In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Jemshed A. Khan claims that Roger Chillingworth poisoned Arthur Dimmesdale with the drug atropine in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Certainly, Chillingworth was “a man of skill in all Christian modes of physical science” (Hawthorne 65) and was very knowledgeable about medicinal roots and herbs (Hawthorne 65). Undoubtedly, he could have been aware of how to poison Dimmesdale slowly.
Although Khan’s line of conjecture is somewhat persuasive and seemingly well supported, it does not hold up under intense examination. There is much support in The Scarlet Letter to prove that Dimmesdale did not die from atropine. The main point of Dr. Kahn’s article is to prove that Chillingwrorth wanted to kill Dimmesdale through the use of atropine poisoning, but there are many parts in the novel that suggest Chillingworth wanted to keep Dimmesdale alive to suffer through his own guilt.
Evidence exists very early in the novel that deems Dr. Kahn’s theory untrue. During Chillingworth and Hester’s talk about who had wronged whom. Chillingworth says “…I shall contrive aught against his life…”(Hawthorne 70). Speaking of Dimmesdale, Chillingworth goes on to say, “…he be a man of fair repute” (Hawthorne 70). This passage alone shows that Chillingworth did not want to kill Dimmesdale, but would rather let him suffer through what he had done because after all he was suppose to be the epitome of puritan society and Chillingworth knew he would be grieving because of this.
Another part in the novel that supports the idea that Chillingworth anted Dimmesdale to suffer from guilt is when the author, Hawthorne, explains Chillingworth’s motives in becoming Dimmesdale’s physician. Hawthorne says that Chillingworth, being a man of skill, dove into the intellect of Dimmesdale looking for secrets and precious thoughts that might help him in the magnification of Dimmesdale’s guilt (114). The passage on 114 says nothing about Chillingworth wanting to kill Dimmesdale.
Another part in the novel again suggests that Chillingworth had no intentions of poisoning Dimmesdale. During the last scaffold scene when Dimmesdale finally resolves to let his guilt be known to the town, Chillingworth says, “There was no one place so secret… where thou couldst have escaped me, –save on this very scaffold”(Hawthorne 230-231)! If Chillingworth were in fact slowly poisoning Dimmesdale to death, there would have truly been no place in the world where Dimmesdale could have escaped from Chillingworth not even on the scaffold.
There is even more evidence in the Scarlet Letter that reputes Dr. Kahn’s idea of atropine poisoning as the cause of Dimmesdale’s death. If Chillingworth were chronically poisoning Dimmesdale, how would he have received a sudden burst of energy late in the novel as he did after is einghis meeting with Hester in the forest? Dimmesdale came back into town rejuvenated and thinking about his and Hester’s plan to escape to Europe, showing none of his signs of his recent faint-heartedness and feebleness (Hawthorne196-197).
If Dimmesdale were in fact being chronically poisoned by Chillingworth, energy bursts, like the one he experienced after his meeting with Hester, would not be possible (196-197). In addition to Dimmesdale showing no signs of his recent illness, he starts to view the town and its people in a different way. This new way was a sort of evil enlightenment (Hawthorne198). Now here again if Chillingworth were poisoning Dimmesdale there would be nothing of a natural origin that would save him from death not even if he had made a pact with Lucifer himself.
Dr. Kahn’s theory of atropine poisoning does not hold up well under intense scrutiny, and would only be true through the eyes of a person who started reading the novel looking for signs of atropine or some other kind of poisoning. To a person who starts reading the book with no preconception as to what caused Dimmesdale’s death, the valid references in the novel that support the idea of some sort of poisoning are just coincidental; and the true reason of Dimmesdale’s death is shown through his overwhelming since of guilt.