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The Understated Benevolence of Humanity (The Scarlet Letter Criticism)

By , Missouri City, TX
Judgment of one personage may lead to a misrepresentation of said human in society, for they are often dragged into a fallacious role. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, Roger Chillingworth is witnessed as a vile parasite bent on Dimmesdale's torture, when in actuality Chillingworth transcends to become the martyr of both Hester Prynne and her lover Arthur Dimmesdale, sacrificing his humanity for their repentance in the process.

Hester Prynne's punishment during the premiere scaffold scene reflects upon the characteristics of Chillingworth instantaneously as he withholds some of her pain inside himself. Once Chillingworth identifies the subject standing atop the scaffold as his wife holding a newborn, “ his look [becomes] keen and penetrative” as “ [a] writhing horror twist[s] itself across his features,” which “darken[s] [his face] with some powerful emotion” before “ finally [subsiding] into the depths of his nature” (Hawthorne 14). Prynne releases her sin openly in front of a crowd of people as she stands and gazes out to the masses, and as the transgression crawls throughout the community, Chillingworth effectively takes hold of it and places it within himself, thereby synthesizing into a darker shell of his former being. This undertaking is but the first action in his hopes of lifting the burden upon his wife, but later becomes skewed to mean a representation of his revengeful nature. Whilst discussing with his wife in the murky prison cell the details of the adultery she committed, Hester wonders if Chillingworth “entice[s] [her] into a bond [only to] prove the ruin of [her] soul,” but “with another smile,” he foreshadows to her, “No, not [your own]” (29). Chillingworth is aware of the unfavorable light people will view him in, for he will appear to be a sly old agent in a corrupted affair. He also realizes he will lose his own soul in this process of cleansing, though it is understood to be for the greater good. Because she is already repenting towards the public eye, the private details of her affair are but the only things that stand in the way from fulfilling Chillingworth's martyrdom. After over a year's passing since her standing upon the scaffold, Hester notes, as “her fate [is] hanging in the balance” while in a meeting concerning Pearl's future with Governor Bellingham, “what a change [is coming] over [Chillingworth's] features--how much uglier they [are], how his dark complexion seem[s] to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen” (63). Since his first step as an understanding husband is the act of taking within himself the effects of her sin, Chillingworth is experiencing a subtle decay that results over a long course of time. Though immediate causatums are seen in his demeanor during the first day of Hester's punishment, they are undoubtedly and progressively increasing in magnitude. “[Pertaining to] Roger Chillingworth,” as author Anne Abbott of “Review of 'The Scarlet Letter, a Romance” views the circumstance, “he seems to have so little in common with [everyone else]” as he becomes “a gnome-like phantasm, […] an unnatural personification of an abstract idea” that is “[puzzling] to assign him a place among angels, men, or devils” ( Abbott 1). Abbot discusses that the way in which Chillingworth is being presented is hard to describe in any sense, for he cannot be considered a human, an angelic spirit or even a wicked specter. Chillingworth is just a carapace that once held a glowing soul. The foretold date of total eclipse in darkness for Chillingworth arrives as his final acts of unknown kindness are seen in the way he treats Dimmesdale, forcing out the truth which the priest has trouble speaking until his utter demise.

Chillingworth must take the role that he is known for, a leech, until he is able to pressure all of remaining information out of Dimmesdale, thereby allowing himself the opportunity to absorb the suffering in the priest's stead. When Chillingworth discovers Dimmesdale's recent illness, “he [attaches] himself to [the clergyman] as a parishioner, [… expressing] great alarm at his pastor's state of health” and also “anxious to attempt [to] cure” Dimmesdale (Hawthorne 72). Figuratively, Chillingworth is sucking out the emotions of Dimmesdale until he reaches the core of his dismay: his act of adultery with Hester. The priest, however, is resilient to the leech's attempts, for he does not see a man wishing to take hold of the pain, but a man wishing to spread such an atrocity. Concerned for Dimmesdale's general well-being, Hester speaks with Chillingworth in hopes of being allowed passage to tell Dimmesdale the truth of her matrimony with the leech. While doing so, Hester witnesses “ a glare of red light out of [Chillingworth's] eyes, as if the old man's soul were on fire and kept on smouldering duskily within his breast,” bearing “ evidence of man's faculty of transforming himself into a devil […] by devoting himself for seven years to the constant analysis of a heart full of torture” (122-123). The man best known as Roger Chillingworth is fading from the entity of kindness that he is prior, for such drastic intakes of the putrid qualities that are equipped within sin plays a heavy toll on the weak old man. His pure intentions are becoming tainted as he progresses in his pure task, but he must persevere in order to fulfill his final duties as the unmentioned hero of the novel. Shortly after the final curtain of Dimmedale comes to a close, Chillingworth is decimated by his last act as a martyr. “[A]lmost immediately after Mr. Dimmesdale's death” upon the scaffold, “the appearance and demeanour of the old man known as Roger Chillingworth” dematerializes from the human realm, for “ [a]ll his strength and energy--all his vital and intellectual force-- […] desert[s] him,” leaving himself “[withering] up, [shriveling] away and almost [disappearing] from mortal sight” (215). Dying within the following year after the passing of Dimmesdale, Chillingworth is taking the terminal dose of sin, which is the last his body can handle. As being the sacrificial piece to both Hester and Dimmesdale's suffering, he is now able to desiccate completely from the barren wastes of humanity, knowing that his accomplishments are not in vain, but instead his deeds allow Dimmesdale to perish with a smile on his face and Hester to feel truly perspicacious.

Roger Chillingworth does not wish to torment his wife Hester Prynne, for he is a loving husband, even when the world views him otherwise. Dimmesdale is not lifeless because Chillingworth seeks his destruction. On the contrary, Chillingworth wishes for Dimmesdale's rebirth as a thriving soul, though the framework of the priest cannot handle the burden and collapses as he releases the poison derived from his lust. Chillingworth is a divine utensil from which the errors created from humanity's performances may be forgiven, but as the tool is used, it will dull until it becomes a meek form of its prior condition and disintegrates into ashes.








Works Cited
Abbott, Anne W. "Review of 'The Scarlet Letter, a Romance." The North American Review
71.148 (July 1850): 135-148. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Laurie
Lanzen Harris. Vol. 10. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4
Jan. 2011.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter : With Connections. Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart, and
Winston, 1995. Print.





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