young minister at once came forward, pale, and holding his hand over his heart, as was his custom whenever his peculiar nervous temperament was thrown into agitation” (Hawthorne 103). Also being a pastor for a community of very critical people is hard work, the townspeople had high expectations. “…whose health had severely suffered, of late, by his too unreserved self-sacrifice to the labors and duties of the pastoral relation” (Hawthorne 99). Dimmesdale’s job as a minister was wearing down his health. Depression and heartache were the cause of Dimmesdale’s death.
Dr. Kahn had many arguable reasons for the death of Dimmesdale, but Dimmesdale may not have been poisoned by atropine. Dimmesdale could have been poisoned over a prolonged period of time, but it is more likely that he died out of torture and guilt. Although Dr. Kahn tries to argue that the references to plants in the story are proof of the availability of atropine, he fails at pointing out that the author may have merely used the plants like nightshade symbolically or descriptively. Dr. Kahn also gives many symptoms that Dimmesdale is showing throughout the story however Dimmesdale is showing signs of depression, stress, guilt, and heartbreak. In conclusion, there is evidence to support the death of Dimmesdale being caused by a prolonged period of depression caused by guilt.
Fairweather, Helen. Interview. 17 September 2011
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bantam, 1986. Print. Khan Dr., Jemshed A. “Atropine Poisoning in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.” The New England Journal of Medicine (1984): 414-16. Web.
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