The Scarlet Letter essay: Why was Dimmesdale’s Suffering Worse Than Hester’s?
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Mr. Dimmesdale’s greatest secret is his sin of adultery with Hester Prynne. Mr.
Dimmesdale feared that his soul could not bear the shame of such a disclosure because of his status as an important moral figure in society. As a result, he keeps his identity a secret as Hester is publicly ridiculed for their act of adultery. Despite his choice of guilt over shame, Mr.
Dimmesdale’s private self-inflicted inner turmoil that is exacerbated by the tortures of Roger Chillingworth, ate away at his physical being and mental state, causing much greater suffering than Hester’s public shame of the scarlet letter. Much of the suffering, physical and mental, that Arthur Dimmesdale endures is self-inflicted due to the immense weight of his guilty conscience. Fearing that he would not be able to bear the punishment from the public, he chose to remain anonymous in his sins. In doing so, he underestimated the amount of psychological torture and suffering he would endure by his own hand.
By only confessing to himself, he does not fulfill the requirements of repentance, for there is no one to forgive him but himself. He does not allow his conscience to be cleansed, and therefore must live with his sins. His emotional pain leads him to inflict pain with a “bloody scourge”, which he had often “plied on his own shoulders”(99). He inflicts great physical pain in addition to his mental torture. In the early Christian church, self-flagellation was imposed as a means of penance and purification for disobedient clergy and laity.
In the bible, Proverbs relates that blows “cleanse away evil” and stripes wash the heart (Prov 20:30). He is trying to redeem and cleanse himself without confession, but this is impossible. Through this self-mutilation, he attempts to relieve his mental pain by inflicting self pain; he find this unsatisfying because he still neglects to partake in the most important aspect of redemption, confession. He also rigorously fasts, as another attempt to cleanse his soul. Hawthorne writes, “it was his custom, too, as it has been that of many other pious Puritans, to fast, – not, however, like them… but rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance”(99).
Religiously, fasting is commonly used as a form of purification and focus on spirituality. Once again, he uses bodily pain as an attempt to relieve his mental suffering. By participating in this unsuccessful cleansing, he only subjects himself to greater psychological torture; what he studied and knew to be a cure of guilt and sin only amplifies his own. The situation becomes hopeless when his ways fail him, and this eats away at his religious beliefs, which are the basis of his entire life.
He faces an entire identity crisis, and this is something Hester never had to endure. Yes, she withstood her own share of loneliness and suffering, but never to the extreme where she turned to self-mutilation to relieve herself. He attempts to redeem his tarnished soul through various acts of contrition, but all is in vain because it is all done without a confession. His torture is all within himself; he is his own shunning, gossiping townspeople and his own rock-flinging children. There is nowhere for him to hide.
He is fully absorbed by his sins and they eat away at him. Hester, who’s publicly tortured by others while in town, though it might be equally as hurtful at that time, is still lesser than Dimmesdale’s suufering. Hester has an escape route. She has the refuge of her home outside of town, where she can get away from the gossip and scorn. She also publicly embraces her accountability in the affair, which allows her to accept the punishment, move on, and make something good out of it. Hester becomes a maternal figure for the community as a result of her experiences.
She cares for the poor and brings them food and clothing. By the end of the novel, the shame of the scarlet letter is long gone. She doesn’t owe anything to the townspeople anymore. Some even forget what the scarlet A stands for. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, as a well-respected minister, stands at the center of his community, being the advocate of religious and moral standards of that Puritan society. He must remain in town, outwardly preaching to others about piety and remaining sinless, and internally feeling like an imposter.
Dimmesdale realizes his fault in hiding his sin, but his desire to repent is repeatedly overcome by his craving for public approval. He is their moral compass, yet he himself is lost. This drives Dimmesdale to further internalize his guilt and self-punishment and leads to still more deterioration in his physical and spiritual condition. Because of Dimmesdale’s decision to remain anonymous, he unconsciously creates a duality in personality within himself that results in the deterioration of his mental well-being.
