The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is our third major changing character in The Scarlet Letter. Does anyone else have a hard time imagining AD initiating an affair? He seems so otherworldly and unmindful of “earthly” things as Hawthorne pictures him. (Of course, that may also be part of the change he has undergone before the novel even begins.) I still imagine that it was Hester who “got the novel rolling,” so to speak.
If we stick to changes that we are able to observe from the novel, AD’s changes are less dramatic (at least on the surface). He starts out the story as a young, yet highly respected, almost adored, minister. At the end of the novel, he is even more venerated. Everyone hangs on his every word. The major change that we see happening is in the area of his health. Despite the “efforts” of his personal “physician,” Dimmesdale’s health goes from bad to worse. Because everyone thinks he will die any day, his congregation practically gives him sainthood status, believing that his “health had severely suffered, of late, by his too unreserved self-sacrifice to the labors and duties of the pastoral relation.”
Well, readers, we know the truth, don’t we? Dimmesdale is being literally eaten alive from guilt. He wants to confess, and yet he doesn’t, which makes him hate himself even more. Although he doesn’t share Hester’s visible suffering due to the scarlet letter, he suffers just as much, or more, from the inward pain. The frequent placing of his hand over his heart to “hide” the invisible mark that he shares is only noticed by the perceptive Pearl. Dimmesdale can not hide from his sin, at least not in the eyes of the One who sees all; the One that truly matters to Dimmesdale himself.
*Spoiler alert* – Don’t continue reading unless you’ve finished the novel!
So, the stigmata that is revealed at the end of the novel shows us that Dimmesdale has borne his own scarlet letter – traced in blood on his bosom. Was it put there by Chilly’s black arts, or was this an outward manifestation of guilt and sin literally eating it’s way to the surface? I think Hester might have had the more peaceful life and better outcome.