“A tragedy need not have blood and death; it’s enough that it all be filled with that majestic sadness that is the pleasure of tragedy”(Jean Racine). What is a tragedy, and what defines it? Tragedy, by Aristotle’s definition is an imitation of life in which, during the climax, something is revealed to the protagonist which causes a reversal of fortune. This reversal of fortune is caused by a flaw in the character- commonly called a “tragic flaw” or hamartia. The occurrence of a tragedy evokes catharsis, an emotional release that provides relief of the emotions pity, fear and sadness felt by the audience and in turn providing relief for the tragic hero as well. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘the scarlet letter’ is a representation of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy as Arthur Dimmesdale the tragic hero, experiences the elements of tragedy through a series of unfortunate events. From the very first pages of the novel it is prominent that Arthur Dimmesdale is not bound to have a happy ending. His intent to do what’s right is coincidentally what brings his down fall.
Dimmesdale is first introduced to the reader through an omniscient point of view. He is berating Hester who is a fellow protagonist of the novel for committing the sin of adultery. It is revealed to the reader that he is Hester’s fellow adulterer and father of her illegitimate child, “He now drew back, with a long respiration ‘Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart! She will not speak!’” (Hawthorne, Page 70). At this point in the novel it is clear to the reader that a catastrophe involving Arthur Dimmesdale is soon to come. This is also the incentive moment at the very beginning of the novel which sets off the ill-fated events that are to occur.
A few years later is when the story resumes and where the first of many disastrous events for Dimmesdale begin to take place. Dimmesdale is reintroduced to the reader when Hester sees him at the governor’s house while she is there to plead her case to be able to keep her daughter Pearl. Hester then, at a point of desperation calls on Dimmesdale to defend her as he was her pastor. Dimmesdale replies by changing the minds of his fellow ministers and governor reminding them that god sent Pearl as both a blessing and curse. We learn that the minister is in poor health and his physical appearance has degraded significantly
“The young minister, on ceasing to speak, had withdrawn a few steps from the group, and stood with his face partially concealed in the heavy folds of the window curtain, while the shadow of his figure, which the sunlight cast upon the floor, was tremulous with the vehemence of his appeal.” (Hawthorne, Page 119). Dimmesdale’s willingness to defend Hester’s ability to mother Pearl, while he should have agreed with the rest of the jury, shows that he is remorseful of standing with Hester as he should be. His defense of Pearl and Hester, with his withdrawal from the group and his ill appearance alludes to the reader that he has not been doing so well.
Dimmesdales health is part of the next event that occurs that adds to the turmoil already existing in his life. As his health is deteriorating he hires a physician to aide him on figuring out why he is ill. Unsuspectingly Dimmesdale hires Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth as his physician, who has his own vendetta against him. While Dimmesdale seems to get worse Chillingworth seems to become obsessed with figuring out why Dimmesdale is so ill. His obsession is what eventually leads him to finding out that Dimmesdale is Hester’s partner in crime
“The physician advances directly in front of his patient, laid his hand upon his bosom, and thrust aside the vestment, that, hitherto, had always covered it even from the professional eye. Then, indeed, Mr.Dimmesdale shuddered, and slightly stirred. After a brief pause, the physician turned away. But with what a wild look of wonder, joy and horror!” (Hawthorne, Page 143). Although it is not revealed to the reader what is found on Dimmesdale’s chest with a little analysis you are able to distinguish that Chillingworth has found the letter ‘A’ branded on his chest. Although Chillingworth does not mention this to Dimmesdale this is ultimately what makes him Dimmesdales nemesis. The reason for this being that in the beginning of the novel Chillingworth visits Hester while she is being held in jail. He discloses to her that he is not mad with her but the man who was her partner in all of this and that he will exact revenge on said person “I shall see him tremble. I shall feel myself shudder, suddenly and unawares, sooner or later, he must needs be mine”’ (Hawthorne, page 73). This signals the reader that Dimmesdale has unknowingly set himself up for failure as he has gained a nemesis in the form of Roger Chillingworth.
With Chillingworth adding to Dimmesdale’s mental torture upon himself the following incident of his downfall is produced. With the added mind games of his physician Dimmesdale is obsessively mulling over telling the truth and confessing his sin. He longs to confess his sin to the town but cannot bring himself to do so; as a result his musings keep him up at night. Plagued with these thoughts day and night he begins to punish himself physically as well “He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify, himself. In these lengthened vigils, his brain often reeled and visions seemed to flit before him.” (Hawthorne, Page 150). Dimmesdale becomes obsessed with cleansing himself, and develops a dark pride for his attempts at redemption “He took himself to task for his bad sympathies in reference to Roger Chillingworth, disregarded the lesson that he should have drawn from them, and did his best to root them out” (Hawthorne, Page 145). Hubris fits in well as his pride in thinking that he is doing the right thing by punishing himself adds to his insanity and aids in the catastrophic events that led to his downfall.
The final event of Dimmesdale’s self-destruction is his confession to the town of his sin. Hester confesses to Dimmesdale the truth about Chillingworth’s identity. Hester and Dimmesdale the makes plans to leave on a ship for Europe so they can live in peace and anonymity of their sin together. This in turn pushes Dimmesdale to confess to the town the truth of his sin. He does this on the spot as he sees Hester and feels the need to come clean “Now at the death-hour, he stands up before you! He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!” (Hawthorne, Page 265). This confession of Dimmesdales sin is what brings the novel to a climax, and in turn brings relief to Hester, Pearl and himself “The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies, and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.
Towards her mother too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all filled” (Hawthorne, Page 256). As this act of revelation provides relief for the character’s it is also considered catharsis from Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. Although Dimmesdale has confessed his sin this is not the final of disastrous events. After he confesses Dimmesdale then explains to Hester, after she asks if they will spend their afterlives together, that god will decide. Shortly after this he takes his final breath and dies. Dimmesdales death right after his confession is truly the embodiment of a tragedy as he never fully had the chance to live his life free from his sin and happy with Hester and Pearl, knowing that he was still in good faith with god.
Tragedy is truly defined in the scarlet letter. Arthur Dimmesdales struggle to do what is right or what makes him happy and the consequences of his actions can be related to by everyone in many ways. Although our tragedies are on a much smaller scale we can take a bit of advice from his story to and learn from his errors.