In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale unquestionably suffers more than Hester Prynne, his accomplice in the affair that took place years ago. He is tortured by Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, who arrives in Boston and begins to ‘assist’ Dimmesdale with his illness. He is also tormented by Pearl, Hester and Dimmesdale’s daughter, who, is a product of the affair. He also injures himself, as the shame of the incident literally makes him sick. These persons, including himself, contribute to Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale’s potential downfall.
Roger Chillingworth arrives in Boston, and ironically, the first scene he views is his wife, Hester Prynne, serving her three-hour sentence of standing on the pillory. As he comes out of the woods with a big Indian, he joins the crowd. At which time, we are immediately informed of his physical description. We are told he is short, has one shoulder higher than the other, and looks intelligent, however, there was not something right about him, “his look became keen and penetrative.” (p.54) In the next chapter, we are told that Chillingworth is Hester’s husband. They do not have the same name, however, because Chillingworth wishes to avoid discovery as the wronged husband and also bear Hester’s ignominy. Roger Chillingworth gains a good reputation as the best (and only) physician in Boston. Coincidentally, Dimmesdale grows sick, and he is forced to seek Chillingworth’s help. Dimmesdale’s health started to decline, “to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of pain.” (p.107) Chillingworth takes interest in Dimmesdale, “and sought to win a friendly regard and confidence from his naturally reserved sensibility.” (p.108) Chillingworth was happy to help his pastor back to health, as it was the natural thing to do. The disease was not the only thing that interested the physician, but, “he was strangely moved to look in to the character and qualities of the patient?He deemed it essential, it would seem to know the man before attempting to do him good.” (pp.109, 110) Dimmesdale’s health sailed downward, and at this time, Dimmesdale was advised by the townspeople to move in with Chillingworth. At first, they got along great, and town couldn’t be happier with how things are going, but after a while, some people grew skeptical of Chillingworth’s motives. They believe that Chillingworth has undergone a change since arriving in Boston: he used to be a genial old man, but is now an ugly and evil person who now terrorizes Dimmesdale, “haunted either by Satan himself, or Satan’s emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth.” (p.114) A few days later, Chillingworth returned from gathering leaves and roots when Dimmesdale asked him where he got those that he had never seen before. Chillingworth responds by saying that they grew on a grave with no tombstone, then infers that Dimmesdale is keeping a secret, “They grew out of his heart, and typify, it maybe, some hideous secret that was buried with him, and which he had done be then to confess during his lifetime.” (p. 117) This leads directly to an entire conversation where Chillingworth tries to make Dimmesdale reveal his secret. Chillingworth pushes Dimmesdale to tell him about his spiritual side, however, Dimmesdale grows so uncomfortable that he screams, “No-not to thee!” (p.127) and runs out of the room in a mad fit. Later on, Dimmesdale falls asleep in his chair, at which time Chillingworth creeps in and rips off Dimmesdale’s shirt, and finds what he is looking for: he has read Dimmesdale’s heart.
Roger Chillingworth is not the only person to torment Dimmesdale. Little Pearl, Hester and Arthur’s daughter, also torments him as well. Pearl does not make Dimmesdale suffer as much as Roger, but she does inflict her share of damage. During the conversation between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale about Dimmesdale’s spirit, Pearl and Hester come walking through the graveyard. Pearl gathers a handful of burrs from a birdock, and placed them along her mother’s ‘A.’ As they continue down the path, they pass Dimmesdale’s window, and she, “threw one of the prickly burrs at the reverend Mr. Dimmesdale.” (p.120) Dimmesdale jumped back from the attack, and seemed to, “shrunk with nervous dread.” (p.120) Pearl then told her mother that they should leave before, “yonder old Black Man will catch you.” (p.120), referring to Chillingworth as the Devil, who might end up killing Dimmesdale, despite his promise to Hester that he would let the man live once he found him. The next instance that Pearl makes Dimmesdale suffer, is as he is standing on the pillory. As he stands there, Hester and Pearl walk by, as they are coming from Governor Winthrop’s death. Dimmesdale invites Pearl and Hester up on the pillory, and as they hold hands, Pearl asks, “Wilt thou stand here with Mother and me, tomorrow noontide?” (p.137) Dimmesdale declines, and says that, “the daylight of this world shall never see our meeting.” (p.138) and that they would all three stand together, “At the great judgment day.” (p. 138)
Dimmesdale also punishes himself for having slept with Hester. He whips himself because he still feels ashamed that Hester is taking all of the rap for the deed, “In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet?there was a bloody scourge?plied it on his own shoulders.” (p.130) He not only beats himself, but he also fasts for abnormally long periods of time, “until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance.” (p.130) In addition to lengthy fasts, Dimmesdale would keep vigils through the night. In one of these vigils, he looked into a mirror and saw hallucinations, “a group of shining angels?dead friends?his white-bearded father?his mother?Hester Prynne?Pearl.” (p.130) He never let these get to him, though, “he could discern substances through their misty lack of substance.” (p.131) At the end of Chapter Eleven, we are led to believe that he might commit suicide, similar to Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, however, we learn in the next chapter that he only walks to the pillory to try and ease his conscience.
Psychological torture, whipping, burrs. These are only a few of the things that are driving Dimmesdale insane. Roger Chillingworth tries to make him admit he slept with Hester while Pearl also tries to make him admit his guilt. He even tries to tell his congregation during a sermon, but fails, as they think he is being modest and subsequently adore him even more so. Dimmesdale is headed into a downward spiral, and these people are acting as catalysts for his demise.