Who should bear the stigma of sin? Hawthorne’s novel is a story of adultery, social judgment, and moral redemption. Hester cannot hide the consequences of her mistake, so she is exposed to public judgment and forced to wear the scarlet letter. However, it is Dimmesdale’s guilty conscience and struggles to rise above the sin that makes the essence of the narrative. The argument for Dimmesdale as a protagonist lies in the answers to the following questions. Does Dimmesdale’s character change throughout the story? Does he have an antagonist and a helper? Do his actions bring about the climax of the story? Finally, does he solve the problem?
Hawthorne uses character development to show how a person can change. A well-developed character stirs emotions in the reader to make a powerful story. All three main characters, Hester, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale undergo changes that mark the development of events. However, it is Dimmesdale who changes the most. The reason for his change is the sin he commits with Hester. At the beginning of the book, we meet a young and self-confident minister who is trusted by the townspeople, as their moral and religious leader, “So powerful seemed the minister’s appeal…” (74). As the story progresses we see Dimmesdale become weaker physically, due to his moral torment “, whose health had severely suffered” (119). In Chapter 8, we see him through Hester’s eyes, as a man who
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“Looked now more careworn and emaciated than as we described him at the scene of Hester’s public ignominy: and whether it was his failing health, or whatever the cause might be, his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth” (124).
For a large part of the novel, Dimmesdale becomes both, very sick physically and mentally, as a result of Chillingworth’s “friendly care”. Chillingworth, Hester’s wronged husband pretends to be his friend, but he actually plays an evil game with Dimmesdale throughout the whole story. In Chapter 17 Hester tells Dimmesdale about his so-called friend “Thou hast long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him, under the same roof!”(215). After their conversation, Dimmesdale regains his lost power again and decides to confess. Although Dimmesdale is physically very sick at the end of the book, he seems to be quite clear mentally. Hester and Pearl have to help him, get onto the scaffold, to confess his sin. Although Dimmesdale is so sick that he will die shortly after the confession, he speaks “with a voice that rose over them, high, solemn, and majestic” (285). At the end of the novel, Dimmesdale is finally able to acknowledge his family in front of the townspeople releasing the sin he held so long hidden in his heart (285-287). This moment can be defined as the climax of the story. It is the moment of Dimmesdale’s victory over Chillingworth. Although Chillingworth seems to be the master of the game, Dimmesdale thwarts his plans. Dimmesdale’s development can be compared with a wave. In the beginning, he is the powerful minister that everybody admired. In the middle of the story, he changes into a sick person without any signs of life and hope. Finally, at the end of the story he changes again into the minister, everybody had known.
If Dimmesdale really is the protagonist of the story, who is his antagonist and who is his helper? Dimmesdale has to fight against two antagonists. On one hand, there is Chillingworth; Hester’s wronged husband who wants to take revenge against him, on the other hand, there is the Puritan society that is represented by the townspeople. Chillingworth becomes a very important character in the story after he gets to know who wrongs him. He decides to take revenge on Dimmesdale. Chillingworth had suspected Dimmesdale of being Pearl’s father for a long time but he knows it for sure at the end of chapter 10 when he finds the minister fallen asleep in his room and sees the scratch on the form of the letter A.
“The physician advanced directly in front of his patient, laid his hand upon his bosom, and thrust aside the vestment, that, hitherto, had always covered it even from the professional eye.[….] after a brief pause, the physician turned away. But, with what a wild look of wonder, joy, and horror!” (153).
Now Chillingworth’s character starts to develop into the antagonist of Dimmesdale. The physician feels a hellish joy, after his discovery. He transfers this joy into the torture he plays against Dimmesdale, “Never did mortal suffer what this man has sufferd” (191). As Hester puts it into words: “You are beside him, sleeping and waking. You search his thoughts. You burrow and rankle in his heart! Your clutch is on his life, and you cause him to die daily a living death”, (190). Hawthorne wrathfully compares Chillingworth with a leech: he is about to make Dimmesdale bleed to death. Chillingworth’s acts of revenge make Dimmesdale sick but also trigger the fundamental change in his character.
Chillingworth however is not Dimmesdale’s enemy. The townspeople, who represent the Puritan society, play a decisive role as the second antagonist in the story. The Puritans were very religious people. They spent their whole life serving God in the hope of becoming elected. Adultery was considered a sin connected with the devil. People connected with the devil were considered outsiders of society. They were degraded by everybody, starting at young age children were taught to prevent contact with those sinners,
“As the two wayfarers came within the precincts of the town, the children of the Puritans looked up from their play, – or what passed for play with those sombre little urchins, – and spoke gravely one to another: -“Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!”(112).
If we can a parallel between the townspeople and the Puritan society as a whole, we can also draw a parallel between that Puritan society and our society today. Adultery is a problem that appears in any human society. Today as always we look down on people who were unfaithful to their wife or husband.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is not only one of the main characters, but also the protagonist’s helper. In Chapter 17 she talks to Dimmesdale and confesses Chillingworth’s identity to him. To help solve the problem, Hester suggests him, to go to their “native land, whether in some remote rural village or in vast London, – or, surely, in Germany, in France, in pleasant Italy” (220), where they can start together with a new life, “Begin all anew!”(221). This conversation is the second turning point in Dimmesdale’s change throughout the story. Hester gives him hope and courage to regain his lost power back. After their conversation, Dimmesdale’s decision is made. Finally, he is ready to confess. Chapter 23 brings about the climax of the story: Dimmesdale turns to the crowd and cries out his guilt. This is the point the reader has been waiting for throughout the entire book. Dimmesdale escapes from the devil’s influence and dies in peace shortly after his confession. One can say that Dimmesdale becomes the ultimate winner in the hellish game faced by Chillingworth. By confessing, Dimmesdale redeems himself in front of his own inner moral suffering. The climax of the story is also the final solution to his problem.
Hawthorne’s novel brings to our moral judgment questions of human ethics to all times and societies. Whether we are to judge and lay blame on sinners is up to the moral values of each of us. The modern character of the novel stands in revealing the “chilling worth” of virtue used for revenge. Chillingworth’s evil ploy fails when confronted with Dimmesdale’s confession. In the end, the protagonist frees himself from the “dim dale” of the inner torture and reaches moral redemption.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: State Street Press, 2000.
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