The Scarlet Letter
“But (Hester) is not the protagonist; the
chief actor, and the tragedy of The Scarlet Letter is not her tragedy,
but Dimmesdales. He it was whom the sorrows of death encompassed….. His
public confession is one of the noblest climaxes of tragic literature.”
This statement by Randall Stewart does
not contain the same ideas that I believed were contained within The Scarlet
Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I, on the contrary to Stewart’s statement,
think Dimmesdale is a coward and a hypocrite. Worse, he is a self-confessed
coward and hypocrite. He knows what he has to do to still the voice of
his conscience and make his peace with God. Throughout the entire story
his confession remains an obstacle . While Hester is a relatively constant
character, Dimmesdale is incredibly dynamic. From his fall with Hester,
he moves, in steps, toward his public hint of sinning at the end of the
novel. He tries to unburden himself of his sin by revealing it to his congregation,
but somehow can never quite manage this. He is a typical diagnosis of a”wuss”.
To some extent, Dimmesdale’s story is one
of a single man tempted into the depths of the hormonal world. This world,
however, is a place where the society treats sexuality with ill grace.
But his problem is enormously complicated by the fact of Hester’s marriage
(for him no technicality), and by his own image of himself as a cleric
devoted to higher things. Unlike other young men, Dimmesdale cannot accept
his loss of innocence and go on from there. He must struggle futilely to
get back to where he was. Torn between the desire to confess and atone
the cowardice which holds him back, Dimmesdale goes slightly mad. He takes
up some morbid forms of penance-fasts and scourgings-but he can neither
whip nor starve the sin from his soul. In his agony, he staggers to the
pulpit to confess, but his words come out generalized, and meaningless
declarations of guilt.
The reverend seems to want to reveal himself,
but Chillingworth’s influence and his own shame are stronger than his weak
conscience. Dimmesdale cannot surrender an identity which brings him the
love and admiration of his parishioners. He is far too intent on his earthly
image to willingly reveal his sin. Once Hester explains Chillingworth’s
plans, and thus breaks Chillingworth’s spell, Dimmesdale begins to overcome
him. He does it, though, in a way which brings him even more earthly glory.
Thus, he never loses his cherished image, and consequently, is pushed down
the “slippery slope” even further.
I, unlike the community, think there is
a problem with Dimmesdale. During his struggles to tell his parishioners
the truth, they misunderstand his statements, he loses his faith, which
is never completely regained. Dimmesdale’s sin has eaten away at him, reducing
him to a shriveling, pathetic creature. The only thing that brings him
any strength is a re-affirmation of his sin with Hester, and the plot to
escape the town (201): “It was the exhilarating effect-upon a prisoner
just escaped from the dungeon of his own heart-of breathing the wild, free
atmosphere of an unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region.” In short,
fallen nature has set him free from his inner distress, but left him in
an “unchristianized” world, a heathen world, damnation. He has given in
to sin. He has, in effect, willingly agreed to commit more sins. Dimmesdale
realizes he is doing this but is too much of a coward to admit his original
sin to the public. He becomes a figure that no one can help but himself.
Dimmesdale begins as a fallen man, falls
farther, and near the end is, according to Mistress Hibbins, a servant
of the devil (242). Hibbins’ words, however, should not be taken lightly.
She seems to be one of the only characters who shows herself to have a
mouth of truth. Dimmesdale attempts to recover, though, with a massive
effort, when he ascends the scaffold with Hester and Pearl. When Chillingworth
exclaims, “Thou hast escaped me!” (256), he is speaking not only for himself,
but for Evil. Dimmesdale has at least escaped damnation. He makes another
small step forward when Pearl kisses him. “A spell was broken” (256). The
redeeming angel has pulled Dimmesdale clear of the shadow of sin but not
away from its’ presence. After the kiss, Dimmesdale returns to speaking
of God as merciful, and returns to praising Him. He claims, “Had either
of these agonies [Chillingworth’s influence and the “burning torture upon
his breast”] been wanting, I had been lost for ever!” (257). He believes
himself to be saved. I, on the contrary believe that his attempt to confess
was not a complete confession at all. He never truly states that he had
committed adultery with Hester, and that Pearl was, in fact, his daughter.
The reverend could bring them up to the scaffold, but still did not have
the courage to honestly confess. The sermon in which there was supposed
to be a “noble climax,” was empty of such a thing. An incomplete confession
is a useless one to the people of the town, and that is exactly what Dimmesdale
Dimmesdale’s problem, during the course
of the story, is that he isn’t much of a priest. He has lost his faith,
and is thus false to himself, his congregation, and his god. Yet his penance
has been much more harsh. It seems that the heroic effort Dimmesdale makes
to climb back into the light is an effort that only a desperate man could
have made. He used all his strength to make one final grasp at redemption
but still falls quite short.
Dimmesdale has the potential, though, of
climbing much higher after death. Hester is as Hester was and as Hester
will always be. Dimmesdale, the weak, fallen priest, was taken from earth
at the height of his pathetic ascent because if he hadn’t been, he would
surely have fallen again. It is as if God was waiting for him to make his
last, valiant leap to reach Him, and then snatched him at the apex of his
pathetic trajectory. Dimmesdale is redeemed, but, it would seem, conditionally.
If the Puritans believed in a Purgatory, Dimmesdale would be there. However,
with only a Heaven and Hell, Dimmesdale must be admitted into Heaven, grudgingly.
Hawthorne writes, “According to these highly
respectable witnesses, the minister, conscious that he was dying,–conscious,
also, that the reverence of the multitude placed him already among saints
and angels…” (259). Hawthorne simply can’t accept Dimmesdale’s total
redemption any more than he could Hester’s, the same reason being: sin
is permanent. When Hawthorne follows this passage with, “Without disputing
a truth so momentous,” it is clear he is being sarcastic.
All of these comments and observations
make it quite clear that Dimmesdale is a complete coward. He has the chance
throughout the entire novel to confess. Despite it all, he is caught up
in the fame and the excitement of his reverend-hood, which pushes him down
the “slippery slope” inch by inch. His confession is never a true public
one, and because of that, I believe the last scene of the novel was not
quite as noble as Randall Stewart claims.