Hawthorne’s Development of Chillingworth’s Character



In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne creates the character Roger Chillingworth as the betrayed husband of the adulteress Hester Prynne. Chillingworth first appears at the scaffold, then when he visits Hester in jail, later when he becomes Dimmesdale’s companion, and finally during and after Dimmesdale’s death. These four occasions allow Hawthorne to develop Chillingworth’s character as he progresses from the “learned man” who had been wronged to an obsessive avenger of this wrong. Thus, Hawthorne’s portrayal of Chillingworth changes through the novel from a more pathetic character to a purely demonic one.

Chillingworth’s good side is first presented when he surfaces as a stranger in the midst of Hester’s condemnation on the scaffold. He is horrified at first when he sees Hester standing there wearing the ‘A,’ but controls his anger and clearly displays an attitude of concern. He has been betrayed and feels only the shock and resentment that this brings, feeling that he is the victim in Hester’s crime, and does not hold any inclination to his vengeful side the reader sees later. Hawthorne brings out this side of Chillingworth because he wants to develop a sympathetic dimension, allowing the reader to see that Chillingworth is not an entirely bad person at the beginning. Later, when Chillingworth visits Hester in her jail cell, he pardons Hester fully for her crime and blames himself for not having anticipated such a thing, showing his compassion once again, through the admission of guilt on his own part. This is Chillingworth’s last action truly apart from vengeance; right after taking the blame, he intensely vows revenge against “the man…who has wronged us both!” and takes it upon himself to destroy this man’s soul.

Continuing in his vengeful rage, Chillingworth makes it his life’s purpose to seek out the other guilty party and make him pay for his sin. He seems to join with Dimmesdale by accident, but he quickly attaches himself to him and wants to deeply analyze his character, becoming, as Hawthorne calls him, a leech. As this leech, Chillingworth becomes Dimmesdale’s familiar, going everywhere with him and observing him as closely as possible. He discovers that Dimmesdale is hiding something, so he “strove to go deep into his patient’s bosom, delving among his principles, prying into his recollections, and probing every thing with a cautious touch…” while appearing to have only his patient’s best interests at heart. Without any true knowledge that Dimmesdale was the man who had wronged him, Chillingworth already treated him as such, fiercely applying himself to the study of the minister’s character. He had started this only looking for the truth, but soon found himself engaged in sinister action against another human being. In implying that Chillingworth recognizes this, Hawthorne is trying to remind the reader that he once was a guiltless man, but that his desire for revenge has now consumed him entirely, the first hint of which came when Chillingworth told Hester that he sought to ruin “not thy soul,” but that of the other sinner.

The culmination of Chillingworth’s evil comes when Dimmesdale can no longer endure his own agony nor that which Chillingworth has inflicted upon him. Chillingworth’s attempt to hold Dimmesdale back when he goes forth to denounce himself on the scaffold is part of a realization that in doing so, Dimmesdale will render Chillingworth’s life devoid of all meaning because his only purpose in life has become to torment Dimmesdale. Thus, Dimmesdale’s end results in that of Chillingworth, who cries out at the end that Dimmesdale has finally escaped him. This shows the final and complete change of Chillingworth’s soul from the innocent victim to a vengeful instrument of evil, through which Hawthorne intended to show the final evilness of Chillingworth as the sinners have become morally superior.

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