Villain, Goad, or Something Else: Chillingworth as Depicted by Hawthorne and
by John L. Idol, Jr
Dr. John L. Idol, Jr., Professor emeritus, Clemson University(photography by Lou Procopio)
Nearly a century and a half separate The Scarlet Letter from its prequel,
Christopher's Bigby's Hester. How Hawthorne and Bigby portray the man
who chooses to call himself Roger Chillingworth reflects both narrative strategies
and literary traditions. Although Hawthorne remains faithful to his penchant
for ambiguity, he has his narrator insistently demonize Chillingworth, creating
a kind of American Iago, while, at the same time, inviting readers to consider
him, emblematically, as an American version of Biblical Nathan doing the will
of God in order to bring redemption to a straying soul. In Hawthorne's hands,
Chillingworth comes to represent not only an abstract principle at work, coldhearted
revenge, but benevolence as well, for it is Chillingsworth's bequest that assures
Pearl of a better life than she's ever known in New England society. When Hawthorne
removes Chillingworth from the steady and damnatory scrutiny of the narrator
and writes as a dramatist, he permits Chillingworth to confess to wronging Hester
and to argue that she is not blameless. Even so, Chillingworth doesn't come
off as a fully rounded character, nor should we expect him to be inasmuch as
he strides mono-moniacally through the romance. He is more force than person.
Since Hawthorne rarely lets readers see his characters through one pair of
spectacles, his art of ambiguity being what it is, we need to heed the words
of The Scarlet Letter's narrator closely, In relating Chillingworth's
arrival in Boston to find Hester being implored to reveal the father of the
babe she bears in arms, the narrator reports that Chillingworth
Bent his eyes on [her]. It was carelessly,
at first, like a man chiefly accustomed to look inward, and to whom external
matters are of little value and import, unless they bear relation to something
within his mind. Very soon, however, his look became keen and penetrating. A
writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly
over them.. . . (1:61)
Scholar though he might have been and scholar though he may yet appear to be
as he pursues his researches into the mdical value of plants, the fact that
the narrator is here demonizing Chillingworth is inescapable. Nor is this the
only instance where the narrator demonizes him. Following a conversation between
Dimmesdale and Chillingworth on the subject of diseases of the body and spirit,
a conversation that ultimately finds Chillingworth exalting in his ability to
make Dimmesdale suffer and cry out that only God will ever know his innermost
secrets, the narrator confides
Had a man seen old Roger Chillingworth, at that moment of his ecstasy, he would
have no need to ask how Satan comports himelf, when a precious soul is lost
to heaven, and won into his kingdom. But what distinguished the physician's
ecstasy from Satan's was the trait of wonder in it! (1:138)
At the second scaffold scene, when the meteor lights up the town, the narrator
informs us that Chillingworth might "have passed with [Dimmesdale and Hester]
for the arch-fiend, standing there, with a smile and scowl, to claim his own"
(1:156). Later, during Hester's seaside interview with Roger, the narrator drives
home the point about Roger's transformation:
Ever and anon . . . there was a glare of red light out of his eyes; as if the
old man's soul were on fire, and kept on smoulderingduskily within his breast,
until, by some casual puff of passion, it was blown into a momenary flame. This
he repressed as speedily as possible, and strove to look as if nothing of the
kind had happened.
In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence
of man's faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he only will, for
a reasonable space of time, undertake the devil's office. (1:169-70)
suggest that Chillingworth's metamorphosis springs from Satanic propensities
within, from malice, incurable desire for revenge, delight in seeing Dimmesdale
suffer, and obsessive urges to solve a mystery. Seen in this light, he seems
a kindred spirit to Iago, unworthy of one iota of pity from us.
