Dimmesdale’s Progression through the Scaffold Scenes
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dramatic novel, The Scarlet Letter, exposes the hypocrisy of a seventeenth-century Puritan society through the lives of two sinners, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne. Both have committed a sin that ultimately strengthens them. Although Dimmesdale conceals his sin from public scrutiny during the majority of his life, he undergoes a significant metamorphosis. Hawthorne utilizes the three scaffold scenes throughout the novel in order to manifest the progression of Dimmesdale from a craven, self-preserving, and religiously bound minister to a more candid and truly passionate father.
Unfortunately, Dimmesdale’s positive change from a feeling of weakness and cowardice is belated; thus, he is unable to evade his intensifying guilt and prevent his ultimate death. Hawthorne manifests these characteristics of frailty through his descriptions of Dimmesdale during the first scaffold scene: “…apt to be tremulous, expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast power of self-restraint” (59). By characterizing Dimmesdale as a man lacking courage, Hawthorne introduces the disadvantage Dimmesdale will later face-his inner struggle with hidden sin. His “self-restraint” comes from the idea of how concerned Dimmesdale is of keeping his high position in society, and, due to this fear, he restrains himself from confessing. If Dimmesdale had revealed his sin publicly at this point in the novel, then he may have prevented a great deal of suffering on his part. Furthermore, Hawthorne magnifies the irony, cowardice, and hypocrisy through Dimmesdale’s interrogating of Hester: “…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 hide a guilty heart through life” (59). Ironically, Dimmesdale is the father, so his statements receive different interpretations from Hester, who understands the true plea of Dimmesdale, and the hypocritical spectators, who see him as a morally instructive minister. Furthermore, this statement by Dimmesdale also shows how he indirectly attempts to unveil his sin. Because he is too scared to disclose the sin himself, Dimmesdale can be seen as a weak and dispassionate father. If he truly cared for Hester and his daughter Pearl, then he would have the courage to display his sin outwardly instead of causing Hester to bear twice the burden of their sin. Moreover, Dimmesdale is hypocritical because he tells Hester that uncovering the sinner is better than retaining guilt-crucial advice that he himself fails to grasp. Nevertheless, since Dimmesdale is too weak, craven, and religiously obligated at this point in the novel, he is unable to carry out his own beliefs.
However, as change commences in Dimmesdale, he begins to see Pearl and Hester in the eyes of a passionate father rather than a religious minister. In between the first two scaffold scenes, Dimmesdale becomes greatly weakened both physically and spiritually, as his hidden sin engenders increasing guilt as time progresses. Dimmesdale will continue to build up this tension since he lacks any viable outlet excluding Chillingworth. However, Dimmesdale surprisingly bolsters his courage by the second scaffold scene when he flees to the scaffold in the middle of the night due to his overwhelming guilt. Even so, he does this at night, which shows that he has not fully changed because this is not a true public displaying of sin since no other members of the Puritan society shall witness him besides Hester and Pearl. When Dimmesdale acknowledges Hester and Pearl and asks them to join him, he exhibits a surprising change with regard to passion and care. This short, yet powerful connection with Hester and Pearl stimulates a vital strength in Dimmesdale and the three are able to form and “electric chain.” Hawthorne effectively uses an “electric chain” when describing the three because an electric chain possesses no power or strength when a link is missing, and, similarly, Dimmesdale feels lost in solitude when no connection exists between Hester, Pearl and himself. Their unified presence prompts rejuvenation within Dimmesdale because Hester and Pearl replace the missing links “as if the mother and the child were communicating their vital warmth to his half-torpid system” (137). Still, Hawthorne reiterates that Dimmesdale has not completely changed from his cowardice and dispassionate self because when Pearl asks Dimmesdale whether or not he will join them again tomorrow at noon, he replies negatively. This section again shows Dimmesdale’s inability to maintain his connection with Hester and Pearl, and more importantly, that his personality of timidity and self-preservation prevails over his actions.
By the last scaffold scene, Dimmesdale’s change becomes clearer through his actions and words. In this scene, Hawthorne raises Dimmesdale to his zenith in order to emphasize the severity of his fall. Hawthorne manifests Dimmesdale’s height, which also seems to run parallel with his guilt, through the public spirit: “Never, from the soil of New England, had gone up such a shout! Never, on New England soil, had stood the man so honored by his mortal brethren as the preacher!” (225). Ironically, the more guilt that Dimmesdale withholds, the better his sermons become because the members of the society can better relate to someone who actually holds sins and guilt. However, Dimmesdale eventually transforms in this scene because he possesses the courage to acknowledge Hester and Pearl in public during the daytime, which holds significance on two bases. First, now that Dimmesdale shows that he is willing to give up his high reputation in order to publicly display his relationship with Hester and Pearl, he has gained passion and probity towards his family and lost his previous religious concealment. Second, as he possesses the courage to face the consequences of the harsh and stiff Puritan community, he has gained strength compared to the weakness he previously displayed in the other two scaffold scenes. With these changes, Dimmesdale is finally a more passionate and truthful person compared to his weak and self-preserving personality at the beginning of the novel.
When Hawthorne first presents Dimmesdale, he characterizes Dimmesdale as a weak and self-centered minister who is religiously bound; however, as the novel progresses, Dimmesdale begins to feel sympathy for Hester and Pearl and sees their position through the eyes of a more passionate father. Ultimately, Dimmesdale learns that he should have unveiled his sin earlier; consequently, he would have been saved from much pain and agony. Unfortunately for Dimmesdale, his confession of sin and change in the novel arrive too late and hence cause his eventual death.
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