In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Mr Dimmesdale’s greatest fear is that the townspeople will find out about his sin of adultery with Hester Prynne. Mr Dimmesdale fears that his soul could not take the shame of such a disclosure, as he is an important moral figure in society. However, in not confessing his sin to the public, he suffers through the guilt of his sin, a pain which is exacerbated by the tortures of Roger Chillingworth. Though he consistently chooses guilt over shame, Mr Dimmesdale goes through a much more painful experience than Hester, who endured the public shame of the scarlet letter. Mr Dimmesdale’s guilt is much more damaging to his soul than any shame that he might have endured.
When the reader first meets Roger Chillingworth standing watching Hester on the scaffold, he says that he wishes the father could be on the scaffold with her. “‘It irks me, nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity should not, at least, stand on the scaffold by her side” (46). At this point, Chillingworth wishes that Mr Dimmesdale was also receiving the sort of shame Hester is being put through. Throughout the first few chapters of the novel, however, Chillingworth’s motives become more and more malicious. By the time Chillingworth meets Hester in her prison cell, he has decided to go after Mr Dimmesdale’s soul. Chillingworth turns to this goal because Mr Dimmesdale did not endure Hester’s shame on the scaffold. Had Mr Dimmesdale chosen to reveal himself at the time of Hester’s shame, he would not have had to endure the pain of Roger Chillingworth’s tortures of his soul.
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When Mr Dimmesdale finally confesses to the townspeople in the last hour of his life, he reveals what many saw to be a red A on his chest. Whether the letter was carved by him in an act of self-mutilation, if it was merely a figment of his guilt-ridden imagination, or if it was indeed created by Chillingworth’s torture, it is a symbol of the guilt that Mr Dimmesdale endured. While it may seem like a poor mockery of Hester’s letter, which was visible to everyone, Mr Dimmesdale’s caused him much more pain than Hester’s caused her. Over time, Hester’s letter came to be accepted by the townspeople, and once Hester had been accepted there was discussion of allowing her to remove it. In contrast, Mr Dimmesdale’s letter was not visible to the public, though it caused him much pain.
Mr Dimmesdale always held his hand over his heart as if it was in great pain. His health declined very rapidly, to the point that he moved by limping with the aid of a cane, still holding his hand over his heart. Mr Dimmesdale’s letter continued to cause him pain until the moment he revealed it, whereas Hester’s public letter was accepted into society quite easily. Had Mr Dimmesdale chose shame over guilt, his letter would have been public too, preventing the more private torture he endured.
While Mr Dimmesdale suffers through his guilt alone, Hester’s shame is completely public. After many years of good deeds and kind nature, Hester becomes accepted as a part of the community. “Individuals in private life, meanwhile, had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin…but of her many good deeds since” (106). Mr Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is looked upon as being the grandest, most saintly minister to ever preach. In fact, even when Mr Dimmesdale finally confesses his sin, there is still a question about whether he was confessing his sin or merely making one final sermon on the sin within each soul.
As the town is so convinced of Mr Dimmesdale’s worthiness and purity, he becomes even more frightened of telling his secret. Unlike Hester, who was able to gain the respect of the townspeople through her good deeds, Mr Dimmesdale can never gain the forgiveness of the people, as they respect him without even knowing his crime. Mr Dimmesdale feels as though this respect is undeserved, and this gives him more pain than any sin committed by him or Hester Prynne. Mr Dimmesdale needs this forgiveness of those who would condemn him, yet he does not even allow them the opportunity by confessing to them his sin.
Mr Dimmesdale’s guilt is not merely over the sin of adultery committed by him and Hester, in fact, most of his guilt comes from his deception of the townspeople. As he is so well respected, he could not stand to endure the shame. Instead, Mr Dimmesdale feels a great amount of guilt about lying to his people. “He longed to speak out from his own pulpit, at the full height of his voice, and tell his people who he was” (95). However, each time he stands to give a sermon, he preaches in vague terms, giving no cause to believe he is a great sinner. “He had spoken the very truth, and transformed it into the veriest falsehood…Therefore, above all things else, he loathed his miserable self” (96). By once again choosing guilt over shame, Mr Dimmesdale is merely increasing the depth of his guilt and the extent of his pain.
In choosing to suffer through guilt alone over choosing to endure a public shame, Mr Dimmesdale chooses what would appear to be the easier punishment. It often seems that it is easier to deal with one’s own emotions rather than be brought down in front of many people that admire and respect you. However, as Mr Dimmesdale’s final fate shows, keeping an emotion as strong as guilt inside for as long a period as seven years can be self-destructive. As Mr Dimmesdale said to Hester on the scaffold when trying to convince her to reveal the name of Pearl’s father, “…though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hid a guilty heart through life” (49). If Mr Dimmesdale had chosen a public shame over his private guilt, he would not have suffered internally for years, and would have most likely not reached such a tragic end.
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