But Hawthorne wouldn't be Hawthorne if he left Chillingworth in such a demonized
state, for we are invited to consider him not as agent alone but instrument
as well. For initial hints that Roger serves a godly rather than a devilish
purpose, we must look to Hawthorne, who, like Orlando nailing verses to every
tree, sticks up symols everywhere, beside prison doors, on bosoms, in the heavens,
on gravestones. One telling symbol appears in the form of a tapestry in Dimmesdale's
The walls 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, but which made the fair woman
of the scene almost as grimly picturesque as the woe-denouncing seer. (1:126)
Hawthorne depends on our remembering, or seeking out, the relevant story in
2 Samuel if we are to cast Chillingworth in another light. 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" (2 Samuel 12:12). As this chapter builds and we see Roger
acting upon Arthur, with what townsmen hope will be curative herbs and drugs,
we finally hear from the narrator, always the purveyor of multiple choice, that
it grew to be a widely diffused opinion, that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale
. . . 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
If Chillingworth plays Nathan to Dimmesdale's David, he lacks
Nathan's purity of heart and national pride, but there's no mistaking the fact
that he relentlessly pushes Dimmesdale towards confessing his sin. In that drive,
he fulfills a divine rather than diabolical purpose.
Yet Hawthorne wouldn't
be Hawthorne if we classified old Roger as a diabolically inspired, self-willed
agent or providentially chosen instrument to effect Dimmesdale's salvation.
If we stopped at these markers and declared our taxonomy com- plete, we'd be
false to our claim that Hawthorne is one of the most astute of our psycho- logically
inclined authors. There's more to consider, and to get at it we must focus on
a gender issue, one that has Roger casting himself in the role of a cuckold.
During Hester's seaside appeal to him to allow her to reveal his true identity,
their conver- sation turns to what turned him from a studious man intent upon
using his researches for the betterment of men, he speaks of the early days
of their marriage:
"Was I not, though you might deem me cold, nevertheless a
man thoughtful for others, craving little for himself,--kind, true, just, and
of constant, if not warm affections? Was I not all this?"
"All this, and more,"
"And what am I now? . . . . I have already told thee what I am!
A fiend! Who made me so?"
"It was myself!" cried Hester, shuddering.
that he is not so far gone in evil that gaining forgiveness from God is im-
possible, Hester asks him to leave retribution in God's hands. He squelches
her plea and her faith that God's benevolence will be granted if only he will
forgo his quest for vengeance and seek God's pardon.
"Peace, Hester, peace!"
replied the old man, with gloomy sternness.
It is not granted to me to pardon."
He has become what he is, he adds, because Hester went astray.
"By thy first
step awry, thou didst plant the germ of evil, but, since that moment, it has
all been a dark necessity." (1:173)
It is fate, he at last declares, that makes
him what he is, but the triggering event was her adultery. Her infidelity unmoored
something within him, launched him on troubled waters, left him powerless to
control his own destiny, unbound some defect of perso- nality that rendered
him incapable of leaving either Hester or Arthur to heaven. The old Adam reared
in him, and he would have his revenge even if it meant losing his soul. He sees
himself as a victim of his own monomania.
Whether we can say, at this moment,
that Hawthorne is most truly Hawthorne in depicting Chillingworth as a psychological
cripple may depend on our view of what forces ultimately govern mankind's behavior.
If God's eye is indeed always on the sparrow and eternally watchful, and if
his hand is always directing our behavior towards goals fulfilling his needs,
there is, finally, a bright necessity compelling our actions, whether, in human
perspective, our deeds appear godly or ungodly. If, on the other hand, our deeds
are self-governed or are controlled by psychic forces far stronger than our
self- will, we must seek answers about our deeds and misdeeds within ourselves,
or turn to the Jungs and Freuds of this world to help us out. To explain humanity's
"dark necessities" in any other terms is to pitch our philosophical, psychological,
and theological tents in existential camps, thereby expecting some illuminative
self-definition to assert itself.
If Hawthorne prevents us from taking an easy measure of Chillingworth, what
about Christopher Bigby, who gave us another Chillingworth to consider in his
"prequel" to The Scarlet Letter, Hester, published by Viking in 1994?
A professor in American Studies at the University of East Anglia, Bigby begins
his three major char- acters are still living in England. Writing for a readership
that descends from that group of unhappy readers who wanted Hawthorne to be
more forthcoming and realistic in The Marble Faun, Bigby drew a non-demonic
scholar whose lack of self-know- ledge and yearning for intellectual companionship
and human warmth had the in- evitable result of ruining his life and Hester's.
