In Nathaniel Hawthorns torrid tale of The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Dimmesdale, a main character, is confronted with a number of circumstances, both in and out of his control, that lead to his ultimate demise. Dimmsedale is a weak cowardly man.
Arthur Dimmesdale, a minister, lives his life under the watchful yet admiring eye of the townspeople of Boston and, as a result, becomes a slave to the public opinion. His sin against Hester and Pearl is that he will not acknowledge them as his wife and daughter in the daylight. He keeps his dreadful secret from all those under his care in the church for seven years for fear that he will lose their love and they will not forgive him. He is too weak to admit his sins openly and in their entirety.Instead, he allows his parishioners to lift him in their esteem by confessing, in all humility, that he is a sinner: “The minister well knew–subtle but remorseful hypocrite that he was! –The light in which his vague confession would be viewed.” They love him all the more for his honest and humble character, and this is Arthur’s intent. Even as he plans to run away with Hester four days after their meeting in the forest, he comforts himself with the knowledge that he will give his sermon on predestination on the third day, and thus will leave his community with fond memories of his final exhortation. Arthur’s flaw can be found in the fact that he chooses to value the public view above those of Hester, his love, and God, his master.
Arthur, punishing himself for his ugly secret, which his need for public affirmation will not let him reveal, gradually kills himself through guilt and masochistic practices.
In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself all the while. It was his custom to rigorously until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance. He kept vigils, likewise, night after night, and sometimes in utter darkness; sometimes with a glimmering lamp; and sometimes, viewing his own face in a looking glass, by the most powerful light which he could throw upon it. He tortured himself, but could not purify, himself.
Arthur allows his guilt and self-hatred to destroy his heart and soul, but he still refuses to confess and repent publicly his great transgression. Instead, he is often seen with his hand covering his heart, looking pained and repentant. Arthur allows himself to think the worst of himself, and does not guard his heart against the evil of Roger Chillingworth, which he senses, but chooses not to detect and eliminate.
He confesses openly that he sinned, but he doesn’t confess that he has, for all these years, been oppressed by his need for acceptance. He instead accepts Hester and Pearl, a positive though final step. Arthur recognizes that he should have put aside his desire for public worship when he says: “People of New England!–ye, that have loved me!–ye, that have deemed me holy!–behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last!–at last!–I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman, whose arm, more than the little strength where with I have crept thitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from groveling down upon my face! He cannot entirely escape his desire to have the people look well upon him. Arthur dies in the heroine’s arms, publicly and somewhat triumphantly, having gotten things off his scarred chest. His cathartic confession is not followed by a lifetime of public shame as that which Hester has endured but rather peace in heaven. It seems that Arthur has the benefit of the confession and recognition without the painful aftermath, and because his confession comes so close to his time of death, he is remembered as the sweet man he was before his death and not as shamefully as he could have been.
Arthur must have been a weak, dependent man before he ever entangled his life with Hester’s. Such weakness is not born overnight, but instead is usually drawn out after trials and tribulations like Arthur’s. Instead of overcoming his weakness, Arthur lives as a sinner, allowing Hester to be the strong and moral one for them both. Even in death, she is the supporting one, he the weak one. Even as Hawthorne describes him, Arthur is childlike and ill-suited to his environment: “Notwithstanding his high gifts and scholar-like attainments, there was an air about this young minister,–an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look–as of a being who felt himself quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own.” This is hardly the epitaph of a man of strength and integrity, but rather a brief description of an endless list of insecurities and foibles.
Arthur Dimmesdale is not a strong character, or one of any considerable growth. Surely, all readers are in agreement that his story is tragic of its own accord, but that it incites pity for him is questionable. Arthur, while being significantly flawed and quite aware of it, ends up destroyed as a man.
Hawthorn shows sins of several different kinds in numerous people, as well as the consequences and remedies of their sins. Arthur Dimmesdale bares the most brutal effects of such sin, this is due to several reasons.
The most observable reason for his eventual breakdown is the fact that he keeps his sin a secret. Arthur Dimmesdales sin was the same as Hesters, except he never confessed. Dimmesdale also believes that his sin has taken the meaning out of his life. His life’s work has been dedicated to God, and now his sin has tainted it. He feels that he is a fraud and is not fit to lead the people of the town to salvation.
His secret guilt is a much heavier burden than Hesters since he must hold it all within himself. This also reveals Dimmesdale weakness. Arthur wanted desperately to admit his sin to the world, which is shown throughout the book.
In view of the fact that there was no external punishment for Arthur, he creates it within himself. He still received his penalty, an internal punishment. At one point in the story he had delusions of going to the scaffold and confessing his sin to the people. It caused him to walk feebly, and left him without any substantial strength as he felt of little worth.
This self-inflicted punishment affected his physical appearance to such a degree that others would notice it. While waiting in the woods for him, Hester observed Dimmesdale leaning on a staff, which he had cut by the wayside. He looked haggard and feeble. Pearl also notices the ministers compulsive behaviors caused by his hidden feelings, as revealed when she asked will he always keep his hand over his heart?
Dimmesdale is seen throughout the book holding his hand to his heart. It is the sign through which he could symbolize to world both his sin and suffering. It represents his scarlet letter that he forces himself to wear, whether intentionally or subconscious.
Auther Dimmesdales own punishment is so oppressive that the chance of leaving with Hester and Pearl makes him the exact opposite of what he has become. He left the woods with twice as much energy as before.
On the way to town, he barely stops himself from swearing to a fellow deacon. When an old lady approaches him he cannot remember any scriptures to tell her, and the urge to use his power of persuasion over a young maiden is so strong that he covers his face with his cloak and runs off.
Near the end of the story Dimmesdale finally receives his salvation. After his Election Day speech he ascends the scaffold and bears to the entire town the truth behind his sin. After he achieves this great mental feat he collapses and dies. This is a true irony since his death was both his final salvation, and also served as the last effect of his sin.
The internal punishment he caused himself was his eventual downfall. Dimmesdale had many hardships, and had the most brutal effects of sin bestowed upon him.