“TheScarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne gave readers a story set in a Puritan settlementin the 1600s. Throughout the entire novel, character change is extremelyevident and it was something that every main character went through. However,Reverend Dimmesdale’s evolution over the course of the book was especiallyprominent. The scenes where Reverend Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Pearl aretogether on the scaffold help depict these changes. This is shown because bylooking at Reverend Dimmesdale’s health, you can see that he became increasinglyweakened due to the extreme guilt that he experienced after committing a sinwith Hester Prynne. This is important because his change drove the plot of thebook. Because of his change, both his physical and mental conditions declinedrapidly, which caused his unexpected death at the end of the book.
In the earlier chapters of “TheScarlet Letter”, Dimmesdale had just committed adultery with Hester Prynne,which was a sin through the eyes of the Puritan society that the book tookplace in. Because he had committed this sin just a short while ago, the effectsof the guilt and pain that he would put himself through over the followingyears had not yet taken a toll on his overall health yet. When Hester leavesthe prison, Dimmesdale tried to convince Hester to reveal the name of the manwho she committed the sin with. In Chapter 3, he exclaimed, “I charge thee tospeak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow sufferer!” (p.
45). At thattime, he was still healthy, but he suggests that it would be better for “thefellow sinner” if Hester revealed his identity. This showed that ReverendDimmesdale may have had an idea of what would happen to himself, so he askedHester to reveal the name of the person. However, Hester refuses to state thename of the man who she committed the sin with.
He did not admit to the sinbecause he had an internal conflict which was “confessing versus notconfessing”. This caused him not to confess until his death seven years later. Thisscene at the scaffold is very important because he subjected himself to the guiltthat would change his entire life, especially his mental and physical state. As the book continues, it is moreapparent that Dimmesdale’s is becoming weaker, both physically and mentally.
His changes begin to be seen quickly, clearly shown in Chapter 9. As thenarrator states, “About this period, however, the health of Mr. Dimmesdale hadevidently begun to fail.” This quoteshows that his appearance is changing, particularly his physical appearance. Alsoin Chapter 9, it also says, “His voice grew emaciated; his voice, though stillrich and sweet, had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay in it…” (p.80),showing that Dimmesdale had changed significantly since the earlier chapters,when he was stronger. By the time of the second scene at the scaffold,Dimmesdale is a shadow of his former self, and overcome with guilt andself-hatred.
As said in Chapter 12, before he sees Hester and Pearl, “Mr.Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as if the universe weregazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart. On thatspot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing andpoisonous tooth of bodily pain. Without any effort of his will, or power torestrain himself, he shrieked aloud” (p.99).
This quote is very important, asit shows a physical change that Dimmesdale has gone through since their lastscene at the scaffold, in Chapters 2-3. This shows him weakening, and a scarletletter right over his heart, which constantly inflicted physical pain onDimmesdale. In addition to physical changes during the second scene at thescaffold, he also underwent mental changes, caused by his guilt. When he seesReverend Wilson passing the scaffold, he thought he called out to him, but heactually did not.
This was also shown in Chapter 12, where he said, “‘A goodevening to you, venerable Father Wilson. Come up hither, I pray you, and pass apleasant hour with me!’ Good Heavens! Had Mr. Dimmesdale actually spoken? Forone instant he believed that these words had passed his lips. But they wereuttered only within his imagination.” (p. 100). Because of this, it is veryclear that Reverend Dimmesdale is not as mentally stable as he was during thebeginning of the book, when he was very clear-minded and knew what he wasdoing.
Now, he is hallucinating and imagining things that he thinks that he isdoing, which demonstrates mental changes. It is obvious that the guilt ofkeeping a secret is causing Dimmesdale to weaken by the time of the secondscene where they are together on the scaffold. In the final chapters of the book,Dimmesdale’s physical and mental health has evidently deteriorated. In Chapter20, Dimmesdale’s actions show his declining mental state.
It states, “It wasonly by the most careful self-control that the former could refrain fromuttering certain blasphemous suggestions that rose into his mind…again, anotherincident of the same nature…and this happened a third time.” This shows thatDimmesdale is not the same type of person who he was in the beginning of thebook. He had never done or even thought about the things that he almost said tothe people he encountered. This shows that his mental health is worsening, ashe had never thought of these types of comments, which were definitely worsethan his calm and composed personality in the beginning of the book. When thethird scene in the scaffold occurs, he has been tormented by his guilt for overseven years, and that causes his death, after finally admitting the sin that hecommitted with Hester.
By letting the sin out of his mind, he also lets go of hisbody, which is the reason that he dies. His extremely weakened physical andmental state could not handle keeping the secret and guilt of his sin anymore. In conclusion, it is very apparentthat Dimmesdale was both physically and mentally weakened due to his guilt andkeeping a secret of the sin that he committed with Hester. A very obvious waythat his changes were shown was by looking at the three scenes that Reverend Dimmesdale,Hester Prynne, and Pearl were together at the scaffold.
In the first scene,Dimmesdale, although guilty of committing the sin, did not confess. He does notdisplay and signs of physical or mental weaknesses in that scene. However, whenhe goes to the scaffold at night in Chapter 12, it is very clear that he wasweakened by the sin and the guilt that was brought upon him. This was shownbecause an “A” had appeared on his chest, and he was hallucinating andimagining things that he did not do, like calling out to someone that he saw.Lastly, when looking at the final scene at the scaffold, Dimmesdale was veryweak, and finally admitted to the sin. By doing this, he died. His death showedthe final effect of guilt on himself and what committing a sin and keeping asecret about it directly caused his death at the end. This was because of theextreme guilt that he experienced throughout the entire book, causing him toweaken.
Therefore, he changed throughout the book, driving the plot in manydifferent ways.