I have to write a paper on Roger Chillingworth from The Scarlet Letter, but what is there to say about him? He’s the devil. Hawthorne tells the reader that like a million times. How am I supposed to fill up four pages talking about how satanic he is? Help! –P.A. USA
Roger Chillingworth definitely comes with his own soundtrack of scary music and evil laughter. And you’re right: Hawthorne is pretty direct about his demonic intentions. Shortly after his arrival, when Chillingworth goes to visit his estranged wife, Hester, in prison, Hawthorne gives Hester this telling line of dialogue:
“Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the forest round about us?”
Yep. She pretty much called Chillingworth out on being the devil. But there’s more to Chillingworth’s character than that. In fact, Chillingworth is not just a one-dimensional evil villain; he’s the embodiment of Hawthorne’s theme about identity.
Think a little bit about Chillingworth’s arrival at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He’s a stranger to everyone but Hester. And when he finally confronts Hester in prison about her crime against him and against God, he does it under false pretenses. He arrives, not as Hester’s long-lost husband, but as a physician. Take note of this: From the very beginning of the story, Hawthorne gives you a huge clue about the role Chillingworth is going to play. That’s because the first time we see Chillingworth in action, he’s already in the process of redefining, or re-identifying, himself.
Sure, the guy clearly has some potion-making skills, but he’s more scholar than doctor. And his methods are…suspect to say the least. As the story gets going, it’s pretty clear that his medical practices are more akin to witchcraft than anything else.
So the first time we see Chillingworth, he’s redefined himself as a doctor. But he takes this redefinition a step further when he tells Hester to keep his identity as her husband a secret. He isn’t Mr. Prynne, but Mr. Chillingworth—a man with a new identity, right down to his profession and name.
Now here’s where things get interesting, because throughout The Scarlet Letter, Hester is also in the process of redefining herself. When we first meet her, she’s the embodiment of that scarlet letter on her chest: A for adulteress. As time goes on, though, Hester refuses to let herself be defined by her community’s judgment and intolerance. She gives generously to the poor. She works on her needlework. Over time, the meaning of that A morphs. And by the end of the book, Hester is no longer adulteress, but artist and angel.
Two characters. Two very different trajectories for these characters’ identities. Hester’s identity changes because of her own internal compass. Something within her, Hester herself, compels her to assume a new identity. By contrast, Chillingworth changes because of external factors. He allows others’ actions and decisions—namely, Hester’s affair with another man—to define and motivate him. And it’s his reaction to her choices—his desire for revenge—that leads him deeper and deeper into darkness and evil.
In other words, Chillingworth isn’t just Satan. His character embodies Hawthorne’s warning about identity: Letting others’ actions and opinions define you is certain death. Or, to put it more positively: You, and you alone, have the power to define who you are.