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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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CHAPTER 11: THE INTERIOR OF A HEART

We have been watching a split in Chillingworth between the inner and outer man. Now we turn to a similar division in Dimmesdale. This chapter explores the widening gap between the saintly minister perceived by the community and the abject sinner Dimmesdale knows himself to be.

The title of the chapter is important. The interior of a heart is where reality lies. It is a dark interior in these guilt-stricken characters of Hawthorne. The author leads us into the dim recesses of the minister's mind, as if he were entering a cavern, bearing a torch.

In the gloom, we find despair and self-loathing so extreme, the case borders on insanity. Dimmesdale is living a lie. Worse, he is living a lie in the sight of a God who knows and loves the truth. As a priest, Dimmesdale meant to guide his thoughts and actions by a higher, clearer light than other men. But here he is cowering in the dark, as if the dark could hide him.

Dimmesdale's agony is only intensified by the appalling irony of his situation. The worse he feels, the better he appears in the eyes of his congregation.

It's tough to deal with a reward you haven't earned, tough even if you aren't a Puritan with a tender conscience. Dimmesdale, remember, is not just a Puritan, he's a Puritan minister. And hypocrisy is not an occasional fault of his. It's become a way of life.


Dimmesdale grows pale and thin. Why, he's too pure to eat! His sermons take on a new and moving note. Ah, the people of Boston think, Heaven has chosen their minister for its mouthpiece. Dimmesdale even confesses from the pulpit. But his general avowal of sin is so much in line with Puritan orthodoxy (a conviction of sin was supposed to be the first step towards grace) that the impression of his purity is only heightened.

Dimmesdale is not even successful at lying to himself. He recognizes his vague confessions for the cheats that they are. His self-contempt only increases with every half-hearted attempt he makes to set himself right.

NOTE: The increasing power of Dimmesdale's sermons should perhaps be considered separately from the other effects of sin on his life. The Scarlet Letter is a book about the wages of sin, and the wages of sin can be surprising. In Dimmesdale's case, the immediate experience of guilt and sexuality have given this scholar-recluse the necessary common touch. He has come out of his ivory tower and down to earth. Sin has put him on a par with his parishioners. As a result, he can talk to them instead of down to them.

Dimmesdale now indulges in some morbid forms of penance. He takes up fasting and fasts until he faints. He takes a whip to his shoulders and beats himself until he bleeds.

Is this sheer masochism? Perhaps. Some readers believe the minister takes a perverse delight in self-torture. But there are other possible explanations for Dimmesdale's near-pathological behavior. To starve or scourge the sin from his soul would be an easier solution than tarnishing the bright image of himself which he sees reflected daily in the eyes of his congregants. And there is something else. The whips and fasts might give Dimmesdale the chance to feel something real again, even if what he feels is only real hunger and real pain.

Life for the minister has become increasingly shadowy. Lacking substance in himself, he finds substance in nothing. The world no longer gives him a handle to grasp. The very objects of his bedchamber-the heavy leather Bible, the thick oak table-have lost their heft and solidity. Dimmesdale begins to see through things, almost to walk through them, like a ghost.

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