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Tara Faggioli
Mrs. Peiritsch
AP English 3

Reverend Mister Arthur Dimmesdale:

The Scarlet Letter’s Show of Twisted Morals

Many different fields have debated the concept of morality. Scientists that
wish to continue with stem cell research must face the dilemma of destroying
developing embryos. Even in day-to-day life, people deal with right-verses-wrong
situations. Who gets to decide what is “good” and what is “bad”? Moral uncertainty
supplies detail often used in character development. Such as the case of the
Reverend Mister Arthur Dimmesdale of The Scarlet Letter fame. This work of
literature presents readers with a moral battle throughout its entirety. Dimmesdale
faces challenges, as he holds a high-ranking position in a puritan church, yet
readers quickly discover that his sins could be considered greater than the average
person’s. In The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Dimmesdale must
confront his moral deficiencies through character interaction, character
development, and the structure of the puritan society in which he lives.
Major character interaction happens throughout important plot events.
Dimmesdale first appears to sentence the adulteress Hester Prynne to her fate.
Rather than put her to death, he instead condemns her to wear a scarlet letter
upon her chest for the rest of her life. He does not, in fact, force her to name her
lover, “since naming her lover can do no more than reduce Hester’s period
for wearing the letter” (Stubbs 386). This confuses the community, as they
expected a harsher punishment from their beloved reverend. Readers soon discover
that the reason for this lax penance complicates the moral standings of the dear
Mister Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale fathered little Pearl, the daughter of Hester out of
wedlock. His guilt over this action burns at his conscience, so much that he
allegedly burns it into his chest. The reader becomes slightly aware of this at the
same moment as Roger Chillingworth, the physician, who had crept upon a sleeping
Dimmesdale, “laid a hand on his bosom, and thrust aside the vestment, that,
hitherto, had always covered it even from the professional eye” (Hawthorne
95). Chillingworth reacts in an unexpectedly joyous way to whatever he sees upon
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Dimmesdale’s chest. Later, when Dimmesdale proclaims himself the father to Pearl
in the final moments of his life, he rips off his coverlet and shows the community
what is there. Shortly after, he dies. The guilt he suffers with ties him to the world.
Once released, he frees himself from life. However, Hawthorne does not fully go
into this, despite Dimmesdale’s very extensive character insights.
Nathaniel Hawthorne thoroughly developed his characters, especially
Dimmesdale. His guilt eats him alive through everything he does. His already frail
form withers under the weight of his sin. He disintegrates rapidly from a holy man
high on a pedestal to a weak man unable to walk through the town without having
to fight off temptations. However, his weaknesses prevent him from furthering
them; he will not allow himself to corrupt any more lives. He knows that he and
Hester plan to leave Boston for England. He knows the pointlessness of leaving a
soiled legacy. He cares for his reputation, perhaps less than he does for Hester, but
he feels morally bound to keep the image of purity he is known for. He feels it is
necessary in order to maintain his position. Of all the characters in The Scarlet
Letter, Dimmesdale proves to be the most believable, “for he encompasses in his
personality both of the extremes Hester and Chillingworth define. He has
participated in the unrestricted passion of Hester, and he has punished
himself as severely as even Chillingworth could require” (Stubbs 386). He
shows most of the colors of the spectrum of morality. The priestly side of him
wishes to remain in a pure spotlight; the romantic, passionate side of him has no
inhibitions. In short, Dimmesdale contradicts himself at times. One moment he
treats himself as the gravest sinner in all the colonies; in the next, he accepts
public praise.
Reverend Dimmesdale holds a powerful role in Puritan society. For puritans,
separation between church and state does not exist, meaning that religious leaders
held sway over other political matters. By default, church leaders deemed
themselves part of the elect, the select group of people – hand chosen by God –
that were going to Heaven. They must have clear, pure morals. They must not
allow themselves to become corrupted. They must strengthen themselves in order
to withstand temptation. None of these could accurately describe Dimmesdale. For
all his positive actions, Dimmesdale cannot overcome his sin. He knew he was unfit
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to provide a role model for the people of Boston, yet he continues to try to do so
anyway. Yet times arise where the people of Boston see religious connotations in
things where Dimmesdale does not; he focuses instead on how it could possibly
draw attention to his sins instead. An example of this presents itself in the form of
the letter A formed from the path of a meteor. At the death of Governor John
Winthrop, a bright A lights itself in the skies as Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale
watch. When an old sexton describes the event to Dimmesdale as “‘[a] great red
letter in the sky,—the letter A,—which we interpret to stand for Angel’”
(Hawthorne 109), Dimmesdale, despite the earlier description of him viewing the
spectacle, denies seeing it. The reasons for this remain mostly unclear. However,
readers can assume Dimmesdale views the A negatively, much as Hester does.
Dimmesdale should, by definition of his profession, have immediately seen the
religious connotations in the symbol. Instead, his skewed morals twist his ideals
and turn them selfish.
Moral uncertainty can endanger the lives of more than just the uncertain one.
How is Arthur Dimmesdale supposed to provide a moral compass for his followers if
his own is warped? With sin comes corruption, and corrupted power leads to chaos,
chaos stemming from a lack of moral judgement. While “right” and “wrong” cannot
define themselves clearly, a person must show moral proficiency rather than
deficiency. Those same scientists wishing to continue their research have to make
their own decisions. They posses the options to possibly save lives by destroying
those never started, or they may instead decide to continue with alternate modes
of achieving their goals. Ultimately, moral issues lie in the eye of the beholder.
What seems horrible and unjust to one may be seen as justified to another.
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Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 3rd ed. Eds. Seymour Gross, et all. New
York: Norton, 1988. Print.

Stubbs, John Cadwell. “The Scarlet Letter: ‘A Tale of Human Frailty and Sorrow’”
The Scarlet Letter. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1988. 384-92.
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