In his defining work The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne writes a story based upon an act of adultery between Hester Prynne and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Rather than merely writing a story about adultery, however, Hawthorne uses symbolism in the form of a reference to another famous act of adultery in order to present an even bigger issue about his contempt for Puritan punishment. Hawthorne writes that the walls in Dimmesdale’s home “were hung round with tapestry, said to be from the Gobelin looms, and, at all events, representing the Scriptural story of David and Bathsheba, and Nathan the Prophet, in colors still unfaded.” In his essay “The Place of the Bible in American Fiction,” Carlos Baker suggests a relationship between the two stories in that the Scriptural allusion is an “ancient story of another adulterous relationship whose consequences were attended with human misery.” The correlation of the two adulterous events is clearly symbolic, particularly as the reader notices the similarities between Dimmesdale and David, as well as Hester and Bathsheba. In her book The Scarlet Letter: A Reading, Nina Baym argues that Chillingworth, also, is a character “chiefly symbolic and allegorical.” The character of Chillingworth is set up in the place of Nathan the Prophet as the one revealing the sin, but he acts in a different way than Nathan does in the biblical account. Hawthorne intentionally creates this contrast between the two manners in which the men handle the revelation of the sin in order to attack the Puritan practice of punishment through public ignominy.
The Scriptural account of David and Bathsheba is found in 2 Samuel 11-12. David is a devoted follower of the Lord and is in a position of leadership as king. Not only does he serve as a political leader, but he serves, in a sense, as the people’s religious leader as well. Dimmesdale is likewise devoted to the Lord and his service, and as the minister of the town, he is, like David, responsible for the religious growth of the people. The fact that both David and Dimmesdale are responsible for the moral and religious growth of others is important because the job of Nathan and Chillingworth is to lead the straying heart back to God. David and Dimmesdale are daily looked upon to bring people to repentance, so their own need for this process is significant. With respect to the women, Bathsheba is a beautiful woman who commits adultery with David while her husband is away from home; Hester is a beautiful young woman who commits adultery with Dimmesdale while her husband is overseas. Interestingly, the biblical account does not tell anything about Bathsheba before the adultery. The text introduces her in the following way: “One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her” (2 Samuel 11:2-3 NIV). Likewise, Hawthorne chooses not to describe anything about Hester before her adultery, merely that she was married. After David and Bathsheba commit adultery, God sends Nathan to rebuke David expose his sin to the public. In The Scarlet Letter, Chillingworth is clearly cast in Nathan’s role as prophet, but his actions in leading Dimmesdale to repentance are much different.
In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan begins his conversation with David with a parable. By using a parable, Nathan succeeds in raising David’s anger towards an action he thinks is wrong. He then tells David, “You are the man,” implying that he is guilty of the same sin, and explains to him the consequences (2 Samuel 12:1-14 NIV). While forceful, Nathan is still acting out of love and in God’s will. John Idol asserts that Nathan’s role in this passage is that of a messenger of God who does “the will of God in order to bring redemption to a straying soul.[…]There we learn that the prophet Nathan will act as God’s goad, for Nathan says to adulterous David: ‘What you did was done in secret; but I will do this in the light of day for all Israel to see.’” Nathan makes David aware of his need to confess his sin and accept God’s forgiveness, but he nevertheless tells David that the consequences of his sin will be public. In his essay “The Mystery of Moral Growth,” Roy Male suggests that Chillingworth is vital to Dimmesdale’s redemption, just as Nathan was vital to David’s. Male writes that Chillingworth “is also the healer. Only by knowing him, confronting him face to face, is moral growth possible.” This assertion proves true at the end of the novel when Dimmesdale, after intense pressure from Chillingworth, finally reveals to the public that he is the man who committed adultery with Hester.
While Chillingworth does fulfill the role of Nathan by bringing a straying soul to redemption and producing moral growth through confrontation, he does for different motives. Unlike Nathan, “Chillingworth is a leech, draining his patient of nerve, will, and physical energy.” Hawthorne himself attributes Chillingworth’s acts to malicious intent:
“[I]t grew to be a widely diffused opinion, that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, like many other personages of especial sanctity, in all ages of the Christian world, was haunted either by Satan himself, or Satan’s emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth. This diabolical agent had the Divine permission, for a season, to burrow into the clergyman’s intimacy, and plot against his soul.”
This reference to Satan does not seem to be a coincidence. In light of the clear comparisons of Chillingworth to Nathan, Hawthorne is suggesting that while Nathan acted out of God’s will to bring about redemption, Chillingworth did so for a different reason. Chillingworth acted out of jealousy and vengeance, seeking suffering for Dimmesdale rather than salvation. Yet critic Darrel Abel, in his essay entitled “Chillingworth as Miltonic Satan,” still argues on behalf of Chillingworth. He writes that “Chillingworth, then, was not badness incarnate, but goodness perverted.” Even though Chillingworth may act as though he was “Satan’s emissary,” his passion to bring about Dimmesdale’s public confession was a good act. Abel’s viewpoint begins to suggest another motive for Hawthorne’s contrast. Although Chillingworth serves as a literary antithesis to Nathan, more seems to be at work here. Hawthorne draws a strong parallel between Chillingworth’s attempt to force Dimmesdale to confess and what Natahn is to do for David. The result of Chillingworth’s actions, like Nathan’s, is good; it is his motives for acting as he does, unlike Nathan’s, that become perverted. Chillingworth, then, differs from Nathan because he seeks his own will, that of revenge and pride, rather than God’s will, redemption, even though both lead to a public confession of their sins.
