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Justice Explored In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

1034 words - 4 pages

Justice Explored in The Scarlet Letter

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne created themes in The Scarlet Letter just as significant as the obvious ideas pertaining to sin and Puritan society. Roger Chillingworth is a character through which one of these themes resonates, and a character that is often underplayed in analysis. His weakness and path of destruction of himself and others are summed up in one of Chillingworth's last sentences in the novel, to Arthur Dimmesdale: "Hadst thou sought the whole earth over... there were no place so secret, no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me, save on this very scaffold!" (171).

 

This powerful line from Chillingworth holds three meanings. First, Dimmesdale can save himself only through confession in public. Secondly, it shows the true sin and suffering in Chillingworth himself. In this regard, the line is just as important in reiterating the sickness in Chillingworth as it is in showing the torment in Dimmesdale. Finally, this statement creates a parallel between Chillingworth's idea of justice and the Puritans'.

 

The theme Hawthorne builds up in Chillingworth is not simply his pain and torment. It is a more important representation of the weakness in the values of the people in Puritan times, and how their perseverance for "justice" skewed their views on life and forgiveness. Because of his mindset, Chillingworth torments himself with his goal to destroy Dimmesdale just as much as Dimmesdale tortures himself for their seven years together. Chillingworth is ruining his own life and does not realize it, because he no longer sees the value in life as he tries to ruin one.

 

The first foreshadowing we see of Chillingworth's obsession begins the moment he arrives in town. The image Hawthorne creates of him in the crowd is not one of a hurt man as much as it is one with demonic qualities:

 

Very soon, however, his look became keen and penetrative. A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions in open sight. His face darkened with some powerful emotion..." (44)

 

Soon after, Chillingworth makes it evident in his conversation with Hester that he is not after her, but simply wants to seek revenge on the man she slept with. At the end of their conversation, Hester sees an even darker side of Roger after her pact to keep his identity a secret. She says, "Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the forest round about us? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?" Hester's comparing Roger to the "Black Man," a devil figure, foreshadows Roger's power not only over Dimmesdale, but also Hester herself.

 

Chillingworth taking on Dimmesdale as his patient for the next seven years is a parallel to the method of punishment the Puritans used at the time, namely with the scarlet letter. Both use a slow,...

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