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Villain, Goad, or Something Else: Chillingworth as Depicted by Hawthorne and Christopher Bigby

by John L. Idol, Jr

Dr. John L. Idol, Jr., Professor emeritus, Clemson University
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)

These passages 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 rented room.

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 soul. (1:128)

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," said Hester.

"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.

Believing 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 his behavior.

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 Royalist gatherings.

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.

Intent 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.

Being 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. (38)

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.

Works Cited

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.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12185/

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