Reverend Dimmesdale “Life is hard, but accepting that fact makes it easier.” this common phrase has been proven true in many people’s lives, but is also a harsh fact that Boston’s Rev. Dimmesdale, a key character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s the Scarlet Letter, had to face. In this twisted story of deception and adultery set in the Puritan era, Hawthorne introduces Dimmesdale as a weak and cowardly man who refuses to take responsibility for his actions. Yet, he transitions to a person who accepts his sins and the consequences, before it is too late, ultimately finding happiness. At the beginning of the novel, Dimmesdale has established quite a reputation for himself.
In discussing individual members of the magistrate, the towns people describe Dimmesdale as a “God fearing” gentleman, “but merciful overmuch (49)”. Due to his actions, all of the people respect and look up to the Reverend. Throughout the story, Dimmesdale desperately tries to confess, envying Hester, for her courage, he says, “Happy are you Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! (188)” Even at the end of the novel, when finally attempting to confess, people are compelled by his final sermon, raving that “never had a man spoken in so wise, so high, and so holy a spirit, as he that spake this day (p.243)”. Proving that he was a very loved and influential man in the small town. In further developing Dimmesdale’s character, Hawthorne portrays him as a hypocrite. His outward demeanor deceives the villagers, appearing as a completely holy man. However, before the action of the novel begins, he stumbles into sin, by committing adultery with Hester Pryne, an attractive young woman whose husband has been long absent on a journey, and presumed dead. His cowardly outlook on his sins only causes his troubles to snowball.
Abandoning Hester and her illegitimate daughter Pearl, also augmented his problems. Forcing Hester to go and find work around town, an obviously hard task for a single parent. He also abandons them emotionally and physically, rarely there when Hester and Pearl needed him. Innocent little Pearl wonders why Dimmesdale is so afraid of public displays of affection, yet when they are alone, he takes notice of her and Hester; talking to him, Pearl asks” ‘Wilt thou stand here with Mother and me, tomorrow noontide?’ (p.149)”. A question whose answer is unclear for Pearl.
In fact, the only way Hester and Pearl receive any kind of support from Dimmesdale is when Hester threatens to tell the truth about his sins. The fact that Dimmesdale is a hypocrite causes him to experience increased torment due to his guilt. Hawthorne’s point is beautifully illustrated by Dimmesdale, because if he was not such a highly religious man, then he would not care about his crime. However, he does care, and he inflicts torment on himself, including long periods of fasting, in addition to hours of staring at himself in the mirror, he could also be caught numerous times in his closet, whipping himself and burning the letter “A” on his chest, or at the scaffold in the wee hours of the morning, practicing how he is going to confess the next day. Deluding himself by pretending that his private punishment is adequate.
Similarly, there are also some things that go on that are out of Dimmesdale’s control. For example, bizarre thoughts and hallucinations take over him. His outward appearance also reflects this. To illustrate, “..his cheek was paler and thinner, and his voice more tremulous than before-when it had now become a constant habit…to press his hand over his heart. (118)”.
“He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify, himself (141)”. Proving, once again, that no good came out of his self-inflicted punishment. Even though he was privately repentant at home, his ministerial duties were carried out, attempting to keep his personal life out of the church. Dimmesdale refuses to confess, rationalizing that if he did, he would not be able to continue preaching and doing good deeds for the people; attempting to balance the scale. ” ‘These men deceive themselves’ “, as stated by Dimmesdales’s doctor, referring to people who believe that they can balance the scales by “doing good deeds (129)”. However, at the conclusion of the novel, Dimmesdale takes an enormous load off of his back when he swallows his pride and finally confesses. After he sees himself transformed into a man that wants to teach children blasphemous words, and to sing and get drunk with visiting sailors, or to violate a new bride; he realizes that the only way to happiness was not through self-punishment, but through honesty.
Bravely confessing on the scaffold, yet doing so without allowing Hester to intervene, shows that he wants to repay her for her loyalty. As if his honesty was a final cure for not only his, but also Pearl’s impish, condition; giving her what she had been yearning for all along, recognition, “Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken (251)”. And in attaining his peace and happiness, he dies. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s major theme in the book was that people are only human and nothing else, and a character other than Dimmesdale could not have painted such a vivid, and memorable picture in one’s mind.