The Transformation Of The Rev Dimmesdal Essay

The Transformation Of The Rev. Dimmesdal Essay, Research Paper

The Transformation of the Reverend Master Dimmesdale

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a classic novel that

tells the story of two adulterers, except in this account, only one is

punished publicly. The other, although just as guilty, is not exposed and

therefore remains held in high esteem by the public eye. As the

unknown guilty party, the Reverend Dimmesdale not only becomes a

hypocrite, but on the inside, he is torn apart. As Dimmesdale becomes

more and more distraught over his position as the story progresses, his

health and mental stability begin to decline. A study of the character of

the Reverend Master Dimmesdale throughout The Scarlet Letter will

reveal the transformation of his physical being and mental state of mind

from an honorable, reputable, and nice looking young preacher to a

decrepit, deteriorated, and opprobrious clergyman who had fallen from

righteousness but returned to righteousness in the end.

When Dimmesdale is first introduced, he is shown as a model of

virtue. The responsibility of the adulteress’ soul “lies greatly within”

Dimmesdale and Governor Bellingham appeals to him “to exhort her

repentance, and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof”(67).

This is ironic in that Dimmesdale’s responsibility to Hester Prynne is

twofold: as “her godly pastor”(53) and as the unknown partner and

father to the child. The minister pleads with the adulteress to disclose

the adulterer, lest her partner “add hypocrisy to sin”(68), which is

another irony because he is adding the sin unto himself. That the

parson is condemning himself remains unseen by the people, thus his

status as a godly minister remains intact.

Dimmesdale does not appear again until Chapter 8. Here, Hester

has come to the mansion to appeal to the Governor, that he not take the

child, Pearl. Dimmesdale is with Governor Bellingham as well as

Reverend Wilson and Roger Chillingworth at the house. The author says

that Dimmesdale is “in close companionship with Chillingworth, a person

of great skill in physic…[and his] physician as well as friend of the young

minister.”(108) The writer tells us that Dimmesdale’s health “had

suffered severely, of late, by his too unreserved self-sacrifice to the labors

and duties of the pastoral relation.”(108) Chance or necessity functions

to make Arthur Dimmesdale Chillingworth’s patient, since the young

minister is decreasing in health, and since Chillingworth’s scientific

aspirations make him a qualified physician. Chillingworth’s ambiguous

standing, in comparison with the clergyman’s pious reputation, inspires

the congregation to believe that their godly champion is struggling

against a fiendish agent. There are two ironic facts here. One is that

Dimmesdale has in fact wronged Chillingworth and the other is that the

people’s “brave minister” is in fact warring his own conscience judging

“from the gloom and terror in the depths of the poor minister’s eyes, the

battle was a sore one, and the victory was any thing but secure!”(127)

But, in the eyes of the beholders, the congregation, Dimmesdale is still a

very righteous man.

As a doctor, Chillingworth senses that the source of Dimmesdale’s

illness is not physical but rather “a strange sympathy betwixt soul and

body.”(136) This results in Chillingworth pursuing his patient as the

adulterer, for earlier in the story, Chillingworth had met Hester, his

former wife, in the prison. Here he told her that he would seek out her

partner and that “he shall be mine.” As Chillingworth continues his

investigation, he remarks to Dimmesdale that some ugly weeds he found

growing on a gravesight might be because of “some hideous secret that

was buried with [the deceased], [that] he had done better to confess

during his lifetime,”(130) the leech was attempting to make Dimmesdale

break and confess. The minister does, for awhile, hold and Chillingworth

does not find anything but good in the heart of his patient. However,

Dimmesdale was “trusting no man as his friend…[and] could not

recognize his enemy when the latter actually appeared.”(129) Thus, at

the end of Chapter 10, the “leech” discovers Dimmesdale’s secret (”leech”

has a double meaning: (1). physicians were sometimes referred to as

leeches, and (2). leeches are creatures that suck blood from animals as

Chillingworth was “sucking” the truth from Dimmesdale). Today, one

might refer to Dimmesdale’s illness as psychosomatic, and see his

appointments with Chillingworth as sessions with a psychoanalyst. It is

in the these sessions that the leech probes through his patient’s mind

and eventually determines the truth: Dimmesdale is not the pious

clergyman as everyone thinks, but in fact a horrible sinner. Dimmesdale

has come to embody hypocrisy.

