He is a symbol of evil, of the “devil’s handyman,” of one consumed with revenge and devoid of compassion.
Roger Chillingworth, unlike Hester and Dimmesdale, is a flat character. While he develops from a kind scholar into an obsessed fiend, he is less of a character and more of a symbol doing the devil’s bidding. Once he comes to Boston, we see him only in situations that involve his obsession with vengeance, where we learn a great deal about him.
Hawthorne begins building this symbol of evil vengeance with Chillingworth’s first appearance (". . . dropping down, as it were, out of the sky, or starting from the nether earth . . .") in the novel by associating him with deformity, wildness (the Indians), and mysterious power. Having just ended over a year of captivity by the Indians, his appearance is hideous, partly because of his strange mixture of “civilized and savage costume.”
Even when he is better dressed, however, Chillingworth is far from attractive. He is small, thin, and slightly deformed, with one shoulder higher than the other. Although he “could hardly be termed aged,” he has a wrinkled face and appears “well stricken in years.” He has, however, a look of calm intelligence, and his eyes, though they have a “strange, penetrating power,” are dim and bleared, testifying to long hours of study under lamplight.
The reader feels a bit sorry for Roger Chillingworth during the first scaffold scene when he arrives in Massachusetts Bay Colony and finds his wife suffering public shame for an adulterous act. At that point, however, he has several choices; he chooses revenge. His rude awakening is described a second time in Chapter 9 when Hawthorne calls him “a man, elderly, travel-worn, who, just emerging from the perilous wilderness, beheld the woman, in whom he hoped to find embodied the warmth and cheerfulness of home, set up as a type of sin before the people.” What should have been a warm and loving homecoming after being apart from his wife has become terrible.
Chillingworth is not a Puritan. While he was a captive of the Indians for “upward of a year,” he did not judge them as heathens and infidels, and, unlike the Puritans, he did not seek to convert them. Instead, as the scholar, he studied their knowledge of herbs and medicines to learn. He has, indeed, spent his life as a lonely scholar, cutting himself off when necessary in the quest for knowledge from the world of other men. This study of herbs and medicines later links his work to the “black medicine” and helps him keep his victim alive.
Hawthorne further develops this “other world” involvement — whether fate or predetermined by some higher power — when he describes the physician’s appearance as being just in time to “help” Dimmesdale. The Puritans believed that the hand of God, or Providence, was in every event. So Hawthorne skewers their belief in mentioning Chillingworth’s arrival when he states, “Individuals of wiser faith, indeed, who knew that Heaven promotes its purposes without aiming at the stage-effect of what is called miraculous interposition, were inclined to see a providential hand in Roger Chillingworth’s opportune arrival.”
When Chillingworth arrives in the colony and learns of Hester’s situation, he leaves her alone nearly seven years as he single-mindedly pursues Dimmesdale. He does, however, see his role in her downfall. Because he married her when she was young and beautiful and then shut himself away with his books, he realizes that their marriage did not follow “the laws of nature.” He could not believe she, who was so beautiful, could marry a man “misshapen since my birth hour.” He deluded himself that his intellectual gifts dazzled her and she forgot his deformity. He now realizes that from the moment they met, the scarlet letter would be at the end of their path.
His love of learning and intellectual pursuit attracts Dimmesdale. In the New World, men of learning were rare. Hawthorne says, “there was a fascination for the minister in the company of the man of science, in whom he recognized an intellectual cultivation of no moderate depth or scope; together with a range and freedom of ideas that he would have vainly looked for among the members of his own profession.” This love of wisdom is what will draw the two men together, thus facilitating Chillingworth’s plans.
In Chillingworth, Hawthorne has created the “man of science,” a man of pure intellect and reason with no concern for feelings. Notice the “chilliness” of his name. In Chapter 9, Hawthorne describes the scarcity of Chillingworth’s scientific peers in the New World: “Skillful men, of the medical and chirurgical profession, were of rare occurrence in the colony.” These men of science have lost the spiritual view of human beings because they are so wrapped up in the scientific intricacies of the human body. As a paragon of this group, Chillingworth lives in a world of scholarly pursuits and learning. Even when he was married to Hester, a b