Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.
Roger Chillingworth represents the true evil and epitome of guilt in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, as with his own words he reveals a glimpse of how dark his soul is: “Let him live! Let him hide himself in outward honor, if he may! Not the less he shall be mine!” (Hawthorne, 61).
So much focus is given to the guilt of Hester and Mr. Dimmesdale, resulting in the reader almost ignoring the evil role Hester’s husband Chillingworth plays in the story until even she cannot keep quite on the matter.
It is the presence of his evil and the greed for his own revenge that destroys what is left of his soul, while Hester and Mr. Dimmesdale are the ones who can wash their souls clean with confession.
Focus of Guilt
At first, the reader might feel sympathy pull at their heart strings as they learn the truth of who Roger Chillingworth is: Hester Prynne’s long-lost husband. The focus on Hester’s guilt of adultery and refusal to confess who the other party is that plays a part in the creation of her baby prevents the reader to catch the hints Hawthorne presents early in the story of the state of Chillingworth’s soul and his role in the story.
Though the story centers on Hester and Pearl, the reader begins to see how Chillingworth is the one driving all the actions of the story and attempting to be a dark marionette.
The first introduction the reader gets of Chillingworth is an odd description of him clad in a “strange disarray of civilized and savage costume” (Hawthorne, 49).
This is the first literary clue Hawthorne is giving the reader. Chillingworth might have come from civilized Europe, but time away from his wife and community had him living among the savages which many believed during that time were devil worshipers. He is not as civilized as others will assume. Savageness has entered his heart and soul.
It is within the prison that Hester, and the reader, are allowed a deeper glimpse into Chillingworth. He also demands that she tell who the other guilty party is in the adulterous affair. She protects her secret, but her disguised husband lets the civilized veneer slip as he swears to find the man.
With another vehement denial of telling who the man is, Chillingworth responds, “Believe me, Hester, there are few things, -- whether in the outward world, or to a certain depth, in the invisible sphere of thought, -- few things hidden from the man, who devotes himself earnestly and unreservedly to the solution of a mystery.” (Hawthorne, 60). He hints of a supernatural way to find the man who has stepped into his marriage.
He concludes his conversation with his wife by saying that “his fame, his position, his life, will be in my hands. Beware!” (Hawthorne, 61). Chillingworth is now on the hunt.
Over time, Chillingworth’s friendship with the community has him close to Mr. Dimmesdale and treating his apparent sickness. A few years after seeing her husband again, she notices that his features have changed with “his dark complexion seemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen” (Hawthorne, 88). The darkness of his soul is being reflected in his physical appearance. At the same time, Mr. Dimmesdale is looking worse despite the doctor’s care.
The closer Chillingworth gets to Mr. Dimmesdale the sicker the minister will become. He has discovered the man he was seeking. Noah Woodruff stated it perfectly: “With his uncanny, almost unnatural ability of peering into the souls of men, Roger Chillingworth descended like a vulture upon the guilt-burdened body of the esteemed Reverend Dimmesdale, the very man that committed adultery with Hester.” He has found his victim.
As he shows the community how he is healing Mr. Dimmesdale, he is in reality “cultivating a virus to destroy the Reverend’s mental and emotional well-being” (Woodruff).
His darker personality is also being seen by those in the community.
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They see a change in him that has advanced quite rapidly after taking up living quarters with Mr. Dimmesdale. A perception of “something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed, and which grew still the more obvious to sight, the oftener they looked upon him” (Hawthorne, 100).
The community sees Satan as the Black Man lurking in the forest. What many are beginning to discern is that “he actually abides among them in the form of their honored guest and 'healer,' Chillingworth” (Claudia Durst Johnson).
Gets Too Close
Mr. Dimmesdale is so sick with grief and guilt that “he could not recognize his enemy when the latter actually appeared” (Hawthorne, 103).
The result is Mr. Dimmesdale allowing Chillingworth to get closer and examine his soul as no other man could. Yet, as Chillingworth bluntly points out to the young minister that the true cause of his sickness could be a spiritual disease and that he should confess it to his doctor, the minister refuses.
Chillingworth makes a move with this hands to indicate a possible “A” on Mr. Dimmesdale’s chest which could be real or spiritual. It is then that Mr. Dimmesdale “shuddered, and slightly stirred” (Hawthorne, 109).
Chillingworth has begun to lay his cards on the table and let his victim know that he has stepped inside a well developed and deceitful trap.
Truth Revealing Itself
His soul cannot be concealed much longer as a discerning eye could see the outward vestiges falling away. As Hester meets the man who was once her husband, she notices a change in him that is profound: “It seemed to be his wish and purpose to make this expression [guarded eager look] with a smile, but the latter played his false, and flickered over his visage so derisively, that the spectator could see his blackness all the better for it” (Hawthorne, 133).
He was trying to live in disguise, but the devil eventually gets revealed for his true self. Hawthorne says, “In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of man’s faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil’s office” (Hawthorne, 133).
Chillingworth has become the devil and not the sympathetic husband whose wife cheated on him. What the community has not realized is that in their fear of the devil and the desire to keep him out, “it is the community itself which has a close relationship to the Black Man [devil], in the person of Chillingworth, and encourages his dark arts (Johnson).
The reader can now see where the evil lies. The community sees it in the “A” on Hester’s chest and in the existence of Pearl. It has not fully realized that they are entertaining the real evil.
Even Chillingworth admits it: “I have already told thee what I am! A fiend!” (Hawthorne, 135). He lays all the blame on Hester and her immoral act. Yet, Hester is not hiding behind a façade as he is. She is not even hiding behind the “A”. She is facing her sin and accepting the punishment that comes with it.
Chillingworth keeps up a pretense that is worse than Mr. Dimmesdale’s. The minister is abiding by Hester’s wishes to keep silent though it is literally killing him. His intent is not to harm anyone. Chillingworth, on the other hand, is moving in the shadows with only destruction for others in his mind. He plots harm on all but himself.
It is only when Mr. Dimmesdale refuses to keep quiet any longer and accepts his place next to Hester and Pearl that Chillingworth is completely revealed. The true evil in the community rises up: “… or, perhaps, so dark, disturbed, and evil was his look, he rose up out of some nether region, -- to snatch back his victim from what he sought to do!” (Hawthorne, 196).
His role of the devil is cemented. Even the minister recognizes this as he firmly tells him, “With God’s help, I shall escape thee now!” (Hawthorne, 196).
As Mr. Dimmesdale confessing to the community, he takes away the power Chillingworth had. As Mr. Dimmesdale reveals his own sin and falls down to die, Chillingworth says, “Thou hast escaped me!” (Hawthorne, 198).
For All Have Sinned
Though sin could be found and confessed by Hester and later admitted by her accomplice, Mr. Dimmesdale, they become the victims of the man who easily could have been treated as the poorest of all victims.
Instead he chose the role of devil instead of martyr. Focus on the one sinful act, took the eyes of the community especially the religious leaders who were to guard the community from such evil on where the source of it all really laid.
In the end, it was his own need for revenge and the thirst for power as he played with his victim that led the adulterous couple to come clean and stand before God. He was the tool for his own failure. Evil destroyed itself.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
- Johnson, Claudia Durst. Literary Analysis of The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne in Salem. Web, 19 Nov. 2011.
- Woodruff, Noah. Literary Analysis of The Scarlet Letter. Web, 24 Nov. 2011.