Arthur Dimmesdale in the Scarlet Letter: Character Analysis & Overview

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

During this lesson, we will examine Arthur Dimmesdale, one of the central characters in 'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne. A brief plot overview, an analysis of his character, and an exploration of a few central images in the novel will be followed by a quiz.

Plot Overview

Hester Prynne is the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. While it is her name that most people think of first, the character of Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the town minister, is of equal importance in the story. After all, it is with him that Hester commits her infamous act of adultery; and it is Dimmesdale who is the father of her child, Pearl. Even though she is publicly humiliated and forced to wear a scarlet letter 'A' on her chest, Hester does not reveal the name of her lover.

When Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband, arrives in the town of Salem, he finds out about his wife's affair. This is not his real name, but one he changes it to, since no one in the town has seen him before. This allows him to secretly track down and exact revenge on his wife's lover.

Dimmesdale cannot bear the hypocrisy of preaching to his congregation after committing such a serious sin, but he cannot reveal himself either, because Hester does not want him to. Forced to keep his sin a secret, his guilt eats him alive, making him ill. He finally confesses seven years later, but it comes too late. Moments after his confession, he dies in Hester's arms. When she dies years later, the town buries her next to Dimmesdale, with an 'A' over their shared grave.

Character Analysis

The most important aspect of Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale's character is his role within the Puritan community. As a Puritan minister, he is supposed to be the highest example of the Puritan faith. Since he is a genuine believer, his affair with Hester Prynne weighs on him heavily. He privately acknowledges his guilt, but until he acknowledges it publicly, he cannot begin to repent for it. The conflict between his role as a spiritual leader and the gravity of his personal sin demonstrates the theme of guilt versus redemption explored in this novel.

In order to compensate for his lies, he urges others his congregation to treat him like a sinner. They don't recognize that he is admitting guilt for a specific sin, but rather, only that he is embracing his Puritan humility. In this faith, everyone is considered to be a sinner. This leads Dimmesdale into a further spiral of self-punishment and self-loathing.

Dimmesdale's internal torment results in mental and physical illness. He often clutches his hand over his heart, as if it pains him. He starves himself, denies himself sleep, and whips himself, but nothing makes him feel better. Roger Chillingworth moves in with Dimmesdale under the pretense of taking care of him, but in reality is only interested in spying on him. As he observes the minister's suffering, he grows more and more convinced that he is Hester's unnamed lover.

The title of The Scarlet Letter comes from the red 'A' that Hester is forced to wear as her punishment for committing adultery. Since she refuses to name her lover, Dimmesdale escapes public punishment. But, he is haunted by visions of red 'A's. Chillingworth even notices the letter 'A' on Dimmesdale's chest. Did he carve it into his own chest?

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