December turned to May, turned away from her, frustrated her sexuality, and
acted out of scornful pride when he learned another man had bedded his wife
and fathered a child. Bigby writes with insights garnered from Sigmund Freud
and Carl Jung, thus enabling readers to see Chillling- worth with 20th century
lenses. For Bigby, Chillingworth is sadist, yet Bigby clings to Hawthorne's
penetrating analysis that Chillingworth's primal sin was pride. Both writers
agree in detecting the old Adam in Chillingworth, a man destroyed by hubris,
a flaw he was powerless to overcome, a force of "dark necessity" that governed
A brief summary of Bigby's narrative at this point may be helpful.
Hester, the daughter of an East Anglia farm family, once a family with noble
standing, nurses back to health a studious neighbor who tumbled from his horse
into a wintry stream. The studious neighbor, knowledgeable in herbs and the
master of several languages, is none other than the man who eventually chose
to call himself Roger Chillingworth. Happiest when he is experimenting with
plants or chemicals, he has not known women except for an old crone who keeps
house for him. Hester's kindness and youth appeal to him, and his learning and
mastery of language seem far more worthy of her attention than the daily routine
of helping around the barns and gardens of her family's home. When the studious
but slightly deformed neighbor proposes marriage, she accepts. Though he has
much strength of brain, he has absolutely none of libido, and the marriage is
never con- summated. In the months following their wedding, he behaves somewhat
like a blend of Dr. Rappaccini and Aylmer, becoming so noisome to Hester that
she leaves him and secretly books passage to Boston. Eventually, he comes to
the New World, too, not in pursuit of her but because his cabalistic meetings
with other researchers have been read by Parliamentary spies as clandestine
During her passage to America, Hester meets a young clergyman
on his way to fill a pulpit in Boston. A tempestuous voyage finds them spending
much time together as they attempt to overcome seasickness and boredom. Something
far stronger than their scruples brings them to bed together just as their ship,
the Hope, reaches Boston. Hester considers their love consecrated, but Dimmesdale
suffers deeply from guilt. Still, libido is a force to reckon with, and, some
months later, in the forest, their second coupling results in Pearl.
on discovering the partner of her sin, Boston authorities imprison Hester and
then bring her and Pearl to the scaffold. It is there that her husband, fresh
from living among Native Americans in Virginia, sees her and the babe she bears
in her arms. He, too, wants to discover who the father is and will stop at nothing
until he finds him.
What is Bigby's "take" on Chillingworth? Is it Hawthornean
in its ambi- guity or something else? Bigby, of course, had to confront certain
factors as he created his Chillingworth: the man must be a scholar, must have
some deformity, must marry a young woman and be separated from her, must find
her a mother to a child fathered by an unknown person, and must want to unravel
the mystery of Pearl's paternity.
Educated far above the level of his countrymen,
including several years of in- tellectual and esoteric studies in Amsterdam,
Chillingworth formed no emotional ties when he returned home. Isolating himself
in his house, he continued his studies, becoming as a result the object of discussion
by his neighbors as they attempt to ex- plain his secrecy: had he abandoned
a wife before coming home, horribly disfiguring her iIn some of his experiments?
Had he cut himself off from society to converse with the devil? (7) Not being
privy to his intellectual pursuits and puzzled by his experiments with plants
and chemicals, his neighbors constantly whisper about him.
Had he not suffered
a wintry spill from his horse, he perhaps would have spent the rest of his life
in esoteric and cabalistic inquiries. His baptism in icy waters ironically brought
warmth into his life in the person of Hester, whose nursing was rendered with
such kindness and whose admiration of his intellectual accomplishment was so
flattering that he ultimately decided to make her his companion. When he proposed
marriage, she willingly accepted, thinking as she did so that her love would
transform him into the sort of man with whom she could be happy. May couldn't
thaw December, love couldn't erase his social ineptitude, his smelly chemicals
drove her from his laboratory, and his obsessive ways turned initial cheerfulness
into unrelieved depression. The solace she enjoyed in communing with herself
in a diary she began to keep evaporated when she discovered that Chillingworth
had found and read it. His boundless curiosity, his need to control, his failure
to respond to the natural desires of her body was experiencing exasperated her.
Through the help of a cousin and her sailor husband, Hester manages to escape
to America, there to be born again, there to discover who she really is.
the pre-Freudian that she is, she can't put into words the kind of man she's
wed. Knowing readers that we are, we can supply one: sadist. Bigby's nar- rator
asks us to consider the following words as we try to understand Chillingworth's
treatment of her:
What is cruelty? The wanton, unnecessary inflicting of pain?
