Summary and Analysis
Chapter 9 - The Leech
Since first appearing in the community, Chillingworth has been well received by the townspeople, not only because they can use his services as a physician, but also because of his special interest in their ailing clergyman, Arthur Dimmesdale. In fact, some of the Puritans even view it as a special act of Providence that a man of Chillingworth's knowledge should have been "dropped," as it were, into their community just when their beloved young minister's health seemed to be failing. And, although Dimmesdale protests that he needs no medicine and is prepared to die if it is the will of God, he agrees to put his health in Chillingworth's hands. The two men begin spending much time together and, finally, at Chillingworth's suggestion, they move into the same house, where, although they have separate apartments, they can move back and forth freely.
Gradually, some of the townspeople, without any real evidence except for the growing appearance of evil in Chillingworth's face, begin to develop suspicions about the doctor. Rumors about his past and suggestions that he practices "the black art" with fire brought from hell gain some acceptance. Many of the townspeople also believe that, rather than being in the care of a Christian physician, Arthur Dimmesdale is in the hands of Satan or one of his agents who has been given God's permission to struggle with the minister's soul for a time. Despite the look of gloom and terror in Dimmesdale's eyes, all of them have faith that Dimmesdale's strength is certain to bring him victory over his tormentor.
The theme of good and evil battling is carried through in Chapter 9, "The Leech," a ponderous and philosophical chapter with little action and much positioning of characters. We see the double meaning of the word "leech," the decline of Dimmesdale under his weight of guilt, the development of his relationship with Chillingworth, and the point of view of the townspeople, which have strikingly opposing opinions about the influence of Chillingworth on the minister. As he ingratiates himself with the young minister, and the town sees Chillingworth as "a brilliant acquisition." On the other hand, they suspect that the relationship and proximity of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale have led to Dimmesdale's deterioration.
Hawthorne purposely uses the old-fashioned term "leech" for "physician" because of its obvious double meaning. As a doctor, Chillingworth seems to be making complicated medicines that he learned at the feet of the Indians; he also appears to be sucking the life out of Dimmesdale.
Chillingworth's devious and evil nature is developed in this chapter. As he moves into a home with Dimmesdale and the two freely discuss their concerns, there begins to develop "a kind of intimacy" between them. To Dimmesdale, Chillingworth is the "sympathetic" listener and intellectual whose mind and interests appeal to him. The reader, however, is told that, from the time Chillingworth arrived in Boston, he has "a new purpose, dark, it is true." As Chillingworth becomes more and more absorbed in practicing "the black art," the townspeople notice the physical changes in him, and they begin to see "something ugly and evil in his face." His laboratory seems to be warmed with "infernal fuel," and the fire, which also leaves a sooty film on the physician's face, appears to come from hell.
As the people in town watch this struggle, they feel that this disciple of Satan cannot win and that the goodness of Dimmesdale will prevail. Dimmesdale, however, is not so sure. Each Sunday, he is thinner and paler, struggling under the unrevealed guilt of his deed. The occasional habit of pressing his hand to his ailing heart has now become a constant gesture. He turns down suggestions of a wife as a helpmate, and some parishioners associate his illness with his strong devotion to God. Dimmesdale, although he discusses the secrets of his soul with his physician, never reveals the ultimate secret that Chillingworth is obsessed with hearing. Their relationship is further explored in the next few chapters.
appellation a name or title that describes or identifies a person or thing.
ignominious shameful; dishonorable; disgraceful.
deportment the manner of conducting or bearing oneself; behavior; demeanor.
Elixir of Life a subject of myth, a substance that was supposed to extend life indefinitely.
pharmacopoeia a stock of drugs.
Oxford Oxford University in England.
importunate urgent or persistent in asking or demanding; insistent; refusing to be denied; annoyingly urgent or persistent.
New Jerusalem might mean Boston, the city on the hill.
healing balm an ointment used for healing.
Gobelin looms a tapestry factory in Paris that made the finest tapestries.
David and Bathsheba the biblical story of King David's adultery with Bathsheba.
Nathan the Prophet the biblical prophet who condemned David's adultery.
erudition learning acquired by reading and study; scholarship.
vilified defamed or abused.
commodiousness the condition of having plenty of room; spaciousness.
Sir Thomas Overbury and Dr. Forman the subjects of an adultery scandal in 1615 in England. Dr. Forman was charged with trying to poison his adulterous wife and her lover. Overbury was a friend of the lover and was perhaps poisoned.