The Empty Vessel (Scarlet Letter) Essay, Research Paper
The character of Roger Chillingworth in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is one of many different faces. Hawthorne changes the character of Chillingworth during different periods of the novel. As Chillingworth’s actions and his motives change, so in turn does the reader’s opinion of him, which ranges from compassion to antipathy. Hawthorne keeps the character of Chillingworth an enigma, and Hawthorne uses his narrative to shed light on the true feelings of Chillingworth, as well through the good doctor’s interaction with other characters, especially Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale. As we watch the plot evolve, and the reader observes Chillingworth’s actions, Chillingworth’s character continues to confuse the reader. This is because Chillingworth is empty. Roger Chillingworth is a vacant vessel in search of a captain. Chillingworth looks to validate his existence through his crusade. Chillingworth attempts to present himself as an upstanding, righteous, religious man only in search of justice. This righteousness is only one layer, underneath his fa?ade is hatred, and underneath that is a deep sense of self loathing. Chillingworth hates who he is, so in an attempt to appease his own sense of self, Chillingworth attacks others in order to transfer his loathing from himself to Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale.
Chillingworth’s relationship with Hester is rife with conflict and confusing details. This husband and wife tandem are officially married, the union seems artificial. Hester and Chillingworth spent a large amount of time separated from each other, starting with Hester journeying first to America, and were only reunited after Chillingworth spent time traveling with the Native Americans. It’s as if neither one truly wanted to be around the other. The tone of conversations between Chillingworth and Hester are cold, and they never try to work out any differences they had in order to ignite a love again that probably never existed in the first place. In the first interaction between Chillingworth and Hester, Chillingworth is the doctor for both Hester and Pearl. Hester is dubious of Chillingworth’s motives for helping them, and with good reason. Chillingworth declares that he is not aiding her out of the goodness of his heart, but rather to make sure that she lives so that he may broadcast her sins throughout the community. “Live, therefore, and bear about thy doom with thee, in the eyes of men and women, – in the eyes /of him whom thou didst call thy husband, – in the eyes of yonder child! And, that thou/ mayest live, take off this draught!” (67) Chillingworth is very angry at Hester, but not because of love for Hester, but rather because Chillingworth feels emasculated by Hester’s transgression. As revenge, Chillingworth wishes to strip her of any honor. The reader at this point feels nothing but anger towards Chillingworth at this point. Chillingworth has badgered Hester incessantly in order to ascertain the father of her bastard child. “Speak out the name! That, and thy repentance, may avail to take the scarlet letter off thy breast.” (63) Up until this point the reader thinks that Chillingworth is a self-righteous crusader, but when it is finally revealed that Chillingworth is in fact Hester’s husband, some sympathy is bestowed upon him. Even though not all the emotions of the reader towards Chillingworth are negative, they become increasingly so as Chillingworth’s abrasive attacks in hopes of obtaining the identity of the father becomes more aggressive. Chilligworth
Chillingworth’s relationship with Pearl is also one of great interest as well. Pearl is the product of his wife’s adulteress tryst, which does not make for an exceedingly amiable relationship. Chillingworth is extremely harsh towards the infant at first, stating, “Here, woman! Child is yours, -she is none of mine,- neither will she recognize my voice or aspect as a father’s. Administer this draught, therefore, whit thine own hand.” (66) Chillingworth is taking out his hatred for Hester on Pearl, making him less attractive to readers. Chillingworth’s feelings are understandable, however, since Pearl is the physical manifestation of his emasculation. Chillingworth at the end of the book surprises the reader by giving his fortune to Pearl, however, leaving the reader baffled. While towards the end of the book Chillingworth becomes less and less likable, his final act of kindness towards Pearl leaves the reader confused as to what the real character of Chillingworth is.
The most intriguing relationship in the book is the one between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Upon first knowledge that Hester had an affair, Chillingworth is consumed by finding the identity of the father. Dimmesdale, a beacon of morality in an uptight moral community, is hiding his secret right next to Chillingworth. Chillingworth already had gathered that Dimmesdale was the father, and had proceeded to torture Dimmesdale until he cracked. When Dimmesdale fell ill and Chillingworth became his physician, Chillingworth was given access to Dimmesdale when he was at his weakest. Chillingworth is obsessed with obtaining Dimmesdale’s confession, even waiting by Dimmesdale’s bedside in vain trying to get a confession from Dimmesdale. When Dimmesdale refuses to confess his sins to a mortal, Chillingworth is even more motivated to gain Dimmesdale’s confession. Dimmesdale resists Chillingworth’s advances until finally, on the scaffold, he confesses his sins before his impending death. Chillingworth seeks glory for finally obtaining the object of his obsession, but Dimmesdale does not let him revel in it. “‘Thou hast escaped me!’ he repeated more than once. ‘Thou has escaped me!’ ‘My God forgive thee!’ said the minister. ‘Thou, too, hast deeply sinned!’”(221) Chillingworth is finally castigated for his self-righteous crusade. Dimmesdale’s statement is telling of how blindly Chillingworth’s rage injured those around him. Chillingworth dedicated himself to the destruction of Dimmesdale, and in the process Chillingworth lost his humanity. Dimmesdale is absolved of his sins at the end of his life, but Chillingworth’s soul is saturated with hate, his heart black. He lives the rest of his days in a state that is worth living through.
Chillingworth is a lost, tortured soul. Chillingworth is not a man who holds the emotions of others in high regard, and that is why he ends up alone and unhappy at the end of the book. Chillingworth drives away his wife, and accelerates Dimmesdale’s physical decay. Chillingworth never learns how to love anyone, and he never loved himself. He never was upset because Hester broke a sacred trust, but because her absconding of their vows was one more example to invalidate Chillingworth’s existence. Chillingworth finally realizes the error of his ways at the end of the novel, and that why he leaves all of his property to Pearl. Chillingworth becomes aware of the vast emptiness of his soul, and how he has been torturing others to avoid dealing with his own tortured soul. Chillingworth attacked two people who loved each other, so he tries to make amends by helping the product of this love. Chillingworth dies a lonely man, but becomes righteous in the end.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel “The Scarlet Letter,” Penguin Books (1986)