In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays Arthur Dimmesdale as a troubled individual. In him lies the central conflict of the book. Dimmesdale’s soul is torn between two opposing forces: his heart, his love for freedom and his passion for Hester Prynne, and his head, his knowledge of Puritanism and its denial of fleshly love. He has committed the sin of adultery but cannot seek divine forgiveness, believing as the Puritans did that sinners received no grace. His dilemma, his struggle to cope with sin, manifests itself in the three scaffold scenes depicted in The Scarlet Letter. These scenes from a progression through which Dimmesdale at first denies then accepts reluctantly and finally conquers his sin.
During Hester Prynne’s three-hour ignominy, Dimmesdale openly denies his sin. Hawthorne introduces Dimmesdale as “a being who felt himself quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human existence” (64). The author made it obvious that a grim secret lies hidden in the depths of Dimmesdale’s soul. This secret, however, does not reveal itself immediately, since Dimmesdale hides it from the closely watching town. In addition, he magnifies his own denial of his sin when he charges Hester to “speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer”(65). By deliberately speaking to Hester as if the sinner were not himself, the pastor makes sure that nobody suspects him.
One may also interpret Dimmesdale’s speech as a hint to Hester not to name him. He feels he must “add hypocrisy to sin” in order to keep his standing in the town. He thinks that if the town finds out about his sin, they will never forgive him, much like his belief system tells him that God will never forgive him. So great is his relief when he finds that “she will not speak” that he stands in awe of the “wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart”(66). Despite an inward wish for his sin to be discovered, Dimmesdale feels better knowing that Hester will not willingly expose him. In this scene in front of the town, Dimmesdale shows his original strength of character, which will diminish along the course of the book.
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In the middle of the night, seven years after Hester’s punishment, Dimmesdale holds a vigil on the scaffold where he finally accepts his sin. The battle within Dimmesdale between “Remorse, which dogged him everywhere” and “Cowardice, which invariably drew him back”(144) leads to a temporary compromise in his midnight vigil. Here, he openly confesses his sin not to the town, but to himself.
This proves as a gigantic step toward salvation-his self-forgiveness. In addition, the death of Governor Winthrop not only represents the death of Puritan society but also the death of certain Puritan values within Dimmesdale. He no longer buries his sin deep within himself. His sin rests on the surface of his soul (and his chest as well)-a condition that causes his already pejorative health to waste away even faster. This scene shows the progressive weakening of Dimmesdale’s Puritan inhibitions as well as the continuous strengthening of his passionate side.
In the final scaffold scene, Dimmesdale finally conquers his sin and delivers himself into the hands of a waiting God. He escapes the Devil (here symbolized by Roger Chillingworth) saying, “Thy power is not what it was! With God’s help, I shall escape thee now!” (248). Dimmesdale’s confession redeems his soul and frees him from the one secret binding the Devil to him. Next, Dimmesdale tore away the “ministerial band from before his breast”(250), revealing a scarlet letter burned into his flesh. By publicly advertising his sin, he rises above it, forgiving himself and officially asking God and the town for forgiveness. However, the forgiveness he seeks most lies in
“ ‘My little Pearl,’ said he, feebly-and there was a sweet and gentle smile over his face, as of a spirit sinking into a deep repose; nay, now that the burden was removed, it seemed almost as if he would be sportive with the child-‘dear little Pearl, wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not, yonder, in the forest! But now thou wilt!’ ” (251)
As “Pearl kissed his lips…a spell was broken”(251) and his sin was forgiven. Arthur Dimmesdale finally dies in a “triumphant ignominy” where all have forgiven him, including himself.
In the final scene, Dimmesdale overcomes the grip of Puritanism and turns directly to God. “With God’s help, I will escape thee now,” he says to Chillingworth. In fact, he does escape Satan, commending himself into the hands of grace. Dimmesdale finally wins his battle against evil. He faces God and dies with an open conscience, knowing of his salvation and freedom from sin.
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