Character Analysis of Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter
To suggest that Arthur Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is “a pasteboard character” is to imply that this character lacks all signs of fictional life, that he is at the mercy of the allegorical-symbolical designs of his creator, and that he lacks an jota of dramatic potentiality (what E.M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, has called a “round character”). In other words, the above question implies that Arthur Dimmesdale is a mere puppet in the hands of his creator, or at least, in the hands of “fate” (which is nearly the same thing). While this estimate of Arthur Dimmesdale’s character in The Scarlet Letter is adequate in some respects, it is not a totally correct appraisal of his character.
Apparently, Arthur Dimmesdale does begin as a mere marionette in Hawthorne’s allegorical-symbolical pattern in The Scarlet Letter, but, by the end of the book, he does evince signs of growth (not as clearly as does Hester Prynne, for instance, but unmistakably, nevertheless). He is presented pictorially–in the Spenserian tradition in his characteristic frozen posture of his hand held over his heart whenever we encounter him in the book. To reinforce the static-allegorical interpretation of his character (at least during the earlier sections of the book) he is made to withdraw within the conclaves of his lodging, where, in the true Spenserian Bunyanesque tradition, he represents Despair and Mortification in his self-inflicted torture as it were. In other words, at this juncture in the book, Arthur Dimmesdale is basically conceived by Hawthorne in allegorical terms. This impression is also emblematically mirrored or echoed in the details of David and Bathsheba in a tapestry on the walls of Dimmesdale’s (prison-like) lodging.
Further, whereas Hester Prynne, in the earlier sections of The Scarlet Letter, represents the shame and public humiliation attendant upon her sexual sin (which is also a social transgression in the strict Boston settlement), Arthur Dimmesdale, in a parallel and complementary representation, stands for the private or the subjective and psychological consequences of his sin. Both these characters, at this stage in the proceedings, are reifications of Hawthorne’s abstract allegorical conceptions of the private and the public consequences of Sin (which is also a social infringement). Add to all this Dimmesdale’s infuriating passivity and lassitude in the book, and we get the basic picture of a pale abstraction, which, Dimmesdale in fact, is not-at least, not totally. Indeed, D.H. Lawrence, in his brilliant but tendentious pioneering analysis of The Scarlet Letter in his perceptive book Studies in the Classical American Literature, gives credence to the interpretation of Dimmesdale’s character as passive by making Hester Prynne a type of the deadly female of the species, a bitch, who distracts the male intellect, as represented by Arthur Dimmesdale. Thus, for us, Arthur Dimmesdale becomes a King Arthur figure, or at least a Knight Errant figure, who is led into a temptation which deflects him from his avowed objective by a Spenserian Duenna. (Indeed, it is remarkable how frequently we have to allude to Spenser’s The Fairie Queene in order to illuminate Hawthorne’s work–so strongly has it been influenced by Spenser.)
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However, notwithstanding the marshalling of such a strong evidence against Arthur Dimmesdale as a “pasteboard” character, we also find, on a closer scrutiny of The Scarlet Letter, that this character does evince signs of life. He does grow (that is, he is not suddenly transformed into a public penitent at the end of the book). His subjective and psychological suffering (which has religious connotations to it) contradistinguishes him from Hester Prynne’s public suffering for her shame (which is basically legalistic, as she suffers a public penalty for ignoring the social. codes or mores of her times), but they both share a sensitivization to their respective modes of suffering, which sensitivization, in its turn, precipitates the moral growth of these two characters, as if it were an ethical catalyst.
While this sensitivization, which begins as an irritant (a corollary of the scarlet letter and of Pearl in Hester Prynne’s case). It brings about a profound change in Hester Prynne which culminates in her apotheosis as a Sister of Mercy. In Dimmesdale’s case, it endows him with a new sense of the seizure of the sufferings of humanity, thus causing him to become eloquent (his tongue-of-flame), and, finally, it prepares him to pass through a feeling of revolt and blasphemy to a conclusive acceptance, in public, of his sin. In other words, the complexity of feelings that Nathaniel Hawthorne has endowed Arthur Dimmesdale with in this book makes this character more than an archetype or a simple representation of a moral or psychological state.
Thus, while we believe that there is a strong evidence to consider Arthur Dimmesdale as merely a pasteboard figure in Hawthorne’s overall scheme in The Scarlet Letter, there is also an equally strong evidence to confirm that this character is not only a a prop in Hawthorne’s allegorical machinery, but also a character who is central to the development of Hawthorne’s action in the Scarlet Letter. Like most issues on The Scarlet Letter, the question of the validity or non-validity of Hawthorne’s conception of Arthur Dimmesdale’s character in the book cannot be settled so easily In many ways, as a hero in Hawthorne’s tragedy (albeit here who is more passive than active within the narrative ambit of the tale), Dimmesdale cannot be considered as merely “pasteboard character”.