Still, Dimmesdale continues to hide his sin from his congregation.

He makes attempts to expose himself, but cannot ever bring himself to

confess directly. He tells the people that he is “the vilest of sinners,”(142)

but that only increases their reverence for him. Moreover, they explain

that the cause for his impending death is that the world is no longer

worthy of him; Dimmesdale says that it is because he is simply no longer

able to perform even the simplest missions that God gives him, once

again avoiding telling the truth. Because of these things, ” above all

things else, he loathed his miserable self!”(143)

Many nights, the minister stays awake and is haunted by visions

of Hester and Pearl. He keeps vigils into the early hours of the morning.

On one of these such nights, Dimmesdale makes his way outside to the

scaffold where, seven years before, Hester had stood “through her first

hour of public ignominy.”(147) Thus “The Minister’s Vigil” begins; in a

“vain show of expiation,”(147) Dimmesdale goes through the actions of

Hester’s exposure. Alone in the dark, he ascends the scaffold. Upon the

scaffold ,he sees Reverend Wilson, who is returning from the deathbed of

Governor Winthrop, but Wilson doesn’t stop. Eventually, he his joined

by his partner and little Pearl, and some time later, Chillingworth, but

only at a distance. In the middle of the night, the letter A appears in the

sky and Dimmesdale takes it to represent adultery. However, the next

morning, a Sunday, the minister denies hearing of it, thus avoiding the

issue of his sin once again and continuing the congregation’s love for


Dimmesdale meets Hester in private one last time in the forest. By

this chapter, the clergyman had undergone penance, but he has not yet

achieved penitence; he has suffered, he has not been absolved. “Of

penance I have had enough! Of penitence there has been none! Else, I

should long ago have thrown off these garments of mock holiness, and

shown myself to mankind as they will see at the judgment-seat.”(190)

While the rejected woman is becoming a lay saint, he is being

overwhelmed by his unacknowledged sinfulness. While she has liberated

herself, he is still trapped between his desires and his vows. This

encounter in the woods between “the pastor and his parishioner”

threatens to reawaken their veiled passion. “What we did had a

consecration of its own,”(190) Hester tells Dimmesdale. Their meeting

would shock and outrage, if it was known, his loyal following. The two

make plans to elope back to the Old World, but first the minister must

complete his duty of preaching the annual Election Sermon. In the

Election Sermon, Hawthorne brilliantly sets the stage for a closing scene

which releases the pent-up dramatic suspense.

At the end, just as in the beginning, the townspeople are present.

The parson gathers the crowd together for what will be his confession as

well as his farewell address. The clergyman calls Hester and Pearl to the

scaffold with him. He re-ascends the scaffold, bares his breast, and

exposes his own scarlet letter; Dimmesdale’s speech is not so much a

precept as an example. He at last publicly acknowledges the sin that he

has been hiding for so long. At this, Roger Chillingworth cried, “Thou

hast escaped me!”(253), for since Dimmesdale has finally repented, the

leech cannot have the minister’s soul as he had so desired. Pearl kisses

Dimmesdale and a spell that has caused him internal misery for so long

is broken. Pearl’s “errand as a messenger of anguish was all

fulfilled.”(254) Dimmesdale’s sin was finally released in the moment he

confessed publicly the wrong he had done. Dimmesdale had already

suffered his punishment, and he willingly yields up the life with its guilty

burden and his character is restored. By playing the hypocrite, he has

degraded his virtues into vices, and must pay heavily for his atonement.

As a result, a man that had fallen from uprightness, who had despised

himself while living a lie, becomes right with God and man. His parting

words are:

“God knows; and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most

of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear

upon my breast! By bringing me hither, to die this death of

triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these

agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be His

name! His will be done! Farewell!”(254)

At this, the once deteriorated man is renewed in his trust in God. He

proclaims that God is merciful and he does so with a passion that had

long since been missing since the sin. Thus, Dimmesdale finally

achieves penitence and is reconciled before God and man.


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