Perhaps. But there is cruelty, too, in indifference, in the withdrawal of love,
in the stifling of the human spirit, in a cold and clinical gaze that carries
no commitment, no offer to treat, no hint of remorse, no suggestion of life.
December has come to look upon May with scorn, age has tasted youth and
spat it out as unsavory, intellect had sought to experience what emotions had
to offer and had been revolted. Hester was to him "only a tangent to the circle
of his life," as she came to believe, and Chillingworth would waste no time
in pursuing her (134).
Political unrest in England and his fear of Parliamentary
forces drove Chilling- worth to the New World. A Native American seeking ransom
for him from Boston's leaders brought him to New England, but something inside
Chillingworth, not a Lucifer dwelling within, though Hester considered him a
Lucifer as compared to her Gabriel, Dimmesdale, prompted him to ferret out the
secret of Pearl's paternity. Like Hawthorne's narrator, Bigby balks at giving
us a definitive explanation of Roger's motives:
What Chillingworth's motives
were who can say? Not jealousy in a simple sense, surely, for he acknowledged
his own hand in Hester's flight, responsibility for a marriage which yoked naivety
to self-deceit. Pride, then, perhaps. Had he not failed to see in her a rebel's
spirit? He was a man who set himself to uncover secrets, to read texts opaque
to others, to understand if necessity drives by dissecting living tissue. Yet
he had failed to see what lay before his eyes. Now here was a secret which bore
on himself. Another man had unlocked a door he had not ventured to try
. . . . . . . . .
How did he find his quarry? He perceived what others did not. They
saw the minister, he the man. They dreamed a dream of Jerusalem reborn; he saw
but a new constructed town inhabited by the old Adam and the old Adam has the
virtue of consistency. (172)
Look long and hard enough and the man among these
Bostonians who had fathered Pearl would, through love, pity, or some other means,
betray himself. Once the father was detected, Chillingworth would not "destroy
. . . [him] by anything so crude and direct and immediate as physical assault
or simple betrayal. He wished, instead, to disassemble him element by element
until he should be fully exposed and inert before him, voided of all truth,
all mystery, all life" (173).
Sadism seems the fitting word here to describe the Bigby take on Chillingworth.
But Bigby would not be an heir to Hawthorne, would not have written so engagingly,
compellingly, if we let this word stand alone. He's given us a Hawthornean word,
pride, and it would behove us to grant it full weight. If we connect
it to his presentation of Chillingworth as a curiosity-driven scientist, if
we put him together with Hawthorne's Rappaccini and Aylmer, violaters of t he
souls of others and victims of their own Faustian hungers, as Bigby invites
us to do, we have not a fiend or a providentally chosen goad but a man consumed
by his own flaw, the foremost of which is hubris. It is tempting to think, then,
that Bigby shows more fidelity to Hawthorne's insight into human nature, as
revealed in his depictions of Aylmer and Rappaccini, than Hawthorne himself.
Had Hawthorne not invited us to use a taxonomy that included the transformation
of a fiend or Providence's choice of Chillingworth as the instrument of Dimmesdale's
salvation, we could applaud his efforts to give us a fuller realization of the
nature of mankind's precarious balance between good and evil in his depiction
of Chillingworth. Ultimately, what I'm trying to say is that Bigby, through
the medium of the novel, attempted to limn a man among men, helped along as
he was by Freud and Jung, and that Hawthorne, through the medium of the romance,
in part, rested content with his rendering of Chillingworth as an allegorical
force put in action. My qualification is necessary since, as we've seen, Hawthorne's
raising of the gender issue and his recognition of the old Adam in Chillingworth
enable us to conclude that one of Hawthorne's "takes" on old Roger was just
as modern as Bigby's. A cuckolded husband emerges from the pages of both books
and exalts in his prideful revenge. Yet, a final difference remains: Bigby's
Chillingworth is not a goad to Dimmesdale's salvation.
Bigby, Christopher. Hester. New York: Viking, 1994.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. The Centenary Edition of the
Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Eds. William Charvat and others. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962.
Citations are by volume (1) and page number.