The Greater Sinner – Arthur Dimmesdale or Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter ?


"A bodily disease, which we look upon as whole and entire within itself, may, after all, be but a symptom of some ailment in the spiritual part."
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 - 1864)

The novel The Scarlet Letter tells the story of Hester who is guilty of adultery and has to wear the letter ‘A’ in scarlet colour on her bosom. The adultery is over and done with before the book begins; it is a tangle after the event’, as Herbert Norman calls it. In the long run of Hester’s suffering with her daughter pearl, her husband Roger Chillingworth and her lover Arthur Dimmesdale, the guilty priest has considerable share of sin.

Dimmesdale is a respected priest in colonial Boston. He was come to the new world with the learning and sophistication of the old world. It is, however, his misfortune that he is trapped into adultery with a worried woman of his parish. Since he is a man of high status, he is very much aware of his moral responsibility as a pastor he is responsible for the moral uplift of the men and woman in his charge. When Hester stands on the scaffold and makes a public confession of her sin, Dimmesdale also has an acute awareness of his guilt. He is a product of the puritan ethos that dominates New England and as such he cannot thing either in terms of returning to the old world or escaping into American wilderness. It is also difficult for him to confess his guilt in public because he is afraid of losing his status and good name. He admires the courage and strength of Hester but his intense preoccupation with his social role prevents him from doing the same by him. He was a divided self. He is aware of Hester’s sexual attractiveness but he does not have the courage to own her publicly. There is no wonder that he was a habit of putting his hand over his heart. This gesture is an index of the protracted conflict in Dimmesdale’s mind Pearl, his hand over his heart.

It is Dimmesdale’s divided self and agonized mental conflict that leads to the wreaking of his body and mind. Whether we evaluate the priest from a secular point of view or from the point of view of a mid – seventeenth century Puritan, he appear before us as a moral hypocrite and a betrayer of love and family responsibility. Dimmesdale, however, has latter on a meeting with Hester and pearl in the forest. It is in its idyllic atmosphere that he agrees to elope with her to the old world.


There is a momentary burst of energy within him and he is eventually united with Hester and pearl and after making his public confession, he dies on the scaffold. In the puritanical world Dimmesdale and Hester know that they will not live to see the future of love and family materialize in their lifetime but it world materialize one day. It is the sin of illicit love that unites Hester and Dimmesdale together and the hope of future also brings them closer indeed. In respect to Hester’s suffering, Chillingworth, the cuckolded husband, is a fine shely of a man degenerating due to an obsession. His obsession is to find out the man who has committed adultery with his wife. When Hester refuses to name her lover in the first scaffold scene, Chillingworth says with vehemence, “But he will be known? ……..he will be known? He will be known! ” He, however, does admit that as an old man he was unwise to marry a young, beautiful woman. Chilling worth in fact outs as a typical husband in a male – dominated patriarchal society and he does not want to be publicly reunited as an unfolded husband. What becomes the goal of his life is to hunt the man who has sullied his honour as a husband and when we steer refuses to reveal the name of her paramour, Chillingworth is obsessed with the idea of hunting the man and punish him. It is in the fourth chapter of the tale that there is a crucial exchange between Hester and her husband,‘Why dost thou smite so at me inquired Hester, troubled at the expression of his eyes. ‘Are thou like Black Man that haunts the forest round us? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the Ruin of my soul?’                                                                                 
Not thy soul, he answered, with another smile. No not thine?        
                       
Chillingworth is present in all the three scenes near the scaffold. In the first scaffold scene, he is a stranger standing near an Indian. In the second scaffold scene, he appeal suddenly and leads Dimmesdale away. In the third and the last scaffold scene, he is utterly humiliated and lost when the priest mounts the scaffold and publicly confesses his sin. His last spoken words are an index of his utter failure, ‘Thou hast escaped me!’ His life has been an utter failure. As he himself foreshadows it, the black flower has blossomed and ruined him as a husband and also as a physician. Instead of healing others, he injures them and also injures his own soul irreparably. The phrase ‘black flower’ stands for evil and sums up Chillingworth’s life and destiny.
Ardhendu De
Ref: Wikipedia; Encarta; IGNOU Study Guide; American Thoughts: S. N. Tilovich

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