Free Essay - Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale's Double-talk in The Scarlet Letter

Free Essay - Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale's Double-talk in The Scarlet Letter

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Dimmesdale's Double-talk in The Scarlet Letter

 

 

Abstract: Critics of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter' are wrong to attribute to Hester the means of persuading Dimmesdale to elope with her and their child. It is Dimmesdale who uses his rhetorical mastery to talk Hester into talking him into eloping. An analysis of his conversation with Hester in the forest in comparison with his sermons shows that he is using the same discursive strategy he employs to convince his parishioners that he is a sinless man.

 

The Reverend Mister Arthur Dimmesdale is usually understood to be guilty of two sins, one of commission (his adultery with Hester) and one of omission (his cowardly and hypocritical failure to confess). This is his state through most of The Scarlet Letter; but when Dimmesdale meets Hester in the forest (Chapters 16-19), he agrees to flee Boston with her, to seek out a new life in the Old World, and, presumably, to live with her in adultery. By the lights of his community and his profession, this resolution is a far more serious sin than any he had committed to date, but most critics have agreed that Dimmesdale is not primarily responsible for his actions in the forest. Both Michael Colacurcio and Terence Martin have written that Hester "seduced" Dimmesdale in the forest,(2) and Darrel Abel argues that "Dimmesdale could not resist Hester," for in entering the forest "Hester means to persuade Dimmesdale to elope with her and Pearl," and Dimmesdale agrees to the elopement "after only a feeble show of conscience."(3)

 

The forest scene is crucial in the narrative of The Scarlet Letter, and a proper understanding of what happens in the forest is necessary for any interpretation of Dimmesdale's last days of life and his final "confession." I will argue in this paper that the reading of the forest scene sketched above is mistaken; that in fact it is Arthur Dimmesdale and not Hester Prynne who is the "activating agent"(4) in the forest, increasing Dimmesdale's culpability for his most serious fall. Previous critics seem to think that Dimmesdale's much-vaunted skill as a speaker abandons him when he enters the forest with Hester, but I will show that Dimmesdale talks Hester into talking him into fleeing, and so Dimmesdale's gravest sin cannot be laid at Hester's feet at all.

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Dimmesdale manipulates Hester in the forest by exploiting the same discursive strategy which allows him through the years to buttress his congregation's belief in him as a saintly minister while avoiding telling any outright lies: he plays the literal meaning of his words off against the context in which he speaks them. Dimmesdale's tone of voice, his position as minister, his reputation as a saintly man, and the genre of the sermon allow him to say, "I am the greatest sinner among you," but be understood to be humble, pious, and godly.

 

Dimmesdale's first words provide one of the best examples of his profoundly manipulative doubletalk. Hester Prynne is standing on the scaffold, wearing the scarlet letter, enduring the disdainful glance of the people of Boston. The Reverend Mr. Wilson, "the eldest clergyman of Boston,"(5) enjoins Dimmesdale to "|exhort [Hester] to repentance, and to confession'" (p. 66). Dimmesdale responds thus:

 

"Hester Prynne," said he, leaning over the balcony, and looking down

stedfastly into her eyes, "thou hearest what this good man says, and seest

the accountability under which I labor. If thou feelest it to be for thy soul's

peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual

to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and

fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for

him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place,

and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so,

than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him,

except it tempt him--yea, compel him, as it were--to add hypocrisy to sin?

Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou mayest work

out an open triumph over the evil within thee, and the sorrow without. Take

heed how thou deniest to him--who, perchance, hath not the courage to

grasp it for himself--the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented

to thy lips!" (p. 67)

 

Fully to appreciate the plaintiveness of this utterance, it must be recognized that to the Puritans, and to Dimmesdale as a Puritan minister, the public exposure of sin is of vital importance to the sinner--thus the nature of Hester's punishment.(6) To the townspeople, ignorant of Dimmesdale's role in Hester's sin, this utterance is clearly an order from a minister to a wayward member of his congregation. To Hester and the reader, it is also a plea for assistance. "In the terrible ambivalence of his position Dimmesdale wants Hester to name him even as he does not want to be named. He would have her pin the letter on him, but he will not reveal his partnership in it."(7)

 

Dimmesdale's order/plea seems quite sincere, but what are the ramifications of this sincerity? Terence Martin suggests that

 

the minister would like to be named and known for what he is, an adulterer.

Thus, when he speaks the above words to Hester Prynne, the words

themselves are true, pathetically so. Being named would bring shame and

disgrace, but also the relief of standing clear in one's own identity;

moreover, in this community, this "righteous" colony, there is an undeniably

correct course of action for Dimmesdale to take--sin and iniquity, he

knows, ought to be dragged out into the broad light of noonday. His appeal

to Hester is thus pathetically sincere; he is asking her to help him in a way

 

he cannot help himself.(8) Dimmesdale's yearning for exposure (and inability to confess) can hardly be denied; but seen from Hester's point of view, his plea becomes insidious, for he is "urging her to provide the name if she thinks it will be good for her own soul's peace to do so (when, clearly, she would be full of self-hatred if she gave him away), while making clear to her that if she does not tell, he certainly will not."(9) As he will do repeatedly, Dimmesdale is here speaking the truth, but making sure his words carry an extra effect. "Since he [Dimmesdale] knows that Hester loves him, he is almost sure she will not consider the revealing of her |fellow-sufferer' a more effectual means to salvation."(10)

 

His entreaty is an epitome of Dimmesdale's public speaking throughout; it is "a masterpiece of double-talk,"(11) but double-talk of a specific type. The narrator tells us that there were ministers more learned than Dimmesdale, others more shrewd, others more pure; but unlike Dimmesdale, all of these lacked "the gift that descended upon the chosen disciples, at Pentecost, in tongues of flame ... the power ... of addressing the whole human brotherhood in the heart's native language" (pp. 141-42). Dimmesdale's is a "sad, persuasive eloquence" (p. 142) which the townspeople take to arise from his purity, though it actually owes more to his personal experience of sin.

 
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