“But (Hester) is not the protagonist; the chief actor, and thetragedy of The Scarlet Letter is not her tragedy, butDimmesdales. He it was whom the sorrows of death encompassed_. . His public confession is one of the noblest climaxes of tragicliterature. “This statement by Randall Stewart does not contain the same ideasthat I believed were contained within The Scarlet Letter, byNathaniel 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 tostill 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 isincredibly dynamic.
From his fall with Hester, he moves, in steps,toward his public hint of sinning at the end of the novel. Hetries to unburden himself of his sin by revealing it to hiscongregation, but somehow can never quite manage this. He is atypical diagnosis of a “wuss”. To some extent, Dimmesdale’s story is one of a single man temptedinto the depths of the hormonal world. This world, however, is aplace where the society treats sexuality with ill grace. But hisproblem is enormously complicated by the fact of Hester’s marriage(for him no technicality), and by his own image of himself as acleric devoted to higher things.
Unlike other young men,Dimmesdale cannot accept his loss of innocence and go on fromthere. He must struggle futilely to get back to where he was. Torn between the desire to confess and atone the cowardice whichholds him back, Dimmesdale goes slightly mad. He takes up somemorbid forms of penance_fasts and scourgings_but he can neitherwhip nor starve the sin from his soul.
In his agony, he staggersto the pulpit to confess, but his words come out generalized, andmeaningless declarations of guilt. The reverend seems to want to reveal himself, but Chillingworth’sinfluence and his own shame are stronger than his weakconscience. Dimmesdale cannot surrender an identity which bringshim the love and admiration of his parishioners. He is far toointent on his earthly image to willingly reveal his sin. OnceHester explains Chillingworth’s plans, and thus breaksChillingworth’s spell, Dimmesdale begins to overcome him.
He doesit, though, in a way which brings him even more earthly glory. Thus, he never loses his cherished image, and consequently, ispushed 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, theymisunderstand his statements, he loses his faith, which is nevercompletely regained.
Dimmesdale’s sin has eaten away at him,reducing him to a shriveling, pathetic creature. The only thingthat brings him any strength is a re-affirmation of his sin withHester, and the plot to escape the town (201): “It was theexhilarating effect_upon a prisoner just escaped from the dungeonof his own heart_of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of anunredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region. ” In short, fallennature has set him free from his inner distress, but left him inan “unchristianized” world, a heathen world, damnation. He hasgiven in to sin. He has, in effect, willingly agreed to commitmore sins.
Dimmesdale realizes he is doing this but is too muchof a coward to admit his original sin to the public. He becomes afigure that no one can help but himself. Dimmesdale begins as a fallen man, falls farther, and near the endis, according to Mistress Hibbins, a servant of the devil (242). Hibbins’ words, however, should not be taken lightly. She seems tobe one of the only characters who shows herself to have a mouth oftruth. Dimmesdale attempts to recover, though, with a massiveeffort, when he ascends the scaffold with Hester and Pearl.
WhenChillingworth exclaims, “Thou hast escaped me!” (256), he isspeaking not only for himself, but for Evil. Dimmesdale has atleast escaped damnation. He makes another small step forward whenPearl kisses him. “A spell was broken” (256). The redeeming angelhas pulled Dimmesdale clear of the shadow of sin but not away fromits’ presence. After the kiss, Dimmesdale returns to speaking ofGod as merciful, and returns to praising Him.
He claims, “Hadeither of these agonies been wanting, I had been lostfor ever!” (257). He believes himself to be saved. I, on thecontrary believe that his attempt to confess was not a completeconfession at all. He never truly states that he had committedadultery with Hester, and that Pearl was, in fact, his daughter.
The reverend could bring them up to the scaffold, but still didnot have the courage to honestly confess. The sermon in whichthere was supposed to be a “noble climax,” was empty of such athing. An incomplete confession is a useless one to the people ofthe town, and that is exactly what Dimmesdale had. Dimmesdale’s problem, during the course of the story, is that heisn’t much of a priest.
He has lost his faith, and is thus falseto himself, his congregation, and his god. Yet his penance hasbeen much more harsh. It seems that the heroic effort Dimmesdalemakes to climb back into the light is an effort that only adesperate man could have made. He used all his strength to makeone final grasp at redemption but still falls quite short.
Dimmesdale has the potential, though, of climbing much higherafter death. Hester is as Hester was and as Hester will always be. Dimmesdale, the weak, fallen priest, was taken from earth at theheight of his pathetic ascent because if he hadn’t been, he wouldsurely have fallen again. It is as if God was waiting for him tomake his last, valiant leap to reach Him, and then snatched him atthe apex of his pathetic trajectory. Dimmesdale is redeemed, but,it would seem, conditionally.
If the Puritans believed in aPurgatory, Dimmesdale would be there. However, with only a Heavenand Hell, Dimmesdale must be admitted into Heaven, grudgingly. Hawthorne writes, “According to these highly respectablewitnesses, the minister, conscious that he was dying,–conscious,also, that the reverence of the multitude placed him already amongsaints and angels. . . ” (259).
Hawthorne simply can’t acceptDimmesdale’s total redemption any more than he could Hester’s, thesame reason being: sin is permanent. When Hawthorne follows thispassage with, “Without disputing a truth so momentous,” it isclear he is being sarcastic. All of these comments and observations make it quite clear thatDimmesdale is a complete coward. He has the chance throughout theentire novel to confess. Despite it all, he is caught up in thefame and the excitement of his reverend-hood, which pushes himdown the “slippery slope” inch by inch.
His confession is never atrue public one, and because of that, I believe the last scene ofthe novel was not quite as noble as Randall Stewart claims.