In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s torrid tale of The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Dimmesdale, a main character, is confronted with a number of circumstances, both in and out of his control, that lead to his ultimate demise. While it can be argued that Arthur is a tragic hero, he lacks the underlying goodness and strength essential for him to fulfill this role. Otherwise, it may be demonstrated that Arthur meets all the criteria as a tragic hero, though there are other discrepancies to be noted.
Arthur Dimmesdale, a minister, lives his life under the watchful yet admiring eye of the townspeople of Boston and, as a result, becomes a slave to the public opinion. His sin against Hester and Pearl is that he will not acknowledge them as his wife and daughter in the daylight. He keeps his dreadful secret from all those under his care in the church for seven years for fear that he will lose their love and they will not forgive him. He is too weak to admit his sins openly and in their entirety. Instead, he allows his parishioners to lift him in their esteem by confessing, in all humility, that he is a sinner: “The minister well knew–subtle but remorseful hypocrite that he was!–the light in which his vague confession would be viewed.” (127) They love him all the more for his honest and humble character, and this is Arthur’s intent. Even as he plans to run away with Hester four days after their meeting in the forest, he comforts himself with the knowledge that he will give his sermon on predestination on the third day, and thus will leave his community with fond memories of his final exhortation. Arthur’s flaw can be found in the fact that he chooses to value the public view above those of Hester, his love, and God, his master.
His inward trouble drove him more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome, than with the better light of the church in which he had been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself all the while…It was his custom, too, as it had been that of many other pious Puritans, to fast,–not, however, like them, in order to purify the body and render it the fitter medium of celestial illumination,–but rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance. He kept vigils, likewise, night after night, sometimes in utter darkness; sometimes with a glimmering lamp; and sometimes, viewing his own face in a looking-glass, by the most powerful light which he could throw upon it. He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify, himself. (127)
Arthur allows his guilt and self-hatred to destroy his heart and soul, but he still refuses to confess and repent publicly his great transgression. Instead, he is often seen with his hand covering his heart, looking pained and repentant. Arthur allows himself to think the worst of himself, and does not guard his heart against the evil of Roger Chillingworth, which he senses, but chooses not to detect and eliminate.
Along with having a tragic flaw that destroys his life, a tragic hero must recognize this destruction, invoking awe and pity in the reader. This Arthur does only half-way, making his recognition and repentance incomplete. He confesses openly that he sinned, but he doesn’t confess that he has, for all these years, been oppressed by his need for acceptance. He instead accepts Hester and Pearl, a positive though final step. Arthur recognizes that he should have put aside his desire for public worship when he says: ” People of New England!…ye, that have loved me!–ye, that have deemed me holy!–behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last!–at last!–I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from grovelling down upon my face!’”(220) Even his confession, however, is tainted by the fact that his death is near at hand. He cannot entirely escape his desire to have the people look well upon him because he dies a hero’s death. Arthur dies in the heroine’s arms, publicly and somewhat triumphantly, having gotten a certain amount of ugliness off his scarred chest. The difficult blow of his adulterous fornication is softened for onlookers because his pain and impending death are so apparent. His cathartic confession is not followed by a lifetime of public shame as that which Hester has endured but rather peace in heaven, presumably, considering his repentance. It seems that Arthur has the benefit of the confession and recognition without the painful aftermath, and because his confession comes so close to his time of death, he is remembered as the sweet man he was before his death and not as shamefully as he could have been. Arthur is a stagnant character because he cannot allow himself to face the reality that would cause him to grow as a man. Therefore, the shock of Arthur’s fall from grace does inspire awe in the reader as it does in the observer when he dies. Because he waits until his dying moment to confess, his destruction may invoke pity in the reader, but his position as a living man of the cloth is not pitiable. It is a position of choice, and that it is a result of his quest for affirmation from society is more gut-wrenching than heart-wrenching. When one examines the destruction of Arthur emotionally instead of physically, it is impossible to feel sorry for him.
The final aspect of a tragic hero, however, is the one that fits Arthur least. To truly be a tragic hero, Arthur would have to have been a great and respectable man to begin with. This is not the case. Arthur must have been a weak, dependent man before he ever entangled his life with Hester’s. Such weakness is not born overnight, but instead is usually drawn out after trials and tribulations like Arthur’s. Instead of overcoming his weakness, Arthur lives as a sinner, allowing Hester to be the strong and moral one for them both. Even in death, she is the supporting one, he the weak one. Even as Hawthorne describes him, Arthur is childlike and ill-suited to his environment: “Notwithstanding his high gifts and scholar-like attainments, there was an air about this young minister,–an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look–as of a being who felt himself quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own.”(58) This is hardly the epitaph of a man of strength and integrity, but rather a brief description of an endless list of insecurities and foibles.
Arthur Dimmesdale is not a strong character, or one of any considerable growth. Surely, all readers are in agreement that his story is tragic of its own accord, but that it incites pity for him is questionable. Arthur, while being significantly flawed and quite aware of it, does end up destroyed as a man, but that he was ever much of a man to begin with is arguable as well. Therefore, Arthur Dimmesdale cannot, in fairness, be viewed as a tragic hero, for he falls short of the qualifications expected of such a role.