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Excerpt from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Johnson

Excerpt from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Johnson (courtesy of Greenwood Press)

Claudia Johnson makes it clear that Dimmesdale is not merely weak, but that his ambition places him among the ranks those who commit the sin of pride, that is among those who think of themselves before all others.


"Not only is he guilty of self-deception, but Dimmesdale harbors other darker aspects of human nature as represented by the scarlet 'A' in his heart. Above all, he conceals an 'A' for ambition to which he will sacrifice anything. In following his overweening desire to be a great and revered minister in the Puritan world, he is selfish and egocentric-the very opposite of love. From first to last, Dimmesdale is most concerned not with his own soul, not with Hester's pain, but with what other people think about him and how it will affect his career. When Pearl asks him to stand on the scaffold with them in the daylight, he panics; 'all the dread of public exposure that had so long been the anguish of his life had returned upon him.' Even in the forest, when Hester reveals Chillingworth's identity to him, he can only think of being exposed and, as he puts it, of 'the indelicacy' of the situation. He confesses to her that he has lived with the horror that someone might figure out that Pearl looks like him and reveal him to be her father. 'O Hester, what a thought is that, and how terrible to dread it!-that my own features were partly repeated in her face, and so strikingly that the world might see them!' In . . . other important scenes, the narrator shows his own judgment about the selfish depths of Dimmesdale's heart, with special reference to the scarlet letter. The first comes when the minister stands on the scaffold at night with Pearl and Hester and sees a display of phenomenal lights in the sky. Dimmesdale decides that it is God's sign sent to him personally:

But what shall we say when an individual discovers a revelation, addressed to himself alone, on the same vast sheet of record! In such a case, it could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a man, rendered morbidly self-contemplative by long, intense, and secret pain, had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul's history and fate!

We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own eye and heart, that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter-the letter 'A'-marked out in lines of dull red light.

Thus again as he returns to town from his meeting in the forest with Hester, as he thinks how relieved he is that she had not planned for the three of them to leave Boston immediately, we see once more the extent of his base ambition and egocentric drive. His reason here is largely the same one he gives for continuing to deny that he should also wear the scarlet letter-that it will interfere with his ambition to be a great ministerial leader of the community:

The minister had inquired of Hester, with no little interest, the precise time at which the vessel might be expected to depart. It would probably be on the fourth day from the present. 'This is most fortunate!' he had then said to himself. Now, why the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale considered it so very fortunate, we hesitate to reveal. Nevertheless,--to hold nothing back from the reader,--it was because, on the third day from the present, he was to preach the Election Sermon; and, as such an occasion formed an honorable epoch in the life of a New England clergyman, he could not have chanced upon a more suitable mode and time of terminating his professional career. 'At least, they shall say of me,' thought this exemplary man, 'that I leave no public duty unperformed, nor ill performed!' Sad, indeed, that an introspection so profound and acute as this poor minister's should be so miserably deceived! We have had, and may still have, worse things to tell of him; but none, we apprehend, so pitiably weak; no evidence, at once so slight and irrefragable, of a subtle disease, that had long since begun to eat into the real substance of his character. No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true" (14-16).

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