Dimmesdale's Guilt and Internal Struggle in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Mr. Dimmesdale’s greatest fear is that the townspeople will find out about his sin of adultery with Hester Prynne. Mr. Dimmesdale fears that his soul could not take the shame of such a disclosure, as he is an important moral figure in society. However, in not confessing his sin to the public, he suffers through the guilt of his sin, a pain which is exacerbated by the tortures of Roger Chillingworth. Though he consistently chooses guilt over shame, Mr. Dimmesdale goes through a much more painful experience than Hester, who endured the public shame of the scarlet letter. Mr. Dimmesdale’s guilt is much more damaging to his soul than any shame that he might have endured.

When the reader first meets Roger Chillingworth standing watching Hester on the scaffold, he says that he wishes the father could be on the scaffold with her. “‘It irks me, nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity should not, at least, stand on the scaffold by her side” (46). At this point, Chillingworth wishes that Mr. Dimmesdale was also receiving the sort of shame Hester is being put through. Throughout the first few chapters of the novel, however, Chillingworth’s motives become more and more malicious. By the time Chillingworth meets Hester in her prison cell, he has decided to go after Mr. Dimmesdale’s soul. Chillingworth turns to this goal because Mr. Dimmesdale did not endure Hester’s shame on the scaffold. Had Mr. Dimmesdale chosen to reveal himself at the time of Hester’s shame, he would not have had to endure the pain of Roger Chillingworth’s tortures of his soul.

When Mr. Dimmesdale finally confesses to the townspeople in the last hour of his life, he reveals what many saw to be a red A on his chest. Whether the letter was carved by him in an act of self-mutilation, if it was merely a figment of his guilt-ridden imagination, of if it was indeed created by Chillingworth’s torture, it is a symbol of the guilt that Mr. Dimmesdale endured. While it may seem like a poor mockery of Hester’s letter, which was visible to everyone, Mr. Dimmesdale’s caused him much more pain than Hester’s caused her. Over time, Hester’s letter came to be accepted by the townspeople, and once Hester had been accepted there was discussion of allowing her to remove it. In contrast, Mr. Dimmesdale’s letter was not visible to the public, though it caused him much pain.
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