Arthur Dimmesdale, from The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was the perfect minister. He gave more powerful and touching sermons than anyone else around. He was the overall image of perfection for a minister. However, he had a grave secret that ate at him from within. He had committed adultery with one of his parishioners and fathered a child. Hawthorne uses Dimmesdale to make a point that guilt for unpunished sin will erode a person until they die. Dimmesdale is unable to publicly face the consequences of his sin, so his guilt drives him to masochism, attempted confessions, and eventually leads to his death.
After Dimmesdale commits adultery with Hester Prynne, he feels incredibly guilty. His health begins to deteriorate because of his guilt. Knowing the consequences of unconfessed sin, he attempts to redeem himself. However, he believes that the consequences of his sin are greater than not taking the punishment. Rather than share the punishment with Hester, and be chastised by the public, he tries to punish himself. He beats himself with whips and chains. At the time, Catholic priests commonly practiced this, but it was rare for a protestant to do so. Dimmesdale believes that he can absolve him of his sin if he suffers enough. Rather than release him of his sin, it contributes to his illness caused by his guilt. Realizing that self-chastisement is not enough, he looks for other means to free himself of the guilt.
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Dimmesdale then decides that if he can confess to everyone else then he will be free of the guilt. During his sermons, he hints at what he has done. Dimmesdale is not able to tell them outright and confess his sin. He is still afraid of the consequences of publicly confessing. By not actually telling his congregation, they can uphold their perfect opinion of him. His congregation wants to believe that he is perfect so they will not believe that he is capable of committing such a sin. Instead of chastising him for his sin, the congregation believes that he is being humble. His physical state continues to worsen as he tries to avoid his just punishment.
Dimmesdale decides that he will share the same punishment that Hester went through for her part in the sin. Yet, once again, Dimmesdale is unwilling to take the punishment completely. He goes to the same scaffold that Hester stood on, except she was facing the entire town. Dimmesdale goes in the middle of the night. However, Dimmesdale finally realizes that the only way to free him of the guilt is to stand before a crowd on the same scaffold the way Hester did. He still does not realize that he will eventually die if he does not face his punishment soon. Therefore, when Hester and Pearl come by and Pearl asks him if he will stand with them there at midday, Dimmesdale refuses.
As a final resort, rather than face his punishment, Dimmesdale decides to flee with Hester. They make plans to leave on a ship with some sailors. Yet, once again his plans do him no good, as Chillingworth thwarts his scheme. Only now does Dimmesdale make the realization that he must take responsibility. He gives his speech, which is the greatest in his life. He then proceeds to call over Hester and Pearl. Chillingworth voices the opinion of Hawthorne that there was no place on earth that Dimmesdale could have gone to escape his fate. Dimmesdale then tells the crowd that he has been secretly wearing the scarlet letter and that he should have stood on the platform with Hester seven years ago. Dimmesdale has finally freed himself from the constraints of guilt, unfortunately, it is too late, and Dimmesdale dies. Hawthorne kills Dimmesdale in order to make his point that you must face the punishment for your sins, or your guilt will kill you.
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