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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.
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guilty as [men who hide their crimes] may be, retaining nevertheless, a zeal for god’s glory and man’s welfare, they shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in the view of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be achieved by them; no evil of the past redeemed by better service. So, to their own unutterable torment, they go among their fellow-creatures, looking pure as new-fallen snow; while their hearts are all speckled and spotted with iniquity of which they cannot rid themselves" (116).
This quote manifests the very essence of Dimmesdale’s quest: to continue in the service of the Lord, while obfuscating from others the flaw that, if they knew, would render him incapable of doing good.
At this point, Dimmesdale’s public appeal is greater than ever before. However, "it is inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration [tortures] him" (125). It slowly becomes evident that the two halves of Dimmesdale’s quest are incompatible. He cannot become a truly holy man because he must perpetuate a monstrous façade to do so - by which he commits yet another sin. Seeing that a "catch-22" exists between being holy and keeping his reputation, he attempts to convey to his congregation the truth about himself: "More than once...he [tells] his hearers that he was...the worst of sinners," but such speech makes them think of him still more highly (126). What Dimmesdale intends as a confession is viewed as a statement of virtue and modesty. But the preacher knows his words would be viewed as such, and only therefore does he come forward with his mock confession. Still unable to risk baring his soul, he "[strives] to put a cheat upon himself by making the avowal of a guilty conscience, but [gains] only one other sin" (126).
Sensing the impending failure of his quest for holiness, his "inward trouble" drives him to inflict horrific tortures upon himself (126). He whips himself until he bleeds; he fasts until weak; he keeps vigils at night - all for the purpose of purifying himself and leaving him free to pursue the glory of God. Still weak in resolve, however, Dimmesdale cannot bring himself to do the only thing possible to atone for his sins - he still cannot muster a confession. Thus, his health grows worse with his self-inflicted punishments; his spirit grows still heavier with accumulating sin. This series of punishments and vigils climaxes when Dimmesdale ascends, under the dark of night, the very platform upon which Hester served her sentence for adultery. He envisions telling the townspeople of his dark secret, but Chillingworth dissuades him and bids him come home.
Eventually, Hester Prynne accosts Dimmesdale in the forest; together they make plans to flee Boston and set up a new life. Although this would seem a happy ending, it is a blatantly wrong choice as far as Dimmesdale’s quest is concerned, for try as he may, he can never escape his conscience and the guilt it would incessantly inflict upon him. Reunion and escape with Hester is contrary to his quest for holiness, as is shown by his sudden and inexplicable urge to commit misdeeds.
In the end, Chillingworth prevents the plans of Hester and Dimmesdale from reaching fruition. Ironically, though his intentions in doing so are malevolent, Chillingworth thus finally impels Dimmesdale to confess his sin to the populace. He does so, announcing that "now...[Hester’s partner in adultery] stands before you! He tells you that [Hester’s scarlet letter], with all its mysterious horror, is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast!" (221). At last, after confessing the sin that has plagued him for years, he perishes on the scaffold. His repentance, though sufficient to save his soul, is too late to save his life.
Dimmesdale’s death of "triumphant ignominy" is, in fact, the successful resolution of his quest (222). In confessing, Dimmesdale realizes at last that the internalization of sin is not a prerequisite for achieving holiness. In life he strives to achieve spiritual greatness through the suppression of his sin; in death, he achieves purity by opening his heart to the light of truth. By discarding the half of his quest that was to obscure his transgression from the public eye, he is finally able to fulfill the other half - to redeem himself. By besmirching his name in the eyes of man, he achieves far greater glory, at long last, in the eyes of God.
After delivering the address, Dimmesdale walked out of the church and spotted Hester and Pearl. His hidden guilt overtook him and he called the pair to his side. He climbed the steps of the scoffold where years before Hester had stood and received the community’s scorn. It was now his turn to admit his part in Hester’s shame. With a sudden motion, he tore the ministerial band from his breast and sank dying to the platform. When he exposed his breast, a cut scar of the scarlet letter "A" was seen imprinted on the flesh above his heart.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. New York: The Modern Library, 2000