- “That self was gone!” The Transformations of Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter: A Psychoanalytic Perspective
After his fateful encounter with Hester in the forest and nightmarish walk through town, Arthur Dimmesdale finally reaches his study where he experiences relief and refuge amongst his familiar surroundings. At the same time, he becomes aware of a momentous internal change that has decisively transformed him since he left his dwelling two days earlier:
Here he had studied and written; here, gone though fast and vigil, and had come forth half alive; here, striven to pray; here, borne a hundred thousand agonies! […] He knew it was himself, the thin and white-cheeked minister, who had done and suffered these things, and written thus far into the Election Sermon! But he seemed to stand apart, and eye this former self with scornful, pitying, but half-envious curiosity. That self was gone! Another man had returned out of the forest; a wiser one; with a knowledge of hidden mysteries which the simplicity of the former never could have reached. A bitter kind of knowledge that!(Hawthorne, 1850/1962, pp. 222–223, emphasis added)
The reader’s curiosity is aroused by these remarkable assertions: what is the knowledge, which hidden mysteries and what is the wisdom that Dimmesdale has acquired? What of himself, viewed as he is “standing apart” does he see? Who is this new man? The narrator, who has spared the reader no detail of Dimmesdale’s mental deterioration, is silent as to the mental processes involved in this transformation. Although this change is not expressed in words, it is revealed in The Reverend’s subsequent actions: the dismissal of Chillingworth as his physician, the delivery of an inspired and authentic Election [End Page 647] Sermon, a confession of guilt on the scaffold and the public acknowledgment of Pearl as his daughter. None of these actions, which are all contrary to the reader’s expectations, is possible under the aegis of his former passive and paralyzed self. That self is now truly gone.
It is no secret that The Scarlet Letter is a psychological novel: word for word, chapter after chapter, scarcely a serious work of literature devotes itself more to the inner life and its conflicts than Hawthorne’s first romance. The small, claustrophobic Puritan colony, with its stark rules of conduct and abundant opportunity for voyeuristic zeal, provides a narrow, shallow, and brilliantly lit stage against which the inner lives of the intensely entangled, conflicted and tormented characters play out. Their secrets, always under pressure of exposure, set them apart from their community, from each other, and from themselves. Under the burden of psychic strain, each character is prone to forms of psychological deterioration. Although it is true of all the protagonists, Arthur Dimmesdale best exemplifies the judgment expressed in The House of the Seven Gables, “For, what other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one’s self!” (1851/1965, p. 169). Indeed, The Scarlet Letter details the exacting trials of a man who “above all things else […] loathed his miserable self!” (1850/1962, p. 144) but who ultimately finds release in his final scene where he “stood with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory” (p. 255).
What is the psychology of this momentous transformation? It is a question that comes naturally to the mind of a psychoanalyst to whom psychological change is not only of interest but a desideratum of psychoanalytic treatment. Athough an analysand is not a fictional character, and Dimmesdale is not an analysand, a bridge between the wide differences in their species is created by the “truth of the human heart,” valorized in the Preface to The House of the Seven Gables, which is encoded in their respective psyches. A cross-disciplinary study which applies a psychoanalytic perspective to a literary work is only possible because Hawthorne provides an abundance of data for psychoanalytic inquiry, namely, the intricate interweaving of the character’s conscious and unconscious motivations and their vicissitudes. These data can be organized and sequenced [End Page 648] into a...