The changing symbolism of Dimmesdale’s hand over the heart


“But still methinks it must needs be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it all up in his heart.”


            There are many recurring symbols in the Scarlet Letter, first and foremost the letter of ignominy itself.  Directly related to the letter itself as a symbol is the constant action of one mister Arthur Dimmesdale.  Whenever he is faced with an uncomfortable position, or a reference to Hester’s sin, he covers his chest with his hand.  He does so to cover the letter, whether tangible or imaginary, that he wears on his chest.  It is because he both physically with his hand and with his silence covers up his sin that he eventually perishes.  “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” Using three separate episodes the topic of Dimmesdale’s hand over the heart motif will be traced, leading up to the final scene where all is revealed and he perishes.  These scenes will each add to the dramatization of the theme that hidden sin is the most harmful to one’s self. 

            The first instance of Dimmesdale placing his hand over his heart was in the opening scaffold scene where he is forced to interrogate Hester.  Her letter shines brightly and openly, while Dimmesdale scrambles to conceal the one which he fears will present itself.  As the novel progresses the scaffold scenes evince the changing nature of not only Dimmesdale, but the symbol of the hand over the heart.  Therefore, the first scaffold scene is evidence to his pure cowardice. “‘She will not speak!’ murmured Mr. Dimmesdale, who, leaning over the balcony, with his hand upon his heart, had awaited the result of his appeal. He now drew back, with a long respiration. ‘Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!’” Generous is right you apostate!  Dimmesdale in later instances, i.e. the governor’s mansion, also evidences his cowardice.  In fact it is not until the forest scene that the minister regains some of his dignity.  In the final scaffold scene he tears open his shirt and reveals the mark of his breast. By revealing his sin to the world he escapes the wrath of the maniacal Roger Chillingworth. “Thou hast escaped me; thou hast escaped me.”

            To view Dimmesdale’s hand over the heart without employing Chillingworth is like Hannibal crossing the Alps on tortoises.  It’s just not the same!  Roger Chillingworth is one of the very reasons that Dimmesdale conceals his letter for so long, and is furthermore the reason for his inordinate suffering. “That old man's revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!” Indeed Dimmesdale’s heart was violated, and every encounter with Chillingworth evidences the violation by means of the hand over the heart.  It is a knee-jerk reaction, but a reaction which is more telling than Dimmesdale would like to believe.  Every time he covers his breast, his true letter is indeed nearly exposed. Having just come from the forest Dimmesdale ruminates upon his entire life, and fears that he will be adversely affected by anger or be forced into an untimely confession.  “It was old Roger Chillingworth that entered. The minister stood, white and speechless, with one hand on the Hebrew Scriptures, and the other spread upon his breast.” The scriptures and the “letter” on his breast are perfectly antithesized in that the letter is in fact the direct antithesis of the scripture.  Society, however, is unable to make the connection between the letter and Dimmesdale’s nervous arm movement.  Pearl , the bastard bastion of truth, observes the “letter” – that is to say the guilt associated with it –  all to clearly.

            “Dost thou know, child, wherefore thy mother wears this letter?”

“Truly do I!” answered Pearl , looking brightly into her mother's face. “It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart!” Oh, Pearl , so quick you are to point out the world’s shortcomings.  You alone knew the true reason for the good ministers hand over his heart, without truly knowing what the sin was… (Enough of the apostrophe, back to the paper…) Pearl , knowing full well and good the link between her mother’s letter and the hand over heart, was unaware the full ramifications of the sin.  She knew not what so great a sin the love that her parents shared was, for she was begot, a paragon of virtue and truth.  In truth, she doesn’t know what the letter means, inasmuch as she cannot understand why her mother is considered a sinner as opposed to the other hypocrites who walk the street.  Pearl refuses to love the minister because he is untrue, and she feels he is thus unworthy of her love.  Only at the end of the novel when he removes his hand and garment from the letter does she grant him affection.

In the end Dimmesdale has transformed himself from a coward back into a man.  The struggle however has been to great, and the sin too long concealed.  Though he regained his energy it would be short lived. “It was the observation of those who beheld him now, that never, since Mr. Dimmesdale first set his foot on the New England shore, had he exhibited such energy as was seen in the gait and air with which he kept his pace in the procession. There was no feebleness of step, as at other times; his frame was not bent; nor did his hand rest ominously upon his heart.”  Indeed in the end there is no need for him to conceal his sin and ignominy, for he has come to recognize that the concealment of it was the source of his torment.  “With a convulsive motion he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation. For an instant the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentrated on the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory. Then, down he sank upon the scaffold!”  With the “letter” having been revealed, there is no more life left in the minister and he perishes at the hand of himself and his enemy.  He died, yes, but he died without his hand covering his heart.