Puritanism is the plain oatmeal of early New England religion. It is a religion removed of one likeness, and ground, pounded, and fleshed out into a new likeness. As the name suggests, it is a purer version of Protestantism, focused on shaving away the contamination of the Church of England in order to create a Bible-focused religion between man and God with no political intervention. It was a movement to tighten the grasp of religion in daily life, both to inspire extreme piety and terror of the devil. Plain oatmeal is a culinary staple in many homes today; it is relatively inexpensive, and can be both nourishing and capable of being manipulated in taste. Perhaps Nathaniel Hawthorne was a porridge lover, because his work is quite a foil to the food itself: it is a testament to the realities of Puritan life, manipulated into something far more expressive of his own beliefs about sin and the human condition as an individual. Of those individuals, it is Roger Chillingworth of The Scarlet Letter that stands out the most. As the name suggests, Chillingworth is the vehicle with which Hawthorne investigates and differentiates between the objectivity of pure evil versus evil as a result of pain and suffering from a justifiably painful affliction.
As the primary antagonist in The Scarlet Letter, Roger Chillingworth (formerly Roger Prynne) is the catalyst whom heats the proverbial pot into a crazed boil. Although the slights which spurn his distorted and malicious behavior are obvious motivators for his desire to commit evil-doings, it can be inferred that the capability and desire to permit the inner evil harnessed to his soul was present long before there were to be a justification (in his mind) to allow it to escape his peripheries and take center stage in his personality. Physically deformed, and much older than his wife Hester, the likelihood of dormant anger for his lack of youth and physical attractiveness is very strong. In having an extramarital affair and sinning against her husband and “God,” Hester opens Pandora’s Box, providing a degree of justification for his resentment and thirst for revenge rather than justice. Presumably, Hester embodies the world around him, a puzzle that he has never fit into due to his oddities and deformity. Her adultery is the ultimate injustice for which he hungers for blood despite loving her.
“”Dost thou know me so little, Hester Prynne?” he says, “Are my purposes wont to be so shallow? Even if I imagine a scheme of vengeance, what could I do better for my object than to let thee live—than to give thee medicines against all harm and peril of life—so that this burning shame may still blaze upon thy bosom?” In his own words, Chillingworth implores Hester to live with her shame and sin, to be reminded each day of her betrayal of their union, and allow him to watch her writhe and wiggle amongst public shaming and pressure. He cares not the reasons of her adultery or even that it has happened, however his pain stems from the desperate need for love and acceptance, which her adultery shattered. Already feeling an inadequacy in fulfilling her fantasies or desires in order to make her a truly obedient and faithful wife, he shifts the blame much like a rollercoaster: first onto himself for being so inadequate to satisfy her and stealing her youth, and then onto her for extinguishing any warmth he possessed to be a faithful and loving husband. “”It was my folly! I have said it… My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one! It seemed not so wild a dream—old as I was, and sombre as I was, and misshapen as I was—that the simple bliss, which is scattered far and wide, for all mankind to gather up, might yet be mine. And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made there!” He expresses clearly his own self-loathing and need for the resolve of normalcy and love, and then lies to her to proclaim that his quarrel was not with her, but with the adulterer who enabled her to sin, after which a deliberate frenzy of evil is unleashed. From “warmth” and “blaze[ing]” to “lonely” and “chill,” Roger Chillingworth, in his own words was born and Roger Prynne ceased to exist.
This is not to say that Hester is the actual antagonist of the story, although it is an interesting point to consider for pro-Roger enthusiasts, it is fair to say that although some people are born with evil in their souls, others may become evil as it is awakened out of weakness rather than malice. Perhaps Roger Chillingworth was someone deep inside of Roger Prynne, prying his way out of his soul like a succubus, consuming his identity. Much like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Chillingworth selfishly desires retribution and vengeance, his character morphing into varying versions of himself, until finally unraveling into demise and immorality.
In aviation and military radio communication, the word “roger” literally confirms receipt of the last transmitted messages. In that vein, it is interesting that Chillingworth (an appropriately descriptive self-chosen moniker by the character himself) is named Roger. Roger literally gets the last word, and usurps Dimmesdale in the end, while redeeming himself. The perception of Roger’s final action of willing Pearl his estate can be examined in many ways. Some may consider this a cleansing act of redemption, acknowledging that she is the child that should have been his, but also his unreciprocated love for Hester. Providing for Pearl’s livelihood, on the surface, is a conciliatory gesture that exorcises the guilt, despair, and misery that Chillingworth created for himself; marrying a woman who would knowingly never love him, and desperately sabotaging her life apart from him. In considering another angle of the notes comprising Chillingworth’s ‘swan song,’ it can be inferred that he carried out his evil plan to destroy Dimmesdale out of jealousy and rage. Pearl should have been his child, and while torturing Dimmesdale ultimately destroys his own character, the final bow belongs to Chillingworth: he provided for Pearl in a way Dimmesdale could and would not, given her unannounced paternity. Perhaps Chillingworth was both cleansed by his redeeming act, but also fulfilled by the manner in which he ultimately usurped Dimmesdale as Pearl’s “father.” He achieved in his downfall (and Dimmesdale’s death) the underhanded vengeance he sought, but also performed one final goodness before the finale by allowing Roger Prynne to emerge and cleanse his own misgivings. Chillingworth is not just like oatmeal, he is like freezer burnt food: cold for far too long, and no longer salvageable.
Campbell, Donna. “Puritanism in New England.” Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. 21 Mar 2010. Web. Jul 17 2012.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Project Gutenberg, Dec. 2011. Web. 16 Jul. 2012.
United States. Federal Aviation Administration. Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques – P-8740-47. 2006. Web. .