Monday, January 13, 2020

Observations About Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale from "The Scarlett Letter"

"Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years' cheat, to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am!" (17.18)

The fictional character of Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is the most fascinating character, next to Hester Prynne herself, created by Nathaniel Hawthorne for his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. Arthur was a Puritan minister in Puritan New England. This means that he believed in predestination, where one believes that one cannot choose salvation, for it is the privilege of God alone. All features of salvation are determined by God's sovereignty, including choosing those who will be saved. The Puritans distinguished between "justification," or the gift of God's grace given to the elect, and "sanctification," the holy behavior that supposedly resulted when an individual had been saved. Keeping the commandments of God was proof of your faith and salvation, but falling short of living in accordance with the commandments of God could prove that you were not among the elect.

In light of this, let us determine the character of Arthur Dimmesdale. Readers are told that he was a scholar of some renown at Oxford University. He is devoted to God, passionate in his religion, and effective in the pulpit. He also has the principal conflict in the novel, and his agonized suffering is the direct result of his inability to disclose his sin. We don't know one thing about why this apparently sincere, devout Puritan minister decided that it was a good idea to sneak off into the forest with a married woman, Hester Prynne, which brings about a child named Pearl. But we do know that he feels bad about it, so bad that his inward trouble drove him to practices more in accordance with "the old, corrupted faith of Rome than with the better light of the church in which he had been born and bred."

Dimmesdale faces a problem that is both simple and paradoxical: the knowledge of his sin, his inability to disclose it to Puritan society, and his desire for confession. He attempts to ameliorate the pressure of this position by punishing himself (both physically and mentally) and by insisting to his parishioners that he is a base, worthless creature. Without the awareness of his specific crime, however, his flock takes his protestations of worthlessness as further evidence of his holiness (a fact of which he is well aware) since, in the Puritan conception, awareness of one's sinful worthlessness is a necessary component of whatever virtue is available to humans; thus, Dimmesdale has been taken as an example of a conflict typical of Puritans (or seen as such by Hawthorne from his historical distance).

The fact that Hester takes all of the blame for their shared sin goads his conscience, and his resultant mental anguish and physical weakness open up his mind and allow him to empathize with others. Consequently, he becomes an eloquent and emotionally powerful speaker and a compassionate leader, and his congregation is able to receive meaningful spiritual guidance from him.

Ironically, the townspeople do not believe Dimmesdale’s protestations of sinfulness. Given his background and his penchant for rhetorical speech, Dimmesdale’s congregation generally interprets his sermons allegorically rather than as expressions of any personal guilt. This drives Dimmesdale to further internalize his guilt and self-punishment and leads to still more deterioration in his physical and spiritual condition. The town’s idolization of him reaches new heights after his Election Day sermon, which is his last. In his death, Dimmesdale becomes even more of an icon than he was in life. Many believe his confession was a symbolic act, while others believe Dimmesdale’s fate was an example of divine judgment.

In his profound turmoil, we are told a few things about Dimmesdale that are very interesting. The first is this from chapter 9:

The young divine, whose scholar-like renown still lived in Oxford, was considered by his more fervent admirers as little less than a heaven-ordained apostle, destined, should he live and labor for the ordinary term of life, to do as great deeds for the now feeble New England Church, as the early Fathers had achieved for the infancy of the Christian faith. About this period, however, the health of Mr. Dimmesdale had evidently begun to fail. By those best acquainted with his habits, the paleness of the young minister's cheek was accounted for by his too earnest devotion to study, his scrupulous fulfilment of parochial duty, and, more than all, by the fasts and vigils of which he made a frequent practice, in order to keep the grossness of this earthly state from clogging and obscuring his spiritual lamp. Some declared, that, if Mr. Dimmesdale were really going to die, it was cause enough, that the world was not worthy to be any longer trodden by his feet. He himself, on the other hand, with characteristic humility, avowed his belief, that, if Providence should see fit to remove him, it would be because of his own unworthiness to perform its humblest mission here on earth.

What stands out here is his frequent fasts and vigils and his extreme sense of sinfulness. In chapter 11 we get a few more details:

His inward trouble drove him to practices more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome, than with the better light of the church in which he had been born and bred. 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 the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly because of that bitter laugh. It was his custom, too, as it has been that of many other pious Puritans, to fast,—not, however, like them, in order to purify the body and render it the fitter medium of celestial illumination, but rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance. He kept vigils, likewise, night after night, 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 thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify, himself. In these lengthened vigils, his brain often reeled, and visions seemed to flit before him; perhaps seen doubtfully, and by a faint light of their own, in the remote dimness of the chamber, or more vividly, and close beside him, within the looking-glass. Now it was a herd of diabolic shapes, that grinned and mocked at the pale minister, and beckoned him away with them; now a group of shining angels, who flew upward heavily, as sorrow-laden, but grew more ethereal as they rose. Now came the dead friends of his youth, and his white-bearded father, with a saint-like frown, and his mother, turning her face away as she passed by. Ghost of a mother,—thinnest fantasy of a mother,—methinks she might yet have thrown a pitying glance towards her son! And now, through the chamber which these spectral thoughts had made so ghastly, glided Hester Prynne, leading along little Pearl, in her scarlet garb, and pointing her forefinger, first at the scarlet letter on her bosom, and then at the clergyman's own breast.

