Through the character of Arthur Dimmesdale, Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays the main concepts he intends for the audience to grasp of The Scarlet Letter, such as the effects of guilt on an individual, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and the conflict of individual versus self.
Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne emphasizes Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale’s downfall as a character, and what kinds of effects the guilt as a partner in adultery has on him.
Primarily, the audience realizes the physical effects Dimmesdale’s guilt constitutes; “Dimmesdale is ‘careworn and emaciated’ and as always ‘pale’…” He becomes jaded, fatigued and an ill sight in the eyes of the other characters and the people of Boston. The townspeople and his congregation see his sudden illness as only a medical issue, rather than a subconscious burden that has escalated to the point where his body can no longer handle it. As a minister, he has always been a peaceful and spiritual man who guides others through the message of God. Therefore, they realize he is in need of a physician, since he will not choose a wife to care for him, and the doctor Roger Chillingworth had just recently arrived in Boston by the time his assistance was needed. Though Dimmesdale agrees to be cared for by this physician, he does not realize that Chillingworth will only create more disruption and burdens for the minister throughout the book. Secondly, he develops a habit of clutching his hand over his breast around the heart, which is conveniently the same placement as where the scarlet letter lays on Hester Prynne. Hawthorne does not inform the audience of why he does this, or if there is anything significant placed there. “Hawthorne has been careful to note several times Dimmesdale’s unconscious habit of pressing his hand to his breast when especially troubled, and so it is clear that his illness is related to his chest, the region of his heart.” All one can conclude from this action is that Dimmesdale does not have complete control over his body or his actions. Ultimately, the pressure to redeem himself for his actions and secrets get the best of him and he utilizes his own penance the only way he can manage, “…desperate for some means to relieve the intolerable burden of his guilt, he resorts to private, secret self-punishment, lashing his own back with a whip and denying himself sleep.” Although he thinks this is the only way he can relieve himself and gain penance for his past, he only makes matters worse by increasingly weakening his physical health further, and as one will see, his mental health as well.
Not only is Dimmesdale’s physical health in jeopardy, but his mental health also begins a steady spiral downwards. Darkness seems to have seeped into his being, whereas he is thinking blasphemous ideas of teaching young children wicked words and convening with the witch of the town, Mistress Hibbins, after passing through the forest. These newfound emotions startle the minister,...