The Scarlet Letter - Pt 7

Chapters 13 — 18

A character I have hardly mentioned yet is Chillingworth. Two things are particularly interesting; his behaviour and the reasons for it.

Firstly his behaviour. We don’t see as much of the interior of Chillingworth’s mental processes as we see of Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s, but he is described throughout the book as satanic, and he even describes himself as a ‘fiend’ (Chapter 14). His vengeance is particularly fiendish because it is highly intelligent. He doesn’t satisfy natural rage and sadness in the heat of the moment, but calculates coolly to bring about the fullest destruction possible of Dimmesdale — body, mind and soul. The way he does this is nasty because it is an abuse of trust and power. Hawthorne, here and in his other writings, makes it clear that one of the worst acts a person can commit is the violation of another soul’s secrecy or of their will. That is why, I think, he hated the thought of hypnotism. ‘Mesmerism’, as it was called, was something of a craze in New England at the time, but Hawthorne repudiated the practice of allowing others such power over one’s mind. Chillingworth seeks Dimmesdale’s destruction by getting inside his community, his house, his mind, and his soul. Mesmerism is not the means, but the control he aims for (and nearly gets) is as complete and dangerous.

Why? How do we account for Chillingworth’s behaviour? Who is chiefly responsible? Did he attempt to forgive Hester and Dimmesdale? Jealousy, although a strong enough motive, almost seems inadequate to account for the extent of his determination to destroy Dimesdale’s very soul, or to account for his cool patience in working out his revenge.

I can’t quite solve these problems, and I’m not sure Hawthorne means us to. In a way he avoids the question by describing Chillingworth as the devil, with motives as purely evil and intelligence as capable of infinitely subtle calculation. With Chillingworth as the devil, the question of motives fades out of the picture — he just is evil, so he does evil. And yet he wasn’t always like this: ‘Was I not, though you might deem me cold, nevertheless a man thoughtful for others, craving little for himself, — kind, true, just and of constant, if not warm affections?’. Hester agrees that he was ‘All this, and more.’ (Chapter 14).

On the question of responsibility, too, Chillingworth is fascinating. Hester, typically, takes human responsibility in these matters seriously — in discussing the situation with him, she openly blames herself for all its evil. This is typical of Hester at various points throughout the book. She is not a fatalist — she believes in human accountability and fronts up for her share. Not so Chillingworth. He says, in that same conversation that although Hester ‘did plant the first germ of evil’, it has thereafter been ‘a dark necessity’. He declares her ‘not sinful’ and himself ‘not fiend-like’ on the grounds that it is ‘fate’ (Chapter 14). And yet earlier he was not quite so willing to blame fate ‘We have wronged each other ... Mine was the first wrong’ (Chapter 4). One could say that the further he has gone on in his course of revenge, the less he has been inclined to take responsibility for his actions, and hence the more he has blamed ‘fate’.

In this, and this only, is Chillingworth like Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale also plays with the notion of fate and although he doesn’t finally act on this suggestion, argues that since he is ‘irrevocably doomed’, he should ‘snatch the solace allowed to the condemned culprit before his execution’ (Chapter 18). There’s much more to say on this, but a post cannot go on forever, so I’ll save Dimmesdale for the eighth and final post on Thursday.