By renaming himself upon his arrival in Boston, Chillingworth has hidden his past from everyone except Hester, whom he has sworn to secrecy. He incorporates himself into society in the role of a doctor, and since the townsfolk have very little access to good medical care, he is welcomed and valued. In addition to his training in European science, he also has some knowledge of “native” or “natural” remedies, because he was captured by Native Americans and lived with them for a time. The town sometimes refers to the doctor colloquially as a “leech,” which was a common epithet for physicians at the time. The name derives from the practice of using leeches to drain blood from their patients, which used to be regarded as a curative process.
Much to the community’s concern, Dimmesdale has been suffering from severe health problems. He appears to be wasting away, and he frequently clutches at his chest as though his heart pains him. Because Dimmesdale refuses to marry any of the young women who have devoted themselves to him, Chillingworth urges the town leadership to insist that Dimmesdale allow the doctor to live with him. In this way, Chillingworth may have a chance to diagnose and cure the younger man.
The two men take rooms next to the cemetery in a widow’s home, which gives them an opportunity for the contemplation of sin and death. The minister’s room is hung with tapestries depicting biblical scenes of adultery and its punishment, while Chillingworth’s room contains a laboratory that is sophisticated for its time.
The townspeople were initially grateful for Chillingworth’s presence and deemed his arrival a divine miracle designed to help Dimmesdale. As time has passed, however, rumors have spread concerning Chillingworth’s personal history. Even more ominously, the man’s face has begun to take on a look of evil. A majority of the townspeople begin to suspect that Chillingworth is the Devil, come to wage battle for Dimmesdale’s soul.
The inwardly tortured minister soon becomes Chillingworth’s greatest puzzle. The doctor relentlessly and mercilessly seeks to find the root of his patient’s condition. Chillingworth shows great persistence in inquiring into the most private details of Dimmesdale’s life, but Dimmesdale has grown suspicious of all men and will confide in no one. Chillingworth devotes all of his time to his patient. Even when he is not in Dimmesdale’s presence, Chillingworth is busy gathering herbs and weeds out of which to make medicines.
One day Dimmesdale questions his doctor about an unusual-looking plant. Chillingworth remarks that he found it growing on an unmarked grave and suggests that the dark weeds are the sign of the buried person’s unconfessed sin. The two enter into an uncomfortable conversation about confession, redemption, and the notion of “burying” one’s secrets. As they speak, they hear a cry from outside. Through the window, they see Pearl dancing in the graveyard and hooking burrs onto the “A” on Hester’s chest.
When Pearl notices the two men, she drags her mother away, saying that the “Black Man” has already gotten the minister and that he must not capture them too. Chillingworth remarks that Hester is not a woman who lives with buried sin—she wears her sin openly on her breast. At Chillingworth’s words, Dimmesdale is careful not to give himself away either as someone who is intimately attached to Hester or as someone with a “buried” sin of his own. Chillingworth begins to prod the minister more directly by inquiring about his spiritual condition, explaining that he thinks it relevant to his physical health. Dimmesdale becomes agitated and tells Chillingworth that such matters are the concern of God. He then leaves the room.
Dimmesdale’s behavior has reinforced Chillingworth’s suspicions. The minister apologizes for his behavior, and the two are friends again. However, a few days later, Chillingworth sneaks up to Dimmesdale while he is asleep and pushes aside the shirt that Dimmesdale is wearing. What he sees on Dimmesdale’s chest causes the doctor to rejoice, but the reader is kept in the dark as to what Chillingworth has found there.
These chapters explore the relationship between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. On one level, Chillingworth represents “science” and Dimmesdale represents “spirituality.” Though both of these systems offer resources to restore a person’s well-being, neither seems to cure Dimmesdale’s affliction. Like Chillingworth’s deformed shoulders, Dimmesdale’s illness is an outward manifestation of an inward condition, and neither medicine nor religion suffices to cure it. What hampers his recovery is his inability to confess his adultery with Hester, which seems to be due, at least in part, to the community’s dependence on the young minister. He understands that he, like Hester, is a symbol of something larger than himself—in his case, piety and goodness. In a way, confessing would mean healing himself at the expense of the community.
