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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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Hawthorne portrays the relationship between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale with such intensity, we tend to forget that it covers a span of years. Chillingworth has worked with silent caution, consolidating his position as Dimmesdale's friend and counselor. The doctor now shares the minister's quarters, the better to keep his patient under his wing.

Perhaps Chillingworth feels sure enough of his position to take some calculated risks. We come upon him now as he broaches a dangerous and volatile topic: hidden sin.

The doctor has come in with an ugly weed plucked from a nearby graveyard. He tells Dimmesdale that the weed represents some guilty secret that was buried with the corpse.

Dimmesdale takes the bait. In his experience, the minister says, men find great comfort in confession. Undoubtedly, the dead man longed to tell his secret, but could not do so.

The discussion is, on the surface, remote, theoretical. But we read it with the same feeling of suspense we would experience if we were watching the two men wrestle at the edge of a cliff. Will one of them, we wonder, lose his balance and fall?

Dimmesdale, with less control, is in graver danger. As Chillingworth intends, the discussion is getting to him. The minister begins to talk, not about men in general, but about himself. He offers a justification for silence that lies close to his heart.

Perhaps men shrink from confession, Dimmesdale says, because once they have sullied their reputations, they no longer have a hope of redeeming past evil with future good deeds. Confessed sinners put themselves beyond the pale of society, where they can no longer serve God or their fellow men.

What do you think of Dimmesdale's argument? Is there truth in what he says? Are good intentions a valid reason for presenting a false face to the world?

Chillingworth dismisses Dimmesdale's reasoning as pure rationalization. Such men deceive themselves, the physician replies. If they wish to serve others, let them do so by showing the power of conscience in their own lives. "'Wouldst thou have me to believe, O wise and pious friend, that a false show can be better-can be more for God's glory, or man's welfare- than God's own truth?'"

Here is the other side of the argument, neatly phrased and incisively put. A lie is never good, and never leads to good. Do you find Chillingworth's argument more convincing than Dimmesdale's? Perhaps the minister does, too. And yet, Chillingworth remains unmoved by his own words. He is uttering these pious truths only to play on Dimmesdale's guilt.

It bothers Chillingworth not one iota that he, as much as Dimmesdale, is living a lie.

NOTE: The question of just how to take Chillingworth's statements is one we shall encounter often in the novel. The man is evil and insidious, yet his words often have the pure, crystal ring of truth. Are we to trust Chillingworth's judgments, even though we distrust the man? Or to put it another way, are we to take scripture on faith when the devil quotes it for his own use?

The tense discussion between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth is interrupted by the merry laughter of Pearl that comes floating in through the window. The child is up to her usual tricks. She is playing with the scarlet letter, outlining the red token on Hester's dress with burrs that prick less than her own cool indifference. The look of pain on Hester's face suggests to Chillingworth a question that directly relates to the topic under discussion. Is Hester the less miserable because her sin is known, her shame open?

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

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