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

Sometime in your study of literature, you've probably heard the distinction between flat characters and characters in the round. Round characters, or three- dimensional ones, leap out from the page with all the vigor and complexity of life. Flat characters, or two- dimensional ones, stay firmly imbedded in the work of which they are a part. Flat characters have a specific literary task to perform. They never get away from their function long enough to assume a life and a will of their own.

The distinction between flat and round characters is important with regard to Roger Chillingworth because most critical discussions address the question of just how convincing a character he is. He is, in part, an evil type that Hawthorne has used in his fiction before: the cold heart that observes and does not feel. (As the character's name implies, Chillingworth is worth a chill.) But does he ever become anything more than a type? Does he, like Hester and Dimmesdale, take on human dimensions?


There are two radically different answers to that question. You will have to decide between them.

1. To some readers, Chillingworth is a creature right out of melodrama. Hawthorne might have borrowed him from a grade-B horror film. Chillingworth's very appearance is a hackneyed convention for villainy. A misshapen shoulder-shades of Richard III! As if that weren't enough, there are Chillingworth's smoldering eyes and his dark, sooty face. Why, the man is even less than a real villain. He is an imaginary fiend.

Chillingworth's appearance aside, his very singleness of purpose is inhuman. For seven years, he has only one thought: to find and torment the man who has betrayed him. Now who is there among us who eats, sleeps, dreams, and breathes revenge? -

2. Other readers say that, despite the demonic imagery surrounding him, Chillingworth remains very much a man. He is, after all, a wronged husband, a figure the 17th century held up to ridicule and abuse. His lust for revenge is therefore not unnatural, and his method of revenge not hackneyed at all. No sword or poison for Chillingworth. He takes the psychological approach.

There are also hints in Chillingworth of a character more complex than any simple, straightforward villain would be. He has the gift of irony, for instance. And by turning the cool light of irony on himself, he is able to share the blame for Hester's infidelity. The learned scholar, as he says to himself, should have seen it coming, should have read about it in his books.

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