The Minister’s Anguish
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a compelling story which explores the inner emotions of the human mind, spirit, and the heart. Set around the 1640s in a Boston Puritan society, it focuses on the moral issue revolving around the virtue of truth and the evil of secret sin. Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a man of profound knowledge of religion and a true devotee of God, commits a crime of passion with the young and married Hester Prynne. The Puritan society, which barely tolerates any sin, seeks out Hester Prynne and punishes her by making her wear the scarlet letter “A”. Even though, Arthur Dimmesdale escapes punishment from the Puritan society, he endures an excruciating amount of pain that he brings forth onto himself. Due to the weakness in Dimmesdale’s character and the guilt that comes from within, he is forced to carry the tremendous weight of concealing his sin on his soul and heart.
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale lives in a world of hypocrisy which is brought on by the strong sense of guilt he feels that’s a burden on his soul. As a minister, Dimmesdale is believed to be absolutely pure who follows his own teachings. People think, ” The young divine. . . was considered by his more fervent admirers as little less that heavenly and ordained apostle. . . ” (119), about the clergyman. However, Dimmesdale being a hypocrite, urges his congregations to confess their sins openly and then himself refrains from doing the same. He is afraid of what the society’s reactions could be towards him and he would be released from his duties to God. Once, Dimmesdale directly tells Hester to confess at the scaffold. He says, ” ‘ . . . 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, that to hide a guilty heart through life ‘ ” (73). Dimmesdale preaches that a person is righteous in admitting their crime rather than carrying the guilt around for the rest of his life. Being unprincipled, Dimmesdale does the exact opposite of his own advice. As a minister of the Puritan church, Dimmesdale holds a very high position in society where everyone looks up to him as a role model. He feels very guilty in his heart knowing that he has committed a sin. People identify him as a guiltless and holy man. When people have that kind of a view for him, Dimmesdale feels even more pressured and sinful. He yearns to speak out the truth to make people abandon his false image of a perfectionist. Dimmesdale wants to say, ” ‘. . . -I whose footsteps, as you suppose, leave a gleam along my earthy track, . . . I, -who have laid the hand of baptism upon your children, . . . -I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and lie! ‘ “(140). Constantly, Dimmesdale is punishing himself by allowing such feelings of torment deteriorate him emotionally. He believes he has an enormous responsibility to God and his followers. By concealing the truth from his followers, Dimmesdale feels he’s deceiving God. Just as he feels sinful about living as a hypocrite, he senses pain when he realizes how much Hester and Pearl have endured.
Unable to carry on the responsibility of being a caring father and a beloved husband, Arthur Dimmesdale feels guilty. This sense of guilt consumes him, furthermore, increasing his anguish when he sees Hester suffering alone for the crime they both perpetrate. The first time Dimmesdale gets up on the scaffold with the rest of his family, he says to Hester, ” ‘ Ye have both been here before, but I was not with you. . .’ “(148). Dimmesdale wants Hester to know that he realizes how hard it’s been for her to go through the humiliation and suffering. At the moment, he decides to share Hester’s repentance by standing next to her. Pearl, too, stands on the scaffold with them. Dimmesdales feels a lot of love for his daughter. When Pearl is about to meet Dimmesdale, he says, ” ‘ . . . how my heart dreads this interview, and yearns for it!. . . Yet Pearl, twice in her little lifetime hath been kind to me! . . . ” (196). He’s scared that what if Pearl doesn’t expect him as her father and at the same time he feels excited to meet her. The reader can see how it must have been hard for Dimmesdale to deny Pearl as his daughter in the village just so he can keep his sin secret. He is unable to accept his family in front of the Puritans because of Dimmesdale’s guilt of not complying of being their role model. To keep his sin disguised and not being able to admit his guilt , he afflicts himself with wounds during which he witnesses hallucinations. He sees, “. . . through the chamber which these spectral thoughts had made so ghastly, glided Hester Prynne, leading along little Pearl in her scarlet garb and pointing her forefinger, first at the scarlet letter on her bosom, and then at the clergyman’s own breast”(142). This quote shows how he feels he did injustice towards his family for letting them suffer alone. Dimmesdale thinks that Pearl blames him for the unusual childhood she has due to the crime. His soul, even after carrying so much guilt, conveys a tragic flaw as well.
Another force that puts Dimmesdale through unnecessary anguish is his weakness of not acknowledging publicly that he committed a sin. He aspires to become a perfectionist but ends up having poor will power. Throughout the novel, the reader sees the minister trying to justify his crime through excuses. From the beginning, Dimmesdale knows there is only one way to pay penance which is admitting his guilt. At first, he indirectly suggests an explanation for his secret sin. Dimmesdale tell Chillingworth,
” ‘ . . . they are kept silent by the very constitution of their nature. Or- can we not suppose it? -guilty as they 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 . . . no good can be achieved by them; no evil of the past be redeemed by better service. So to their own unutterable torment, they go about among their fellow-creatures looking pure . . . while their hearts are speckled and spotted. . . ‘ ” (130).
Dimmesdale wants to justify his action by saying that if man commits a sin, then he will be punished by God only. He’s trying to say that what’s the use of being looked at by lower standards through the eyes of human beings when God will discipline the person harshly anyway. One of the other reasons is that he believes it’s in good faith to continue to do God’s work even when he isn’t following on the path of God. Dimmesdale despises himself for his inability to confess and he even inflicts many body injuries.
Rev. Dimmesdale apprehends the fact that he has to admit his crime before the world. He says to Hester,
” ‘ . . . Else I should long ago have thrown off their garments of mock holiness and have shown myself to mankind as they will see me at the judgment seat. Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief, after the torment of a seven years’ cheat, to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am! . . . ‘ ” (183).
When Reverend Dimmesdale finally decides to admit he had committed a sin of adultery in front of the whole Puritan village, he still needs strength from Hester to carry him up to the scaffold. Pearl is also right by Dimmesdale holding his hand. To overcome his weakness, Dimmesdale uses the support of his family, Hester and Pearl, very successfully.
Reverend Dimmesdale’s weakness in character and the load of guiltiness he feels is the cause of hiding his crime from the society. Due to the constant struggles within himself, Dimmesdale is finally able admit his sin and die a peaceful death on the scaffold where the whole ordeal had began. Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays Dimmesdale as a frail human being who is able to overcome a lot of agony with the strength of truth. The clergyman’s life and death leaves us an important moral to remember: ” Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred! ” (242).