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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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ARTHUR DIMMESDALE

Dimmesdale is a coward and a hypocrite. Worse, he is a self-confessed coward and hypocrite. He knows what he has to do to still the voice of his conscience and make his peace with God. He simply cannot bring himself to do it.

Dimmesdale is somewhat pale and weak from the first moment we see him. And he grows paler and weaker by the minute, as he lives ridden with guilt, a guiltmonger by his side. By the time the minister comes to the forest, he barely has the strength to throw himself down on the leaves in the hope that he can lie there forever. He lacks the will even to wish to live or die.

When we read such a description, we cannot help wondering what Hester ever saw in the man.

Yet there is a presence in the minister that demands a live audience and knows how to sway one. We see it in his eyes-large, brown, and melancholy-which seem to search out men's souls. We hear it in his voice-sweet, deep, broken-a finely tuned instrument for touching women's hearts.

Were Dimmesdale just a little stronger, a little more energetic, we would say he has charisma. And probably, in his own time and place, he did. Ministers were the Puritan culture's heroes. Hester would have met Dimmesdale first as the revered idol of the community, the object of worshipping glances from every girl in sight.


We sense in Dimmesdale this split between his private and his public self, his purity and his passion. We wonder, was the split always there?

To some extent, Dimmesdale's story is the story of any sensitive young man's initiation into sexuality, especially in a society that treats sexuality with ill grace. But his problem is enormously complicated by the fact of Hester's marriage (for him no technicality), and by his own image of himself as a cleric devoted to higher things. Unlike other young men, Dimmesdale cannot accept his loss of innocence and go on from there. He must struggle futilely to get back to where he was.

By the time we meet Dimmesdale, he has lost (if he ever had it) the simplicity of an earlier time. He has bitten into the apple and destroyed his old sense of oneness with God. The split in the man's nature is deepened by his situation. If he wishes to continue in his ministerial role, he must bury his sensuality and wrap himself up in a cloak of sanctity. He must wear one face for the world, another for himself.

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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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