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Mrs. Donna Gossett
30 May 1995
The Scarlet Letter's Roger Chillingworth
Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlet Letter (reprinted in George McMichael, Anthology of American Literature, 5th ed. [New York: Macmillan, 1993] 1181-1295) is controlled by suffering that results from sin and sin that results from suffering. In the case of Roger Chillingworth, two sins control his destiny. His initial sin was marrying a wife a generation younger than he. Hester's unhappiness, due to a mismatched matrimony, leads her to become an adulteress. After Chillingworth arrives in Massachusetts and sees his wife holding the child of another man, he slowly evolves from a man capable of love, to a man capable of (what Hawthorn depicts as) the greatest sin in the novel: Violating the sanctity of the human heart.
Chillingworth was capable of love, and we sympathize with and approve of his desire for a life cheered by domestic affections:
My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one! It seemed not so wild a dream,---old as I was, and somber as I was, and misshapen as I was,---that the simple bliss, which is scattered far and wide, for all mankind to gather up, might yet be mine. And so, Hester, I drew thee to my heart, into its inner most chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made there! (1196)Nevertheless, marrying Hester was Chillingworth's first sin:
In Bishop Fuller's Holly State (which Hawthorne read in 1834) the expectations proper to a Christian entering into holy matrimony are discussed. Much happiness is not to be expected in marriage. One's spouse should be loved for grace (presumably spiritual rather than physical) and goodness. A wife should not be chosen for her beauty. There should be no great disproportion in age. (Abel 209)Chillingworth's first sin causes Hester to be unhappy. Her initial sadness, along with the three year absence of her husband, resulted in adultery. After his discovery, "Chillingworth moves closer to the scaffold and imperiously bids her to name the father of her child" (Martin 113). Chillingworth repressed his instinctive emotional response to the situation. He was disappointed that his hope of gaining his wife's affection upon arrival was destroyed and he hated the man who had gained that affection. "Although his anger was understandable and forgivable, it became a fatal sin when he nourished it" (Abel 209).
Chillingworth begins to suspect that Dimmesdale is Pearl's father when Reverend Wilson and Governor Billingham are trying to take Pearl away from Hester. Dimmesdale gives an eloquent representation for Hester, and Chillingworth says "You speak, my friend, with a strange earnestness" (1217). It is with this suspicion that Chillingworth begins to show "special interest" in Dimmesdale.
When Chillingworth first appears in the community he is well received. The town needs a doctor and the members of the town feel that it is an act of God that he arrives when Reverend Dimmesdale is becoming ill:
that Heaven had wrought an absolute miracle, by transporting an eminent Doctor of Physic, from a German university, bodily through the air, and setting him down at the door of Mr. Dimmesdale's study! (1221)The fact that Chillingworth shows a special interest in Dimmesdale helps his acceptance in the community, but the community did not know his intentions.
Chillingworth's quest is to find out if his suspicion is, in fact, reality. In order to find this out, he must get closer to Dimmesdale: "The mysterious illness of Dimmesdale--mysterious to the town-- is something he says he can treat, and so he becomes the minister's physician; he even lives with him" (Doren 150). After Chillingworth moves in with Dimmesdale, his image in the community begins to change:
At first, his expression had been calm, meditative, scholar-like. Now, there was something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed . . . it grew to be a wisely diffused opinion, that the Reverend . . . was haunted either by Satan himself, or Satan's emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth. (1224)While living together, Chillingworth constantly digs for Dimmesdale to release his secret, but he will not reveal it, and his condition becomes worse. Finally, Chillingworth catches Dimmesdale sleeping and thrust aside the vestment to discover the letter "A" upon his chest.
Had a man seen old Roger Chillingworth, at that moment of his ecstasy, he would have had no need to ask how Satan comports himself when a precious human soul is lost to heaven and won into his kingdom. (1230)With no doubt in Chillingworth's mind about Dimmesdale's relation to Pearl, his torment toward him increases. Chillingworth is now in complete control of Dimmesdale, whose health is deteriorating.
Hester notices the deterioration of Dimmesdale's health, and she thinks that her faithfulness, in keeping Chillingworth's identity a secret, is to blame. When she goes to Chillingworth and speaks to him about revealing his identity, he neither condones nor condemns her decision. While listening to the old man, she noticed how much he had changed over the past seven years:
It seemed to be his wish and purpose to mask this expression with a smile; but the latter played him false, and flickered over his visage so derisively, that the spectator could see his blackness all the better for it . . . there came a glare of red light out of his eyes; as if the old man's soul were on fire . . . Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of man's faculty of transforming himself into a devil. (1246)Chillingworth has made his complete transformation to evil.
When Hester finally tells Dimmesdale about Chillingworth's true identity, it is at this point that, Hawthorne portrays, through Dimmesdale's words, that Chillingworth has committed the most severe of the sins in the novel: Violating the sanctity of the human heart. This new knowledge does not free Dimmesdale of Chillingworth's control. It is not until Dimmesdale's confession to the town that he escape the control of Chillingworth. Although Dimmesdale had gained back control, it was too late for him to gain back his health. Without anyone to torment Roger Chillingworth dies with in a year.
In conclusion, Roger Chillingworth evolves from a man capable of love, into a devil who is only capable of revenge. He commits two sins in the story; the result of his first sin leads to the second: Marrying a spouse with a great disproportion in age causes his wife to suffer; her suffering results in adultery; her adultery causes Chillingworth to suffer, and during this suffering he transforms into a devil; he then violates the sanctity of a human heart. Suffering results from sin and sin results from suffering.
Abel, Darrel. The Moral Picturesque. West Lafayette: Purdue Research Foundation, 1988.
Van Doren, Mark. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Toronto: George J. McLeod, 1949.
Martin, Terence. Nathaniel Hawthorne Revised Edition. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.
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