Dimmesdale, as the revered town minister, must keep up this dichotomy in personality; he is constantly praised for his goodness and asked for moral and spiritual advice, while he is tumultuous inside. Hester is free to be whom she pleases. The townspeople do not believe Dimmesdale’s protestations of sinfulness. Given his background and his fondness for rhetorical speech, Dimmesdale’s congregation generally interprets his sermons metaphorically rather than as expressions of any personal guilt.
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. His inner self is desperately trying to confess, but his self concerned with public appearance only allows him to do it in a way that he wont be taken literally. He is essentially at war with himself.
By remaining secret, Dimmesdale doomed himself to much greater suffering than if he were to be publicly condemned with Hester because he subjected himself to years of self-torture and an unyielding quest for unobtainable repentance. The role of Roger Chillingsworth in Dimmesdale’s torture amplifies the pain of the sin, causing much greater suffering than Hester who only interacted with the doctor on sparse occasions. As his name suggests, Roger Chillingworth is a man deficient of human warmth. His twisted, stooped, deformed shoulders mirror his distorted soul.
Under the guise of a new doctor in town with wholesome intentions towards the young minister and his health, Chillingsworth gains his trust and they move in together forming very peculiar codependent relationship. Chillingworth needs Dimmesdale to nourish his intellect and to be the object of his obsessive desire that he can control and ultimately destroy; Dimmesdale needs Chillingworth to keep his guilt alive, the constant provoking from the doctor for Dimmesdale to reveal his inner sin forces Dimmesdale to be constantly reminded of his transgressions. Chillingworth is like a leech. He sucks Mr.
Dimmesdale’s life force out of sick need for reparation for Dimmesdale’s actions against him. Dimmesdale is subconsciously aware of his dependence of Chillingworth, for he cannot and does not break away. Their relationship is described in this quote, “Nevertheless, time went on; a kind of intimacy, as we have said, grew up between these two cultivated minds, which had as wide a field as the whole sphere of human thought and study to meet upon; they discussed every topic of ethics and religion, of public affairs, and private character; they talked much, on both sides, of matters that seemed personal to themselves..
“(P#). Chillingworth lived and thrived off the pain and guilt he constantly inflicted on Dimmesdale, and in a twisted way Dimmesdale relied on this psychological torture to further his self-inflicted search for forgiveness. The role of Roger Chillingsworth in Dimmesdale’s torture intensifies Dimmesdale’s suffering, causing Dimmesdale to endure vastly more than Hester who was able to avoid the evil doctor. Some argue that it was Hester who suffered the most throughout the novel. They say that because of her crime Hester became secluded from the other people in her society.
They exemplify this with the quote, “Who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impress as if they beheld her for the first time was the Scarlet Letter, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity and enclosing her in a sphere by herself. “(61). She became lonely, and the scarlet letter was a burden that Hester had to carry everyday of her life, and the symbol, which secluded her from any other human being.
It caused Hester to be ostracized, but Dimmesdale’s cowardice in not confessing lead ultimately, to his death. Hester had a horrible punishment: she had to wear a scarlet letter for the rest of her life. But Dimmesdale’s internal struggle with his own cowardice and guilt was far worse than a scarlet letter. He suffered the most as he constantly punished himself for his sin. Although Hester suffered the public punishment she dealt with it well and took it in stride, ultimately creating a positive role for herself in the community and transforming the meaning of the scarlet letter.
She was able to make amends and in time through good deeds, change the meaning of the scarlet letter from “adulteress” to “able”. Dimmesdale on the other hand, has to always bear their sin inside of him never allowing it to become public. He was never given the opportunity to make peace with himself. Instead of taking his penance publicly he does it privately. He was forced to continue to bear his private shame, while Hester was able to make peace with herself because she was strong enough to take her punishment, and grow despite of it.
Suffering is commonly seen as an unconscious effort to ease painful feelings of guilt. Arthur Dimmesdale’s choice of guilt over shame led him to experience a great deal of physical and emotional suffering. Hester admitted to her sin and had a clear conscience, which allowed her to move on with her life and grow as a person. Mr. Dimmesdale’s choice of anonymity in not confessing his wrongdoing to the public, led to his suffering through the guilt of his sin, a pain that was only aggravated by the tortures of Roger Chillingworth, and ultimately resulted in his painful and tragic death.