The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne Summary and Analysis Chapter 11 - The Interior of a Heart

Summary

Feeling that he is in full possession of Dimmesdale's secret, Chillingworth begins his unrelenting torture of the minister, subtly tormenting him with comments designed to trigger fear and agony. Dimmesdale does not realize Chillingworth's motives, but he nonetheless comes to fear and abhor him.

As Dimmesdale's suffering becomes more painful and his body grows weaker, his popularity among the congregation grows stronger. Such mistaken adoration, however, further tortures Dimmesdale and brings him often to the point of making a public confession that he is Pearl's father. The minister's sermons are eloquent, but his vague assertions of his own sinful nature are taken by his parishioners as further evidence of his holiness.

Because Dimmesdale is incapable of confessing that he was Hester's lover and that he is Pearl's father — the one act necessary to his salvation — he substitutes self-punishment. He beats himself with a bloody whip and keeps frequent all-night vigils during which his mind is plagued by frightening visions. On one such night while he is seeking peace, Dimmesdale dresses carefully in his clerical clothes and leaves the house.

Analysis

This chapter and the previous one give an in-depth description of a heart "of human frailty and sorrow." The focus of this chapter continues to be Dimmesdale's painful agony, as he writhes beneath the burden of a guilt he seems powerless to confess. Along with strong characterizations of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, Hawthorne makes two additions to the plot in this chapter: first, the confirmation that Chillingworth no longer has doubts about the minister's guilt; thus, he has undertaken a planned (and successful) campaign to wreak vengeance on the man who seduced his wife and fathered a child by her; second, a specific statement about the methods and degrees of Dimmesdale's own self-punishment.

Hawthorne's irony is evident again in the clever paradox of Dimmesdale's futile attempts at public confession. His suffering has given him sympathies that cause him to understand the sins of others, which results in eloquent and moving sermons. The more Dimmesdale asserts his own sinfulness, the holier his congregation believes him to be. The clergyman is aware that his inadequate confessions are being misunderstood; in fact, he is consciously taking advantage of that misunderstanding: "The minister well knew — subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that he was! — the light in which his vague confession would be viewed." Thus, his sin is compounded by his actions during his period of psycho-spiritual struggle. Hawthorne ensures that readers' sympathy for Dimmesdale's suffering does not blind them to the fact that the minister is a sinner whose troubles are largely of his own making.

At the same time, the symbol of human evil, Chillingworth, appears more evil than ever in this chapter. Chillingworth, Hawthorne says, is a "poor, forlorn creature . . . more wretched than his victim." His revenge is coming at a cost: He is becoming the personification of evil.

Glossary

Pentecost a Christian festival on the seventh Sunday after Easter; it celebrates the Holy Spirit descending on the Apostles.

a miracle of holiness In a similar story of Hawthorne's, "The Minister's Black Veil," the clergyman experiences a similar sympathy from sharing the sin of his fellow men.

the sanctity of Enoch a man in the Bible who lived to be 365 years old. Enoch was pure enough that he walked with God and went to heaven without having to die first.

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