Dimmesdale, the personification of "human frailty and sorrow," is young, pale, and physically delicate. He has large, melancholy eyes and a tremulous mouth, suggesting great sensitivity. An ordained Puritan minister, he is well educated, and he has a philosophical turn of mind. There is no doubt that he is devoted to God, passionate in his religion, and effective in the pulpit. He also has the principal conflict in the novel, and his agonized suffering is the direct result of his inability to disclose his sin.
Of the four major characters in this novel, which investigates the nature of evil and sin and is a criticism of Puritan rigidity and intolerance, Dimmesdale is the only Puritan. One really cannot understand Dimmesdale or his dilemma without at least a cursory understanding of the Puritans who inhabited Boston at this time (see the essay "The Puritan Community" in the Critical Essays) and Hawthorne's psychological perspective through which he presents this tragic character.
In Puritan terms, Dimmesdale's predicament is that he is unsure of his soul's status: He is exemplary in performing his duties as a Puritan minister, an indicator that he is one of the elect; however, he knows he has sinned and considers himself a hypocrite, a sign he is not chosen. The vigils he keeps are representative of this inward struggle to ascertain his heavenly status, the status of his very soul. Note that Hawthorne says of Dimmesdale's nightly vigils, which are sometimes in darkness, sometimes in dim light, and sometimes by the most powerful light which he could throw upon it, "He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured . . ."
Finally, to add to the Dimmesdale dilemma, the Puritans — therefore, Dimmesdale — did not believe that good works or moral living earned salvation for the individual. As Dimmesdale states, "There is no substance in it [good works]." (Hester, who is not Puritan, believes that Dimmesdale's good works should bring him peace.) The Puritan reasoning was that, if one could earn his/her way into heaven, God's sovereignty is diminished. Since God created the soul and infused it in the human body, salvation is predestined. They reasoned that the elect — that is, God's chosen people — would not or could not commit evil acts; they would act the role, as it were; thus, Dimmesdale's dilemma.
As a minister, Dimmesdale has a voice that consoles and an ability to sway audiences. His congregation adores him and his parishioners seek his advice. As a minister, Dimmesdale must be above reproach, and there is no question that he excels at his profession and enjoys a reputation among his congregation and other ministers. His soul aside, he does do good works. His ministry aids people in leading good lives. If he publicly confesses, he loses his ability to be effective in this regard.
For Dimmesdale, however, his effectiveness betrays his desire to confess. The more he suffers, the better his sermons become. The more he whips himself, the more eloquent he is on Sunday and the more his congregation worships his words. Nevertheless, Hawthorne states in Chapter 20, "No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true."
Dimmesdale's struggle is dark and his penance is horrifying as he tries to unravel his mystery. In Chapter 11, "The Interior of a Heart," Dimmesdale struggles with his knowledge of his sin, his inability to disclose it to Puritan society, and his desire for penance. He knows his actions have fallen short of both God's standards and his own, and he fears this represents his lack of salvation. In an attempt to seek salvation, he fasts until he faints and whips himself on the shoulders until he bleeds. But these punishments are done in private rather than in public and do not provide the cleansing Dimmesdale seeks and needs.
As a sinner, he is weakened to temptation. As demonstrated later, his weakened condition makes it easier for him to associate himself with the Black Man in the forest. His congregation expects him to be above other mortals, and his life and thoughts must exist on a higher spiritual plane than others. Accordingly, his wonderful sermons are applauded by all for a reason his listeners don't understand: Sin and agony have enabled the intellectual scholar-minister to recognize and empathize with other sinners.
In the forest scene, Dimmesdale evidently realizes that he is human and should ask forgiveness and do penance openly. On the way home, he sees how far his defenses have been breached by evil. These thoughts explain why he can so easily write his Election Day sermon, which is filled with the passion of his struggle and his humanity.
Dimmesdale's confession in the third scaffold scene and the climax of the story is the action that ensures his salvation. The reader senses that whether chosen or earned, Dimmesdale's salvation is a reality. Having had several opportunities to confess, without success until this scene, true to his nature if not his ministry, he asks God's forgiveness not only for himself, but also for Chillingworth, who confirms the minister's triumph when he laments, "Thou hast escaped me! . . . Thou hast escaped me!" Dimmesdale's confession also brings about Pearl's humane metamorphosis.
In the long run, Dimmesdale has not the strength of Hester Prynne or her honesty. He cannot stand alone to confess. In death, perhaps he will find a gentler judgment that his own or that of his fellow citizens of Boston.