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What happens to a man who struggles to hide a terrible sin in the depths of his heart, but who believes profoundly in a God that sees and loves the truth? That is a question Hawthorne surely asked himself in creating the character of Arthur Dimmesdale.
If the minister is a brilliant study in guilt, it is because he believes with all his soul that his sin is terrible, and that a concerned, personal God is watching every move he makes.
Torn between the desire to confess and atone and the cowardice which holds him back, Dimmesdale goes a little mad. He takes up some morbid forms of penance- fasts and scourgings-but he can neither whip nor starve the sin from his soul. In his agony, he staggers to the pulpit to confess, but his words come out as generalized, meaningless avowals of guilt.
Dimmesdale knows what he is doing, of course. "Subtle, but remorseful, hypocrite," he is nothing if not self-aware. But the dark stain he perceives on his soul is spreading now, sapping the meaning from life, the strength from his will.
By the time the minister meets Hester in the forest, he is ripe for an invitation to flight. Perhaps flight is the only way out. And anyway, he wonders, for a moral wreck like himself, what does it really matter whether he goes or stays?
If he stays, there is Chillingworth, whose gloating eye he does not know how to escape. There is duty, too, that endless round of tasks he has always gone about without complaint. But the tasks seem hollow now, since (as he believes) he is unfit for his office, since his actions are no longer informed by any sustaining faith.
If he goes, there is Hester and the dream of love he has not permitted himself for so long. A glowing face in the firelight and an embrace (has he not just felt it?) that is like an infusion of strength. There is England, too, with the sweet, deep-sounding bells of Cambridge, and the winters soft after New England's penetrating cold. And minds of his own calibre! The chance, after nine or ten years, to really talk!