The One in The Shadows – Scarlet Letter Essay
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter portrays a wide cast of characters in his story of sin and human emotion, from the tragic and sorrowful Reverend Dimmesdale to the otherworldly, elfishly mischievous little Pearl. More than that, however, is the creation of Roger Chillingworth, a man of ugly visage and even more insidious intent. Not only is he the antagonist and the most fascinating character of the novel, but he serves as a powerful symbol for the darker and almost disturbingly ironic side of society and human actions.
Roger Chillingworth first makes his appearance just as Hester Prynne, the protagonist and his wayward wife, is being publicly humiliated before the jeering crowd, standing on the scaffold with the newly born Pearl clutched in her arms. Hawthorne introduces him in the company of a Native American—having emerged from the forest, a point which will be discussed later—as a stranger; and when he “found the eyes of Hester Prynne fastened on his own, and saw that she appeared to recognize him, he slowly and calmly raised his finger, made a gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips” (Hawthorne 59). Not only does she acknowledge the appearance of this character during the hour of her humiliation for having succumbed to temptation, but his gesture of silence is carried throughout the book in the form of his taking on a pseudonym to hide his true identity and Hester keeping his secret. In the face of the Puritan society, he tells her with no little malice to keep the truth concealed, away from prying minds.Hawthorne describes Chillingworth as an old, misshapen man with “eyes, burning blue and ominous, like the reflection of a furnace” (125). They say that eyes are the windows to the soul; what kind of soul, then, would dwell in a broken and repulsive body yet whose eyes bear an unnatural light? Though Lucifer was beautiful the hour before he fell, he became a beast of both fearsome appearance and twisted intent, much like Chillingworth. Whereas the beautiful Hester did indeed sin, she did not do so out of evil or ill intent; she seems more lost than anything, much like her lover Dimmesdale.
Chillingworth is driven by a desire for vengeance and reparations for his own wounded pride at having been unable to hold the interest of a woman. He is the result of hatred and rage forged into a façade that hides amongst the Puritans like an assassin amongst children, a symbol of the truth held so long behind lies and half-truths it has been warped beyond recognition.
Here is where the irony of the society comes into play—Hester, rich and lustrous and young, condemned by the people of the town, and Roger Chillingworth, ugly and aloof but intelligent and learned, trusted and respected for his status while he slowly poisons the mind of Dimmesdale and his own soul becomes this hard black object that could put the worst of sinners to shame. Hester even makes a case for this during their short tête-à-tête in the prison: “’Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the forest round about us? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?’ ‘Not thy soul,’ he answered, with another smile. ‘No, not thine!’” (74). There are some decidedly cruel intonations behind his words, hinting at the dark symbolism in his character.
It takes a surprisingly long while for the town to even begin to suspect anything about him; even the man he boards with, Dimmesdale himself. Upon finding something incriminating upon the chest of the priest, Hawthorne says that Chillingworth’s revelation is so powerful that “had a man seen old Roger Chillingworth, at that moment of his ecstasy, he would have no need to ask how Satan comports himself when a precious human soul is lost to heaven and won into his kingdom” (135). When he speaks, there seems to be a double entendre within every word, saying nothing and yet revealing everything with a subtle hint. He is ‘serpent-tongued’, yet another reference to the Devil.
Though there are several minor settings within the novel, the two largest and most oft mentioned is the town and the forest. This settles nicely into the idea of duality; instinct versus civilization, good versus evil, order versus chaos. Within the town, everything that happens has to do with sin, the scarlet letter, and God’s will, while the forest is home to where Hester spoke with Dimmesdale about running away, where herself and others are free to act as they will. So, in the town everyone plays nicely, and in the big scary woods people can dance or talk or plot in a neat little package that symbolizes how we truly feel versus how we choose to act. As mentioned previously, Chillingworth enters the story from the forest, and from there while living in the town he grows progressively more determined and unstable. This purpose in Chillingworth is further shown at the death of Arthur Dimmesdale, in the changes wrought “in the appearance and demeanor of the old man known as Roger Chillingworth. All of his strength and energy—all his vital and intellectual force—seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shriveled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight” (254). Now that this great secret had been revealed—the clandestine affair between the priest and Hester—there was no longer a need for an illusionary truth. The ‘dark’ and ‘uncontrollable wild’ had met the ordered, carefully structured society, and endured.
Hawthorne’s character Roger Chillingworth, though the darkest, was by far the most interesting. His representation of mankind’s shadowed side has proven to be a powerful metaphor in Hawthorne’s tale of revenge and irony and unfulfilled love.