Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale and Purification Through Death in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter
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The Scarlet Letter: Dimmesdale – Purification Through Death
Although Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is primarily the story of an adulteress atoning for her sin and conquering the insignia which brings torment to her spirit, the quest of the partner in her sin, Arthur Dimmesdale, is no less important and even more painful. His quest, simply phrased, is to glorify God through his priesthood and expiate his sin of adultery - to save his soul - while protecting his reputation. To do so, he tries to continue day by day to do the work of the Lord which he so loves, while relegating to the darkest, most secret recesses of his heart the crime which he so hates. Only in private does he torture himself for both his original sin and his continued deceit. He nearly fails in his quest to be a holy man, as the horrific deed that he committed nearly kills him through self-hate and illness of spirit. Eventually, however, he succeeds in conquering his fears of humiliation and stands triumphant, publicly repenting for his misdeeds and dying clean of soul.
It is not known until well into The Scarlet Letter that Arthur Dimmesdale is Hester Prynne’s lover, but by this point, his conscience has already begun inflicting a woeful penalty on his spirit: "His form grew emaciated; his voice...had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay in it; he was often observed...to put his hand over his heart with...paleness, indicative of pain" (106). Although his reputation is flawless and his parishioners believe that through death, he is to be called to a higher plane of existence, Dimmesdale says with what is believed to be humility that his looming death is "because of his own unworthiness to perform his mission here on earth" (106). In retrospect, this marks the beginning of a critical and fatal duality of Dimmesdale’s character: the public believes he is a saint, while Dimmesdale knows himself the vilest sinner. His refusal to confess his misdeed only compounds his guilt, which is symbolized by his rapidly deteriorating physical condition. However, it remains his strategy to hide his sin, letting it fester in the dark.
It is at this point that Roger Chillingworth, physician and Hester Prynne’s husband, comes into Dimmesdale’s life. Chillingworth’s duty is to administer medical treatment to the ailing clergyman. In doing so, however, he comes to notice a strange quality to Dimmesdale’s character that leads him to suspicion.