What Do You Think of Dimmesdale?*
For an introduction to this post, see An Introduction to Posts on The Scarlet Letter. Also, be warned that you probably won’t understand this post unless you’re familiar with The Scarlet Letter and the character of Arthur Dimmesdale.
You can bet that in my AP English class, we had some strong opinions about Dimmy. Personally, I always liked him as a character, so I was surprised to find that everyone around me seemed to think that he was nothing but a coward. The general opinion ran along the lines of: “Why doesn’t he just man up and admit that he’s the father already? Come on! It’s not that hard!” That was three years ago now, but I was reminded of it in my American Lit class yesterday when we began discussing Dimmy’s feelings and motivations, especially in the context of guilt and shame. We were unable even to agree on simple definitions of what guilt and shame were, which I think is crucial to understanding anything that Dimmy does.
Personally, I sympathize with Dimmy. I feel that he’s a good man. And a deeply religious one with a sincere love for God and a longing to do His work. In fact, one of the reasons he gives for keeping his big mistake a secret is that he feels that all his good work would be undone if his reputation was tarnished beyond repair.
Guilt and Shame
We also see that he is deeply wracked with guilt. So much so that he beats himself in secret and fasts far beyond the point that is reasonable. I believe that this guilt is not caused only by the knowledge of what Hester and Pearl are going through. I also don’t believe that it’s synonmous with his shame at having done something that the community deeply frowns upon. I believe that (consistent with the Puritan beliefs) he genuinely feels that adultery is a horrid, abominable thing to do in and of itself and can not forgive himself for having committed it. Witness the tapestries on the walls of his bedroom depicting the story of David and Bathsheba. He chooses to have these biblical reminders in front of him day in and day out even though they must torture his mind.
This is true guilt: genuinely feeling that what you have done was wrong. Shame is a little different. I maintain that shame is caused by feeling that the community is looking down on you or that they certainly would if they knew what you had done. Guilt and shame do not always coexist. One can easily find themselves living with the shame of something they’ve done for years after they have gotten past their guilt. For example, if someone does everything they can to make things right, but their reputation still suffers. The other way can also happen. For example, if the people around a person think that a certain action is cool or no big deal, but the person who performed that action privately feels that it was wrong.
Unfortunately, in Dimmesdale’s case, guilt can not be removed without inviting public shame simply because of the way his society works. The only way to make things right is to confess, but he fears that the subsequent shame will be impossible to bear. And no wonder, as we see that he is already tormented by shame simply stemming from the knowledge of how people would judge him if they actually knew.
It’s also unsurprising because of his position as a minister. A few people in class theorized that he didn’t want to lose his power, but I completely disagree. His position is significant because of its effect on the way the community sees him. Because the whole community thinks he’s a man who can do no wrong, they would consider his sin to be ten times worse. To use a modern example: If a politician tells a blatant lie, it would be barely a blip on the radar because people expect it of him, but if a man respected for his goodness and honesty tells a blantant lie, people would lay a great deal of blame at his door.
Now, I do think that Dimmy should do the right thing, but I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss him as a weak coward. In fact, I admire that fact that he shows incredible strength in his faith, even though I don’t agree with all of the Puritans’ ideas. In my AP Psychology class, we learned about a thing called “cognitive dissonance”. The basics are that the brain tries to reduce the pain of things like guilt. In Dimmy’s case, I think the most natural way to do this would be to somehow justify his actions by telling himself that what he did wasn’t that bad. It would be easy and natural to throw off the burden of his guilt, but instead, he holds to his beliefs and tries his best to continue doing God’s work even though he sees no reward in it for himself, believing that he is forever lost because of his great sin.
As for his inability to do the right thing by confessing, I think we should all have try to show a little understanding. It’s easy to say that he should come clean, but take a good look at yourself. Haven’t you ever been in a situation where you didn’t do the right thing even though you knew that you should? And in that situation, were you facing even half as much pressure as Dimmy is? If you can honestly tell me that you’ve taken responsibility for every one of your actions since infancy, my apologies. You’re a better person than I.
I have been in situations like that, although on a much lesser scale, and when I read The Scarlet Letter I can see a bit of myself in Dimmy. And that is a big part of what literature is about.
What do you think of Dimmesdale? Do you agree with me or do you think that there’s some factor that I haven’t given due consideration?