Who caused Hester's ruin

Published:  12:00 AM, 19 January 2017

Chillingworth or Dimmesdale?


The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the remarkable novels in the history of American literature. Of all his novels The Scarlet Letter is the most out-standing that has so long been studied as an academic piece across the world.

In the plot, we see that the central protagonist Hester Prynne arrived in Boston after being rescued from a shipwreck in the Atlantic. Now in Boston, she got involved with a young minister Arthur Dimmesdale and got a girl-child Pearl. She was imprisoned on the charge of adultery and was ordained to wear a scarlet A-badge on her breast. In addition she was excommunicated and forced to live in a humble hut on the sea beach. But in the meantime, her physician husband, much older than herself, appeared in the town, where in a public gathering in the market place, where Hester was parading her mandatory display on the stage. Dr. Roger Chillingworth instantly recognized Hester and signaled not to reveal the name of her child's father. Later the doctor took up the health-care of Arthur Dimmesdale; they happened to share the same room that gave him better chance to observe Dimmesdale more closely. Doctor Roger Chillingworth discovered that Dimmesdale suffered from acute sleeplessness added to some heart problem: he used to place his right hand over his heart in the left chest. Hester, in the meantime lived secluded along with her Pearl; she earned her little bread by sewing baby-wears and serving distressed people: thus she became a savior to the common people, an angelic figure endowed with love and admiration. Still she never gave up the scarlet badge on her breast. The lovers used to meet in the forest by the town where Pearl "the elfish child" was their constant company. At that stage Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester planned to run away to somewhere in Europe. But Dr. Chillingworh foiled the plan as he learnt of Hester's scheme. Then in a public congregation Arthur Dimmesdale delivered a passionate lecture and collapsed down to death, without any conspicuous confession that he was Pearl's biological father.

The public on the spot discovered that there was a red A-badge (as though) imprinted on Dimmesdale's breast as Hester had to wear. After Dimmesdale's death, Pearl was married out to a European elite youth from where frequent letters started coming to Hester's hut. Hester Prynne, who had already grown quite old, died after a few years. She was buried just beside Arthur's grave, but it was a community demand that there should be some little space between the two graves so that even a dust particle from one might not fly on to the other.  Now we see that Hester Prynne's life was all but ruined in an Atlantic of sorrow and suffering. The painful sorrows that wasted her whole life were caused by Doctor Chillingworth her husband and Arthur Dimmesdale her Love.

Doctor Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband spoiled her life because he was all a dedicated physician who had had no time for the wife. Hester was a youthful beautiful woman who was all a mismatch for the old man. His deliberate neglect piled up agonies and deep deprivation in her soul that went unbearable on the part of a woman of Hester's stage. It was all a drab, colorless and insipid life between the two devoid of all bliss of an ideal conjugal couple. Wise and sagacious Dr. Chillingworth realized Hester's destitution but it was too late and helpless.  Furthermore, he realized that his savage appearance added to the deformed physical frame (one shoulder was higher than the other) was all a disgusting and dispelling matter to beautiful Hester. He was far older in age and by taste and temperament it was absolutely a mismatch. One was young and romantic and other was rigorously practical and fallen by age. Confessing his lapses Dr. Chillingworth honestly said: 

". . .  I was in the autumn of my days, nor was it the early autumn. But all my life had been made up of earnest, studious, thoughtful, quiet years, bestowed faithfully for the increase of mine own knowledge, and faithfully, too, though this latter object was but casual to the other--faithfully for the advancement of human welfare. No life had been more peaceful and innocent than mine; few lives so rich with benefits conferred. Dost thou remember me? Was I not, though you might deem me cold, nevertheless a man thoughtful for others, craving little for himself --  kind, true, just and of constant, if not warm affections? Was I not all this?"

He further repentantly admitted: "I have left thee to the scarlet letter," Besides, he apologetically added that he had now turned to a tenacious enemy of Arthur Dimmesdale as he defiled his so beloved wife. He clearly declared that he would divulge the secret that Dimmesdale had been hiding from public eye and basking in the sun-shine of popularity. He was now what the novelist called a "leech" on Arthur Dimmesdale.

