The literature of the American Renaissance is rich in symbolism, and in no author’s work is this more evident than in that of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Perhaps the most popular of his works, The Scarlet Letter has long been dissected and analyzed by scholars and critics; repeatedly, its characters have been torn apart and examined for their symbolic meaning. Of those characters, one of the most fascinating and controversial is Roger Chillingworth. In this novel, Hawthorne uses Chillingworth as both a symbol of evil and an embodiment of guilt.
Hawthorne exploits Chillingworth throughout the story as a personification of guilt. From the beginning, Chillingworth is described as “a deformed, old figure, with a face that haunted men’s memories longer than they liked” (Male 30). A parallel can clearly be drawn here, as guilt has a tendency to linger on the conscience and haunt the soul of the transgressor. In extreme circumstances, guilt can, as with Roger Chillingworth, become a leech which drains its host of nerve, will, and physical energy. As guilt, Chillingworth invades the dwelling place, which is commonly used as a symbol of the heart in Hawthorne’s fiction (Male 30). Early in the novel, Chillingworth appears from nowhere to confront Hester in her prison cell. Later, he manages to insinuate himself into Dimmesdale’s home as a permanent resident.
As a fixed part of Dimmesdale’s life, just as the constant presence of guilt agonizes the conscience, Chillingworth makes life miserable for the minister. Dimmesdale is in perfect health until Chillingworth moves in. Soon thereafter, his body slowly begins to weaken and his health fails him. Although Chillingworth acts as a true friend to Dimmesdale, their conversations torment the reverend, and the physician’s medicines only aggravate his patient’s symptoms. Chillingworth, as guilt, assaults Dimmesdale’s spiritual defenses and gains complete control of the minister’s mind, body, and spirit (Stein 81).
Just as running from guilt can cause spiritual torment, if Dimmesdale gives way to self-pity and moral cowardice and flees the settlement, he will doom himself to an everlasting hell (Stein 81). Only by knowing Chillingworth and confronting him face to face is moral growth possible for the priest (Male 30). Until acknowledged, the guilt will be left to fester in the heart of the minister. Chillingworth gradually shrivels as Hester and Dimmesdale come closer to full recognition of him, making his turn for the worst when Dimmesdale reveals his sin. It is said of Chillingworth that, after Dimmesdale’s death, “All his strength and energy-all his vital and intellectual force-seemed at once to desert him…he positively withered up, shriveled away, and almost vanished form mortal sight” (Hawthorne 254). This is a clear illustration of how guilt, upon the revelation of sin, seems to dissolve.
Throughout the novel, Roger Chillingworth becomes a representation of the horrible effects that evil can induce on a person. Materializing out of the forest, a symbol of evil in itself (Baym 60), the physician is first seen by the people of Providence as a blessing. However, Chillingworth’s fleshly nature, separated from the spiritual, transforms him (http://ourworld.compuserve.come/homepages/jbair/realwit.htm). Through him, the reader sees, as Hawthorne puts it, “man’s faculty of [turning] himself into a devil” (166). Physical evidence of his moral degradation is seen as the former aspect of this intellectual and studious man is gradually replaced by a look of fierce and searching ugliness (Stein 80). These outward alterations do not go unnoticed by his neighbors: At first, his expression had been calm, meditative, scholar-like. Now, there was something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed…it grew to be a widely diffused opinion, that the reverend…was haunted either by Satan himself, or Satan’s emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth (Hawthorne 124). It was even rumored that the fire in Chillingworth’s lab was brought up straight from Hell itself.
There is not a part of Chillingworth’s life in which some evidence of the destruction brought upon the physician by the evil that has overtaken him is unable to be seen. One of the most affected, and perhaps the one with the most effects upon other areas of his life, is his spiritual faith. When evil is invited into the soul, religious convictions seem to be of the first things to go. Although of a Puritanical background, the physician openly confesses to Hester that he has long forgotten Christianity. He questions, even denies, the existence of the human soul, therefore rejecting the eternal nature of man. Further evidence of his spiritual deterioration occurs when Chillingworth refuses to forgive Dimmesdale, thereby defying the working of grace. When Chillingworth rejects the basic spiritual values that give life meaning, he invites the catastrophe of moral anarchy (Stein 80).
Hawthorne’s theory of fatalism shows that retribution for sin is certain (Turner 58). Chillingworth and the “Black Man” that he serves stand for goodness perverted (Abel 73). While it is said that Chillingworth is misshapen from birth, and it is known that physical deformity is often a symbol of some inward distortion (Ragussis 74), it is also stated that the physician was not always of such evil practice. This is not to say, however, that his benevolence was so innate and habitual that a lapse into malevolence was implausible. Chillingworth slowly evolves from a man capable of love to a man capable of committing the greatest sin in The Scarlet Letter. Although, just like many other mortals, Chillingworth starts his trek down the pathway of sin as a rational human being, he quickly becomes overtaken with his goals. His drive for revenge and control causes him to lose touch with humanity and he becomes obsessed. Through the physician, the reader is able to see how evil can cause a person to give up his identity and independence. As the leech, Chillingworth becomes completely dependent on Dimmesdale, as “a terrible fascination, a kind of fierce…necessity seized [him] within it’s gripe, and never set him free again until he had done all it’s bidding” (Hawthorne 125).
While Hawthorne’s intentions for the interpretation of Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter remain controversial, it is agreed that he did design Chillingworth as a powerful figure. In analysis of this unforgettable character, two of the most widely accepted interpretations are Chillingworth as a symbol of evil and Chillingworth as an abstract of guilt. The first is illustrated through the physical and spiritual transformations that he undergoes throughout the novel. The latter is depicted in the changes that Dimmesdale endures through the duration of the physician’s stay. In spite of the various stances on his character, Roger Chillingworth is a prime example of Hawthorne’s symbolism and will continue to intrigue and unsettle readers for years to come.
Abel, Darrel. “Chillingworth as Miltonic Satan.” A Scarlet Letter Handbook. Ed. Seymour L. Gross. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1967. 72-76.
Baym, Nina. The Scarlet Letter: A Reading. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. United States: Tome Doherty Associates, Inc., 1988.
Male, Roy R. “The Mystery of Moral Growth.” A Scarlet Letter Handbook. Ed. Seymour L. Gross. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1967. 30-32.
Ragussis, Michael. “Family Discourse and Fiction in the Scarlet Letter.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in the series Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 59-80.
Stein, William B. “Chillingworth as a Faust and Mephistopheles.” A Scarlet Letter Handbook. Ed. Seymour L. Gross. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1967. 76-82. “The Real Witch of The Scarlet Letter.” Online. Available http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jbair/realwit.htm. 09 August 2001
Turner, Arlin. Nathaniel Hawthorne: An Introduction and Interpretation in the series American Authors and Critics. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961.