Hawthorne carefully sets up Chillingworth against Nathan and emphasizes their different actions and motives in order to present the reader with an important issue. Hawthorne’s purpose in this contrast between the misguided, perverted sense of justice that Chillingworth practices to the Scriptural account is to critique the Puritan practice of public ignominy. In his book Hawthorne: A Critical Study, Hyatt Waggoner presents a quote by Hawthorne on his view of Puritan punishment by public shame. Hawthorne says, “There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature,—whatever be the delinquencies of the individual,—no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face in shame.” This comment suggests that the reason Hawthorne contrasts Chillingworth with Nathan is to show his disgust for this Puritan practice. He demonizes Chillingworth in order to show contempt for punishment by public ignominy. Waggoner states Hawthorne’s purpose in the following way: “The judges then stand in need of judgment. The Puritan people are here playing the role later played by Chillingworth.” Hawthorne uses Chillingworth to represent the Puritan practice he so ardently abhors. Just as Chillingworth perverted God’s will by seeking revenge rather than redemption, Hawthorne is suggesting that Puritans, while possibly bringing about the redemption that God has planned, act out of pride and vengeance rather than mercy and forgiveness. They publicly shame the sinner more for their own self-righteousness, rather than the person’s moral growth.
Hawthorne, then, “[b]y the artful use of the tapestry at a strategic moment […] contrives to hint at as much of the parallel as his story requires. For as the Old Testament makes clear, ‘the thing that David had done’ in pilfering the wife of another was anathema in the eyes of the Lord.” Hawthorne then uses Chillingworth to represent “Puritan society’s Nathan-like judgment that no man or woman is justified in putting asunder those whom the Lord has joined together.”
Hawthorne’s use of the tapestry hung on Dimmesdale’s wall depicting David, Bathsheba, and Nathan, seemingly innocent when first introduced, is of paramount importance in understanding Hawthorne’s view of Puritan punishment by ignominy. He uses the Scriptural story of David, Bathsheba, and Nathan so as to create an apparent symbol of Chillingworth in the role of Nathan. However, he changes Chillingworth into a character who acts out of his own vengeance, for his own motives, rather than the Lord’s will to illustrate how Puritans publicly shame sinners in their own self-righteousness. Thus, by using a symbol of the tapestry representing a biblical story of adultery, Hawthorne is able to focus the reader’s attention on Chillingworth, creating him as a symbol of the Puritans, and differ his actions from Nathan to show how the Puritan people’s use of public shame does not fit the biblical model.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Norton Anthology of American Literature (New York: Norton, ), 1400-1401.
Carlos Baker, “The Place of the Bible in American Fiction,” Theology Today, 3 April 2005. <http://www.theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1960/v17-1-article5.htm>.
Nina Baym, The Scarlet Letter: A Reading (Boston: Twayne, 1986), 49.
Although modern scholarship more often suggests that Bathsheba was raped rather than a willing participant in the adultery, Hawthorne would likely be working from the interpretation of his time that would have seen Bathsheba as a more willing participant, and thus a close parallel with Hester and Dimmesdale.
John Idol, “Villain, Goad, or Something Else: Chillingworth as Depicted by Hawthorne and Christopher Bigby,” Hawthorne in Salem. 3 April 2005. Accessed at http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12185/, 1-2.
Roy Male, “The Mystery of Moral Growth,” A Scarlet Letter Handbook (San Francisco: Wadsworth, 1960), 30.
Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1402.
Darrel Abel, “Chillingworth as Miltonic Satan,” A Scarlet Letter Handbook (San Francisco: Wadsworth, 1960), 76.
Hyatt H. Waggoner, Hawthorne: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Belknap, 1955), 142.
Carlos Baker, “The Place of the Bible in American Fiction.” Theology Today, accessed from http://www.theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1960/v17-1-article5.htm, 1.
Abel, Darrel. “Chillingworth as Miltonic Satan.” A Scarlet Letter Handbook. San Francisco: Wadsworth, 1960.
Baker, Carlos. “The Place of the Bible in American Fiction.” Theology Today. <http://www.theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1960/v17-1-article5.htm>.
Baym, Nina. The Scarlet Letter: A Reading. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. The Norton Anthology of American Literature Sixth Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.
Idol, John L. “Villain, Goad, or Something Else: Chillingworth as Depicted by Hawthorne and Christopher Bigby.” Hawthorne in Salem. <http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12185/>.
Male, Roy R. “The Mystery of Moral Growth.” A Scarlet Letter Handbook. San Francisco: Wadsworth, 1960.
New International Version. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1986.
Waggoner, Hyatt H. Hawthorne: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Belknap, 1955.
Photo Credit: Tapestry of “David Sees Bathsheba Washing and Invites Her to His Palace” found at commons.wikimedia.org.