These ascetic practices, as we are told, were not customary for a Puritan, and hearkened to what Puritans despised most - the Roman Catholic Church. And how did he know about these things? We get one glimpse of the possibility from the description of his library in chapter 9:

Here the pale clergyman piled up his library, rich with parchment-bound folios of the Fathers, and the lore of Rabbis, and monkish erudition, of which the Protestant divines, even while they vilified and decried that class of writers, were yet constrained often to avail themselves.

Even a Puritan divine, in order to reach the pinnacle of his profession, had to study the Church Fathers and their monastic predecessors, despite the enmity they may hold against them. But why did Dimmesdale feel the need to undertake extreme forms of asceticism? It was the belief in predestination that was killing Arthur and driving him to despair.

In Puritan terms, Dimmesdale's predicament is that he is unsure of his soul's status: He is exemplary in performing his duties as a Puritan minister, an indicator that he is one of the elect; however, he knows he has sinned and considers himself a hypocrite, a sign he is not chosen. The vigils he keeps are representative of this inward struggle to ascertain his heavenly status, the status of his very soul. Note that Hawthorne says of Dimmesdale's nightly vigils, which are sometimes in darkness, sometimes in dim light, and sometimes by the most powerful light which he could throw upon it, "He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured . . ."

Finally, to add to the Dimmesdale dilemma, the Puritans — therefore, Dimmesdale — did not believe that good works or moral living earned salvation for the individual. As Dimmesdale states, "There is no substance in it [good works]." (Hester, who is not Puritan, believes that Dimmesdale's good works should bring him peace.) The Puritan reasoning was that, if one could earn his/her way into heaven, God's sovereignty is diminished. Since God created the soul and infused it in the human body, salvation is predestined. They reasoned that the elect — that is, God's chosen people — would not or could not commit evil acts; they would act the role, as it were; thus, Dimmesdale's dilemma.

As a minister, Dimmesdale has a voice that consoles and an ability to sway audiences. His congregation adores him and his parishioners seek his advice. As a minister, Dimmesdale must be above reproach, and there is no question that he excels at his profession and enjoys a reputation among his congregation and other ministers. His soul aside, he does do good works. His ministry aids people in leading good lives. If he publicly confesses, he loses his ability to be effective in this regard.

For Dimmesdale, however, his effectiveness betrays his desire to confess. The more he suffers, the better his sermons become. The more he whips himself, the more eloquent he is on Sunday and the more his congregation worships his words. Nevertheless, Hawthorne states in Chapter 20, "No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true."

Dimmesdale's struggle is dark and his penance is horrifying as he tries to unravel his mystery. In Chapter 11, "The Interior of a Heart," Dimmesdale struggles with his knowledge of his sin, his inability to disclose it to Puritan society, and his desire for penance. He knows his actions have fallen short of both God's standards and his own, and he fears this represents his lack of salvation. In an attempt to seek salvation, he fasts until he faints and whips himself on the shoulders until he bleeds. But these punishments are done in private rather than in public and do not provide the cleansing Dimmesdale seeks and needs.

As a sinner, he is weakened to temptation. As demonstrated later, his weakened condition makes it easier for him to associate himself with the Black Man in the forest. His congregation expects him to be above other mortals, and his life and thoughts must exist on a higher spiritual plane than others. Accordingly, his wonderful sermons are applauded by all for a reason his listeners don't understand: Sin and agony have enabled the intellectual scholar-minister to recognize and empathize with other sinners.

In the forest scene, Dimmesdale evidently realizes that he is human and should ask forgiveness and do penance openly. On the way home, he sees how far his defenses have been breached by evil. These thoughts explain why he can so easily write his Election Day sermon, which is filled with the passion of his struggle and his humanity.

Recognizing that death is imminent, he chooses to purify his soul at the last minute by confessing his sin publicly and revealing the scarlet letter A that has appeared on his chest over his heart. And in the end, he is strong enough to be grateful: "God… is merciful!… By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be his name! His will be done! Farewell!" (23.35).

Dimmesdale's confession in the third scaffold scene and the climax of the story is the action that ensures his salvation. The reader senses that whether chosen or earned, Dimmesdale's salvation is a reality. Having had several opportunities to confess, without success until this scene, true to his nature if not his ministry, he asks God's forgiveness not only for himself, but also for Chillingworth, who confirms the minister's triumph when he laments, "Thou hast escaped me! . . . Thou hast escaped me!" Dimmesdale's confession also brings about Pearl's humane metamorphosis.

In the long run, Dimmesdale has not the strength of Hester Prynne or her honesty. He cannot stand alone to confess. In death, perhaps he will find a gentler judgment that his own or that of his fellow citizens of Boston.

Hawthorne in his profound way tells us in the story of Arthur Dimmesdale that the Puritan way of salvation can easily lead the most devout to despair and alienation from the community, that in this context only in private can one deal with one's sinfulness based on the old ways, and only before death can your sin be publicly disclosed lest you be punished by the community for your sin, as was Hester Prynne.