Dimmesdale ponders other, seemingly irreconcilable moral considerations. The many contradictions that he encounters may stem from the constrictive and sometimes hypocritical nature of the moral system. For example, the minister refuses to marry any of the women in the community who show concern for him, both out of a sense of commitment to Hester and out of an unwillingness to implicate an innocent third party in a dark history of “sin.” On the other hand, by passively waiting for God to sort things out, as he declares himself to be doing, Dimmesdale causes Hester to suffer terribly.
Yet, medicine, too, proves an inadequate solution to Dimmesdale’s dilemma, as it ignores the connection between the physical and the spiritual. Chillingworth sees this, and in his practice he tries to bridge the divide, but in the most perverse of ways. It is no accident that Chillingworth is called a “leech,” for he has attached himself to the minister’s side like an insidiously destructive worm. He wants to use his scientific knowledge to get “deep into his patient’s bosom, delving among his principles, prying into his recollections, and probing everything with a cautious touch, like a treasure-seeker in a dark cavern.”
Having harbored suspicion from the start, the doctor now undertakes a series of controlled experiments. His references to Hester and to buried sin are designed to remind Dimmesdale of his guilt. When Chillingworth first visited Hester in her prison cell, she asked him whether he was the Devil come to vie for her soul, and he answered that it was another’s soul that would be the true focus of his malevolence. He now fulfills this evil promise: even the townspeople now regard him as the Devil come to tempt and torment their virtuous reverend.
Covertly tortured by the doctor, Dimmesdale searches for something to soothe his suffering. He envies those who can display their agonies publicly. Thus, when Chillingworth asks, “Is Hester Prynne the less miserable, think you, for that scarlet letter on her breast?” Dimmesdale answers, “I do verily believe it.” He believes that the acute pain of his private suffering is far worse: “It must needs be better,” he says, “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.”
Hester can literally wear her pain on her chest, while Dimmesdale’s pain remains locked inside his body. And Dimmesdale can never atone, because he can never confess. While Hester feels shame because of the community’s disapproval of her, Dimmesdale suffers from guilt, which is the product of an internalized self-disapproval and thus is much more toxic.
Pearl’s character in these chapters stands in radical—and damning—contrast to the characters of both men. Whereas the men represent authority (Dimmesdale the authority of the church, Chillingworth that of accumulated knowledge), Pearl has no respect for external authority and holds nothing sacred. Similarly, whereas the two men deeply respect their forebears, Pearl has no such respect for inherited history. Chillingworth says, frowning, that the child lacks a reverence for “human ordinances or opinions, right or wrong,” and for established social rules. Dimmesdale, too, says that he can discern no unified principle in Pearl’s being, “save the freedom of a broken law.”
Yet Pearl is not merely a negative figure; she is also a positive element, because she illuminates truths and seeks to open closed minds. Pearl’s reactions to her mother’s scarlet letter reveal this aspect of her. When Pearl covers the letter with burrs, she literalizes Hester’s experience of living with the letter: the badge of dishonor digs painfully into Hester’s being. As an innocent child, free from the strictures of organized systems, Pearl is able to discern and understand a more complex version of human experience than can either of the two much older and allegedly “wiser” men.
Chillingworth’s glimpse at Dimmesdale’s bared chest brings these chapters to a climax. From the enormous glee that Chillingworth shows, we may infer that he has found what he considers to be proof of the reverend’s guilt—perhaps the reverend bears some form of an “A”-shaped mark upon his own skin. For now, the spectacle on the minister’s chest seems to serve as a reminder of the futility of human endeavors. No matter how conniving Chillingworth’s machinations, they could never have led him to a conclusion as definitive as this sighting has been. As though it were a sign from some supernatural power, Chillingworth views the sleeping minister’s breast with “wonder.”