Roger Chillingworth is easily my favourite character in The Scarlet Letter. His creep factor is off the charts, and I don’t mean because of his age or because he is not able-bodied, it is more his ability to always be lurking around in the weirdest places that always gets me, especially when he orchestrates a way to sail on the same ship as Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale when they’re thinking of leaving Boston. However, Chillingworth plays an interesting role in the text; he is not merely a classic mustache-twirling villain. This rumination on Roger Chillingworth is a section taken from a larger piece I’ve been working on regarding Hawthorne and the demonic. I thought it worked well as a self-contained piece too, so here it is!
It would be easy to consider the demonic elements of The Scarlet Letter in gendered terms as multiple female figures are associated with both witchcraft and temptation. Witchcraft imagery is common in the cultural representation of women in general during the nineteenth century[i]. For Weldon, the novel is primarily focused on the treatment of women and explains the reasons why men deny women and do violence to punish them[ii]. Hester represents everything that must be resisted to avoid death[iii]. Although I would not deny the focus on gender politics in the text, especially through the musings on the toll the scarlet letter takes on Hester’s femininity. The narrator comments that Hester’s “marble coldness”[iv] is necessary given the town’s panoptic gaze. However much Hawthorne creates a setting of frustrated passions and the frequent punishment of women, Roger Chillingworth’s role as outsider figure complicates the readings of The Scarlet Letter as one focused on injustice towards women. Just as there appears to be a spell put upon Pearl, keeping her from being a “real” child until she receives the kiss from Dimmesdale, Chillingworth is fated to do the Devil’s work[v]. Chillingworth is a more realized figure than Pearl but is still fated and channelled in a similar way[vi]. One of the major differences between Chillingworth and Pearl though is that Chillingworth has a large amount of agency in his pursuit of vengeance, although at the beginning he appears merely as a victim whose feelings of betrayal are justified. Chillingworth is character linked with witchcraft and the demonic; he first appears in a “strange disarray of civilized and savage costume” with a “slight deformity”[vii] on his left side, associating him with the Devil. There is an apprehension about anything connected to the forest. On a superstitious level, the forest is where the Black Man lives who tries to steal your souls; however, on a more practical level, the forest is where Indigenous people hostile to the settlers live. Considering the garrison mentality of this newly formed community, anything coming from the dangerous and unknown of the forest is to be feared. Chillingworth is also referred to throughout the text as “the Leech” and the townspeople view him as a “potent necromancer”[viii] because he learned herbal lore from the Indigenous. Chillingworth never becomes fully villainous though, and the narrator perspective towards him remains ambiguous throughout the text. Although Chillingworth, especially by the end, is not meant to be a likeable character, he, like Mistress Hibbins and Pearl has more evil imposed on them that is not necessarily there.
Both the town and narrator associate Chillingworth with certain devilish purposes, making him one of the few figures that the narrator and town at least partly agree on. As mentioned before, Chillingworth shares similarities with Pearl because he is described as doing the Devil’s work, like an emissary[ix]. The narrator is careful to emphasize the amount of choice Chillingworth has in the role he plays within The Scarlet Letter. The “choice was with himself” to “withdraw his name from the roll of mankind” and therefore take on a “new purpose; dark, it is true, if not guilty”[x]. The narrator may not agree with the superstition surrounding Chillingworth’s herbal lore but is careful to point out that Chillingworth chose to become a wise, but villainous character of his own accord. Vogel likens Chillingworth to an executioner appointed by his community to do a distasteful job and has come to like it[xi]. For Evans, part of The Scarlet Letter’s tragedy is the self-imposed degeneration of Chillingworth[xii]. Because he is unable to forgive or at the very least forget the transgressions of other characters, he becomes a more devilish figure through his persistence in revenge.
[i]Schwab, Gabrielle. “Seduced by Witches: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in the Context of New England Witchcraft Fictions.” Seduction and Theory: Readings of Gender, Representation, and Rhetoric. Ed. Dianne Hunter. 170-195. New York: University of Illinois Press, 1989, 171.
[ii]Weldon, Roberta. Hawthorne, Gender, and Death. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print, 18
[iv]Hawthorne, Samuel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print, 143.
[v]Vogel, Dan. “Roger Chillingworth: The Satanic Paradox in The Scarlet Letter”. Criticism. 5.3. (1963): 272-280. Accessed 2 April 2014. Web, 278.
[xii]Evans, Robert C. “The Complexities of ‘Old Roger’ Chillingworth: Sin and Redemption in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.” Bloom’s Literary Themes: Sin and Redemption. Ed. Harold Bloom. 251-261. Accessed 2 April 2014. Web, 251.