But he multiplied Hester's pain by posing his stern inimical role against Dimmesdale while he openly declared that he would operate revenge against him. Hester by no means could resist him from doing that. Dr. Chillingworth could not realize that he was tormenting his Hester while maneuvering his psychological diagnosis and moral engineering on Arthur Dimmesdale for discovering the real cause of his sleeplessness and acute psychological agony that occasionally drove his right hand on to his heart. The leeching operation of Dr. Chillingworth, of course is really an interesting part of the novel.    

Now let us look into the case of the other lover Arthur Dimmesdale.  Her love with Arthur Dimmesdale had had the glow and mirth enkindled with the fire of passion. To her he was far more than a husband as Chillingworth was far less. They were lost in each other's world of passion and got Pearl. We see that Arthur Dimmesdale had never clearly uttered that he loved her: he used to get tongue-tied and feebly said that he would hold Hester's and Pearl's hand on the public platform on some other day: but that "other day" remained unreached. His official status (as a clergyman) was surely an obstacle in confessing his illegitimate liaison with Hester and begetting Pearl as a result. He utterly lacked any guts, any manly vigor socially to declare Hester's relation with him. He was all a hesitant person who suffered acutely from the deep sense of guilt and evaded the crucial moments of confession. 

Arthur Dimmesdale multiplied Hester's pain by suppressing his real feelings of love for Hester: he went tongue-tied all the way till his death. He never fondled or caressed Pearl: Of course Pearl once washed her cheeks where Arthur kissed. It was Arthur's deplorable apathy towards Hester to see her suffer every moment, even in her hut on the sea-shore. We cannot imagine how a responsible person like a priest could be so callous towards an innocent woman defiled by him. His remorse was all silent without any visible action. He could be accused of real adultery and sexual abuse though Hester could never accept such charges against him: We know there are critics who opined that the scarlet "A" on Hester's breast verily stood for both "Arthur" and "Angel".  Arthur never extended any financial help towards Hester: she earned her bread by preparing and selling baby-wear.  Arthur can be accused of committing occasional sexual act based on physical impulse but lacking the least social responsibility. His silent and dumb agonies counted nothing to Hester whose sincere, trusted and uncompromising love burnt her life into ashes. We know earnestly she tried to protect Arthur from Chillimgworth's revengeful hands: she never let any dot of harm fall on Arthur.

But more than these two people (Dr. Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale), there was another invisible agent that was grievously responsible for the tragic ruin of Hester's life. It was the puritanical zeitgeist of the-then Boston city. The puritanical social order and moral codes of behavior acted directly upon the affairs. Governor Bellingham, Father Wilson and Mr. Dimmesdale the whole clergy and the ruling authority of the community of the town were the fathers of the society. It was their judgment and punitive arrangement that was executed upon Hester. Mr. Dimmesdale was given the responsibility of extracting information about the identity of Pearl's father: He got purely dumb as he himself was the man; that is what silenced Dimmesdale for good. Again it was Dimmesdale who was assigned the responsibility of molding Pearl's moral character. But, again ironically it was Mr. Dimmesdale who called Pearl the "elfish child" indicative of negative connotation. The scarlet "A" badge to be worn on breast, while moving in the society, was their verdict formula so that it could constantly bite into her conscience and she might get uninterrupted anguish crashing down all her psychological stamina. Not only that, she was excommunicated and Pearl was not allowed to play with the children of the community. Hester was brutally tortured on a double scale: by herself and by the inhuman treatment done on Pearl. The entire social administration that was under the command of the puritan values worked upon Hester: it was a totalitarian and absolutist tyrannical mode having no scope of consideration for universal humanism. It was all an austere and iron-hard uncompromising set of rules despite the easy-go of the false and disguised puritanical system the reality of which was divulged through Arthur Dimmesdale's hypocritical and shallow character. No doubt he was a very eloquent preacher but he was never happy with his own priestly performances. Once he realized his sham and said to himself: ". . . since I am irrevocably doomed -- wherefore should I not snatch the solace allowed to the condemned culprit before his execution? Or, if this be the path to a better life, as Hester would persuade me, I surely give up no fairer prospect by pursuing it! Neither can I any longer live without her companionship; so powerful is she to sustain -- so tender to soothe! O Thou to whom I dare not lift mine eyes, wilt Thou yet pardon me?"

 It is relevant in this context to mention that the novel posed to be a criticism of the puritanical society of the-then Boston that Nathaniel Hawthorne capitalized in this master fiction.   


The writer is a Professor of the Department of English, Daffodil International  University, Dhaka

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