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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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CHAPTER 9: THE LEECH

If you look up the word leech in the dictionary, you will find the meaning you expect: a blood-sucking insect. But you will also find an archaic meaning, that of physician. In past centuries doctors were known as leeches because of their common practice of bleeding patients. (It was thought to rid the body of bad humors.)

The title of this chapter is characteristically ambiguous. It points, on the one hand, to Chillingworth's newly assumed career as a doctor, and, on the other hand, to his role as emotional parasite. He is now a man who lives off another's suffering. Like Chillingworth himself, the title has a surface meaning as well as a deeper one.


Let's look at the surface meaning for a moment. As a doctor, Chillingworth is entirely convincing. His professional manners are impeccable. He does not seek Dimmesdale out aggressively. He approaches the clergyman by way of the upper echelons of the ministry, leaving it to what we would call the church's board of directors to recommend his services.

Chillingworth is courteous and self-effacing. His overtures to his reluctant patient are low-key. When Dimmesdale, denying his need for a doctor's care, says that he would be well content to die if it were God's will, Chillingworth is quick to attribute to the minister only the best, and least personal, of motives. "'Ah... it is thus that a young clergyman is apt to speak... saintly men, who walk with God on earth, would fain be away, to walk with Him on the golden pavements of the New Jerusalem.'"

Such comments are ingenious. They reflect the community's reverence for Dimmesdale, and so keep the minister off guard. But they also offer just that hint of overpiety that cuts the grounds for objecting to medical care from under Dimmesdale's feet. (If Dimmesdale is in such a hurry to die, Chillingworth is suggesting, he must be awfully sure of a place in a better world.)

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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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