Johnson relates how some Puritans believe that Chillingworth was tainted
In "A Literary Analysis of The Scarlet Letter" (18-19) Johnson relates
how some Puritans believe that Chillingworth was tainted during his stay with
the Indians. She captures the irony of the Puritan community embracing Chillingworth
as a respected healer within the community when, in fact, he practices "the
most heinous black magic," something they assume to be confined to evildoers
(witches or Indians) in the wilderness forest. (courtesy of Greenwood
[NOTE: Numbers in parentheses in Johnson's text refer to the Signet Classic edition
of The Scarlet Letter (1959) ]
"In one aspect of human nature, however, Chillingworth is like no other. While not sharing in the full range of human warmth and emotions encompassed by the 'A,' he becomes monomaniacally supreme in one aspect alone, sacrificing all things good, even his own life and health, for that diabolical distortion of human character-revenge. He embodies the 'A' for avenger. Torturing the man who has fathered a child with his wife becomes the sole purpose of Chillingworth's life. Then, through his determined searching, he discovers at last that Dimmesdale, too, has an 'A' on his heart corresponding to Hester's.
Chillingworth's 'A' may also stand for alchemist and artist, for he is both. While intent on probing into Dimmesdale's heart, he says that he is determined to continue, 'were it only for the art's sake' (135). Later he tells Hester, 'What art can do, I have exhausted on him' (165). Unlike Hester's creative art, however, his is a wholly destructive black art, clearly meaning black magic and witchcraft. Some in the community are suspicious of his connection with Dr. Forman, a man accused of witchcraft in England, and also suspect that among the Indians he may have picked up what is described as 'their skill in the black art.' This refers to the Puritans' early beliefs that God had prepared a way for them in the wilderness and that the native Indians were minions of the devil.
The close association of Chillingworth (who, as avenger, becomes the Black Man or devil) with the community creates a number of ironies. These affinities are established as soon as Chillingworth enters the community, when they rejoice that he, the old physician, can treat the ailing young minister Dimmesdale, who initially, and secretly, rejects this. Despite Dimmesdale's resistance, however, the community successfully elevates Chllingworth and presses Dimmesdale to move in with the 'leech': "There was much joy throughout the town when this greatly desirable object was attained" (123). By this time, however, some of the community sense something unsavory about Chillingworth, one of them reporting that Chillingworth had been connected with 'Doctor Forman, the famous old conjurer' (125). But the community leaders, of course, are the ones who prevail.
From this allegiance of Chillingworth and the community come several other ironies. While the community thinks that the Black Man abides in the forest, he actually abides among them in the form of their honored guest and 'healer,' Chillingworth. And while the community believes that witchcraft is practiced somewhere in the depths of the forest, the most heinous black magic is practiced with their approval and cooperation right under their noses in Chillingworth's laboratory.
The conclusion that the reader is given to draw, then, is that Hester and Pearl are not respectively, lover and daughter of a Black Man or Satan who inhabits the forest. Rather it is the community itself which has a close relationship to the Black Man, in the person of Chillingworth, and encourages his dark arts.
Finally, in exploring the meaning of the 'A,' the reader arrives at Hawthorne's stated moral: 'Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!' (242). The true nature of every human is both sinful and angelic, somber and joyful, selfish and loving. To 'be true' means to recognize that we all wear a scarlet letter.