“But (Hester) is not the protagonist; the chief actor, and the
tragedy of The Scarlet Letter is not her tragedy, but
Dimmesdales. He it was whom the sorrows of death encompassed_..
His public confession is one of the noblest climaxes of tragic
This statement by Randall Stewart does not contain the same ideas
that I believed were contained within The Scarlet Letter, by
Nathaniel Hawthorne. I, on the contrary to Stewart’s statement,
think Dimmesdale is a coward and a hypocrite. Worse, he is a self-
confessed coward and hypocrite. He knows what he has to do to
still the voice of his conscience and make his peace with God.
Throughout the entire story his confession remains an obstacle .
While Hester is a relatively constant character, Dimmesdale is
incredibly dynamic. From his fall with Hester, he moves, in steps,
toward his public hint of sinning at the end of the novel. He
tries to unburden himself of his sin by revealing it to his
congregation, but somehow can never quite manage this. He is a
typical diagnosis of a “wuss”.
To some extent, Dimmesdale’s story is one of a single man tempted
into the depths of the hormonal world. This world, however, is a
place where the society treats sexuality with ill grace. But his
problem is enormously complicated by the fact of Hester’s marriage
(for him no technicality), and by his own image of himself as a
cleric devoted to higher things. Unlike other young men,
Dimmesdale cannot accept his loss of innocence and go on from
there. He must struggle futilely to get back to where he was.
Torn between the desire to confess and atone the cowardice which
holds him back, Dimmesdale goes slightly mad. He takes up some
morbid forms of penance_fasts and scourgings_but he can neither
whip nor starve the sin from his soul. In his agony, he staggers
to the pulpit to confess, but his words come out generalized, and
meaningless declarations of guilt.
The reverend seems to want to reveal himself, but Chillingworth’s
influence and his own shame are stronger than his weak
conscience. Dimmesdale cannot surrender an identity which brings
him the love and admiration of his parishioners. He is far too
intent on his earthly image to willingly reveal his sin. Once
Hester explains Chillingworth’s plans, and thus breaks
Chillingworth’s spell, Dimmesdale begins to overcome him. He does
it, though, in a way which brings him even more earthly glory.
Thus, he never loses his cherished image, and consequently, is
pushed down the “slippery slope” even further.
I, unlike the community, think there is a problem with Dimmesdale.
During his struggles to tell his parishioners the truth, they
misunderstand his statements, he loses his faith, which is never
completely regained. Dimmesdale’s sin has eaten away at him,
reducing him to a shriveling, pathetic creature. The only thing
that brings him any strength is a re-affirmation of his sin with
Hester, and the plot to escape the town (201): “It was the
exhilarating effect_upon a prisoner just escaped from the dungeon
of his own heart_of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of an
unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region.” In short, fallen
nature has set him free from his inner distress, but left him in
an “unchristianized” world, a heathen world, damnation. He has
given in to sin. He has, in effect, willingly agreed to commit
more sins. Dimmesdale realizes he is doing this but is too much
of a coward to admit his original sin to the public. He becomes a
figure that no one can help but himself.
Dimmesdale begins as a fallen man, falls farther, and near the end
is, according to Mistress Hibbins, a servant of the devil (242).
Hibbins’ words, however, should not be taken lightly. She seems to
be one of the only characters who shows herself to have a mouth of
truth. Dimmesdale attempts to recover, though, with a massive
effort, when he ascends the scaffold with Hester and Pearl. When
Chillingworth exclaims, “Thou hast escaped me!” (256), he is
speaking not only for himself, but for Evil. Dimmesdale has at
least escaped damnation. He makes another small step forward when
Pearl kisses him. “A spell was broken” (256). The redeeming angel
has pulled Dimmesdale clear of the shadow of sin but not away from
its’ presence. After the kiss, Dimmesdale returns to speaking of
God as merciful, and returns to praising Him. He claims, “Had
either of these agonies [Chillingworth’s influence and the
“burning torture upon his breast”] been wanting, I had been lost
for ever!” (257). He believes himself to be saved. I, on the
contrary believe that his attempt to confess was not a complete
confession at all. He never truly states that he had committed
adultery with Hester, and that Pearl was, in fact, his daughter.
The reverend could bring them up to the scaffold, but still did
not have the courage to honestly confess. The sermon in which
there was supposed to be a “noble climax,” was empty of such a
thing. An incomplete confession is a useless one to the people of
the town, and that is exactly what Dimmesdale had.
Dimmesdale’s problem, during the course of the story, is that he
isn’t much of a priest. He has lost his faith, and is thus false
to himself, his congregation, and his god. Yet his penance has
been much more harsh. It seems that the heroic effort Dimmesdale
makes to climb back into the light is an effort that only a
desperate man could have made. He used all his strength to make
one final grasp at redemption but still falls quite short.
Dimmesdale has the potential, though, of climbing much higher
after death. Hester is as Hester was and as Hester will always be.
Dimmesdale, the weak, fallen priest, was taken from earth at the
height of his pathetic ascent because if he hadn’t been, he would
surely have fallen again. It is as if God was waiting for him to
make his last, valiant leap to reach Him, and then snatched him at
the apex of his pathetic trajectory. Dimmesdale is redeemed, but,
it would seem, conditionally. If the Puritans believed in a
Purgatory, Dimmesdale would be there. However, with only a Heaven
and Hell, Dimmesdale must be admitted into Heaven, grudgingly.
Hawthorne writes, “According to these highly respectable
witnesses, the minister, conscious that he was dying,–conscious,
also, that the reverence of the multitude placed him already among
saints and angels…” (259). Hawthorne simply can’t accept
Dimmesdale’s total redemption any more than he could Hester’s, the
same reason being: sin is permanent. When Hawthorne follows this
passage with, “Without disputing a truth so momentous,” it is
clear he is being sarcastic.
All of these comments and observations make it quite clear that
Dimmesdale is a complete coward. He has the chance throughout the
entire novel to confess. Despite it all, he is caught up in the
fame and the excitement of his reverend-hood, which pushes him
down the “slippery slope” inch by inch. His confession is never a
true public one, and because of that, I believe the last scene of
the novel was not quite as noble as Randall Stewart claims.