In the novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne establishes a duality between piety and sin that manifests itself in the character of Arthur Dimmesdale. Throughout the plot, Dimmesdale is presented as a faithful and religious minister. Hawthorne primarily portrays this by detailing the power of Dimmesdale’s sermons and the effects that they have on his congregation. Additionally, Dimmesdale is depicted as a person of decaying emotional stability, who digresses into a nervous collapse as the story progresses. He becomes physically frail, and displays his internal turmoil by auspiciously placing his hand over his heart. Hawthorne further establishes Dimmesdale’s character through the lens of hypocrisy, especially through the questions that his illegitimate daughter Pearl presents. Hawthorne uses both direct and indirect characterization to present the character of Dimmesdale as pious, increasingly nervous, and hypocritical.
When Dimmesdale is first introduced to the reader, he is shown as a faithful minister who is fulfilling his religious duties while questioning Hester about the paternity of her child. Hawthorne establishes Dimmesdale as a deeply religious pillar of the community, whose “eloquence and religious fervor had already given the earnest of high eminence in his profession” (46). Hawthorne shows that the minister is respected and revered in the Puritan society. Hawthorne most effectively shows the piety that is instilled in Dimmesdale by showing the degree to which his sermons affect his audience. Hawthorne writes that when Dimmesdale preaches to the townspeople, his words “affected them like the speech of an angel” (46). The intense piety with which Dimmesdale speaks shows that he is passionately spiritual and that he is able to use his education, eloquence, and religious fervor to influence the members of his society.
Hawthorne further establishes Dimmesdale as a pious character by contrasting him with the foil of Roger Chillingworth. The two men are both portrayed as respected and scholarly. However, Chillingworth is depicted as a sort of demon, who the townspeople come to believe is “Satan himself, or Satan’s emissary” (88). Dimmesdale, by comparison, is portrayed as a saint, who is “considered by his more fervent admirers as little less than a heaven-ordained apostle” (82). Hawthorne uses the distinction between demon-like Chillingworth and holy Dimmesdale to expose the humility and pious nature of the minister. Even when Dimmesdale admits that he is guilty of adultery and dies at the end of the novel, many of the townspeople still insist whole-heartedly that he was only trying to create an analogy about his sin. They are unable to associate him with any sort of unholy transgressions, because their perception of their minister as a heavenly emissary is so deeply embedded the town’s collective psyche. Hawthorne establishes throughout the novel that Dimmesdale is a man of deep religious sentiment, who is able to affect his parishioners with his innate eloquence and piety.
Despite Dimmesdale’s inherent piety, Hawthorne also establishes him as a character with a guilty conscience. This is evident in Dimmesdale’s emotional state, which deteriorates as the story progresses. Hawthorne initially shows this in a physical description, when Dimmesdale stands above Hester while she is on the scaffold and tries to convince her to reveal who her fellow sinner is. The situation is not without irony, as the father is of course Dimmesdale himself. However, Dimmesdale strives to conceal this, and the “trying nature of his position drove the blood from his cheek, and made his lips tremulous” (46). Although Dimmesdale is able to publicly hide his guilt, it becomes increasingly apparent as his mental and physical state begins to fail, due to the extreme guilt that he feels. Hawthorne establishes Dimmesdale as a guilty character when he is forced to speak directly to Hester. When Dimmesdale tries to convince Hester to reveal an additional culprit, he exclaims, “though he were to step down from a high place” this would still be better “than to hide a guilty heart” (47). This episode is full of symbolism because Dimmesdale is the other sinner, and at the moment he is making his plea, he is standing on a balcony that is higher than the scaffold where Hester is standing with Pearl. Dimmesdale is the fellow transgressor in a high place who is hiding a guilty heart. Hawthorne continually draws the readers’ attention to this guilty conscience during the rest of the novel when Dimmesdale is continually “holding his hand over his heart” (78). He tries to physically repress the guilt that he feels. Dimmesdale tries to suppress his guilt and shame, but Hawthorne shows that the minister is remorseful and nervous through his speech and actions.
When Dimmesdale’s sin becomes evident to the reader, Hawthorne also establishes him as a character who is guilty of hypocrisy. Dimmesdale continues to perform his pastoral duties and seek a holy life, despite the fact that he is secretly guilty of private sin. He hides his immorality while Hester is publicly ostracized. Hawthorne shows that Dimmesdale is aware that he is a hypocrite through his speech. Repeatedly during sermons, Dimmesdale says to the crowd “I am a lie” (99). Dimmesdale knows that he is a fraud, but is incapable of fully expressing it. The writer most meaningfully shows that Dimmesdale is a hypocrite through the use of the character of Pearl. Pearl, unlike her mother, is not afraid to highlight the contradictions that Dimmesdale presents. When Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold as a private admission of his guilt, Pearl pointedly asks him “Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, tomorrow at noon-tide?” (105). Pearl recognizes that Dimmesdale is a hypocrite because he will only claim her and his sin in the dark of the night, when the he is free from the judgment of the town that revers him. In the light of day, he is unable to publicly profess his guilt. Pearl also recognizes this in the forest, and refuses to accept Dimmesdale privately until he openly and overtly casts off his hypocrisy by acknowledging his sin with Hester. Dimmesdale is only able to do this in his final act of the novel, when he stands before the town with Pearl and Hester on the scaffold.
Hawthorne portrays Arthur Dimmesdale as a character who is spiritual, guilty, and hypocritical. Dimmesdale is a character who can move crowds with his religious fervor. However, the intense guilt that he feels over committing adultery with Hester causes him to decline into a physical and mental nervous collapse. The contradiction that his piety and remorse presents combines to make Dimmesdale guilty of hypocrisy. Hawthorne uses the combination of these three traits of spirituality, guilt, and fraudulence to create one of the central moral crises of the novel, in which Dimmesdale is forced to reconcile his piety and shame in order to accept his sin.