Throughout all forms of literature, the author will often provide situations and characters, each of which can contain a strong symbolic meaning. Symbolism allows a character to be expressed as almost anything. Through the symbolism of a single character, any type of character trait, story, or way of life can be told. Also, a character can represent a strong and demanding feeling. One of these feelings is that of revenge, a controlling obsession possessed by a character. It is a problem that may lead to feelings or acts of sin and evil. The actions, feelings, thoughts, and looks of one character may symbolize that chain of evil and sin, including the root of all evil. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, symbolism is used throughout the novel to describe the character Roger Chillingworth’s acts of revenge, representing sin and evil, including the devil, which lead to the decomposition of his character.
Near the beginning of the novel, as Roger Chillingworth first appears as a character, his symbolic relationship with the devil and sin is first apparent. Roger Chillingworth first appears as a stranger to the new colony. After being held captive by Indians after he was shipwrecked a year before, he learns of Hester’s sin. Shortly after, the symbolic relationship between Chillingworth and the devil is first shown in Chapter 4, where he disguises himself as a physician and provides a new identity for himself as Roger Chillingworth. “…said Old Roger Chillingworth, as he was hereafter to be named.” Pg. 81 “The Stranger entered the room with the characteristic quietude of the profession to which he announced himself as belonging.” Pg. 76. After changing his name to Roger Chillingworth, and labelling himself as a great physician, he is able to deceive the colony. This may relate to the devil in the way that stories have told how the devil often disguises itself in order to tempt someone or perform another evil. The primary and deadly evil seen vividly through Roger Chillingworth is that of vengeance. It is his primary sin and problem in the novel, which eventually leads to his defeat and his death.
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What once began for Chillingworth as an act of vengeance, slowly transformed into a life of endless obsession. “Not the less, he shall be mine.” Pg. 78. Roger Chillingworth tells Hester that the father of her child will be known and that Chillingworth will make it certain that he learns the man, and confronts him. The reader may experience the intensity of Chillingworth’s plans for the future, as the foreshadowing of his obsession is apparent. As the passion for his revenge grows, Chillingworth’s actions become more sinful and symbolic. “…this learned man was the physician as well as a friend of the young minister.” Pg. 109.
Chillingworth decides to become good friends with Reverend Dimmesdale, the father of Hester Prynne’s child, in order to ensure the slow and painful torture of the reverend. “These black weeds have sprung up out of a buried heart to make manifest of an unspoken crime.” Pg. 129. Chillingworth speaks to the reverend about the blackness of secrets in order to torture the reverend by increasing the pain of his guilt. Chillingworth’s evil symbolism is also apparent here in his obsession with destroying the reverend. Although Chillingworth was the only character with no problem at the start of the novel, his dedication to vengeance and pure evil leads to his defeat as he remains the only character who never repents for any of his sins.
The structure of Chillingworth’s character is carefully decomposed throughout the novel. “…Hester had been looking steadily at the old man, and was shocked, as well as wonder-smitten, to discern what a change had been wrought upon him in the last seven years. But the former aspect of an intellectual and studious man, calm and quiet, which was what she best remembered in him, had altogether vanished and had been succeeded by an eager searching, almost fierce, yet carefully guarded look.” Pg. 103. The quote greatly relates to what has happened to Chillingworth throughout the novel. After dedicating his life to revenge, he begins to change for the worse.
Once again, he relates to the devil because sin and evil (revenge) will often lead to a terrible defeat. Soon, Chillingworth learns that the reverend may have the strength to escape his destiny for him. Chillingworth realizes, that if Dimmesdale finally makes public of his sin, he will have escaped Chillingworth because Chillingworth will no longer be able to slowly destroy him through guilt. “The physician knew, then, that, in the minister’s regard, he was no longer a trusted friend, but his bitterest enemy.” Pg. 211. Chillingworth gains deeper hate for Dimmesdale now as he becomes stronger.
Finally, at the end of the novel, as the reverend finally decides to reveal his shame, Chillingworth grabs him violently and screams, “Do not blacken your fame and perish in dishonour. I can yet save you.” Pg. 235. As Dimmesdale confesses and escapes Chillingworth, Roger has been defeated. After dedicating the last seven years of his life to torturing the reverend, Chillingworth’s motive for living, and his obsession, is no longer present. After Dimmesdale dies upon the scaffold, Chillingworth does very little with the rest of his life and dies a year after the death of the reverend.
The symbolism Chillingworth possesses holds meanings that are very powerful. First, both his attitude and the result of his revenge describe the effects of one’s vengeance. Not only did he slowly decompose the life of Reverend Dimmesdale, but after the death, he lost the reason for living, and died also. Now, at the beginning of the book, certain empathy can be felt with Chillingworth. Many can relate to having a spouse or friend who has wronged the other through lying, cheating, and/or evil or sins.
Every day, you may hear about a person who has committed adultery, breaking apart a family or causing others grief. A reader will understand the need for revenge when something of this nature occurs, and will at first side with Chillingworth. Yet, as the book progresses, his side of evil is shown through his actions, thoughts, looks, and feelings. Chillingworth appears as a character, brought into a ‘destined for perfection’ society, as the sinful tempter of the colony. One, whose vengeful tactics led to the deaths of two men, and whose sinister plan changed the aspects of society. Although he was originally the only character without a problem or a sin, he became the one who performed the worst sins of all.
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