In The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Dimmesdale’s primary motivation is a shame, closely followed by remorse. His refusal to confess his crime of adultery rests on his conception of atonement, i.e., he or desperately hopes that mutilating himself in private and remaining a paragon of virtue in public as pastor will be sufficient redress for his transgression. Dimmesdale demonstrates this conviction that he must redeem himself in a conversation with Chillingworth, “guilty as [men] maybe […] [they retain] a zeal for God’s glory and man’s welfare […] because [if they confess] no good can be achieved by them, no evil of the past redeemed by better service.” (Hawthorne 91, c.f.Hawthorne 118 “…tortured with […] desperate thoughts, the sting of remorse, and despair of pardon.” )
Furthermore, he acknowledges the torment this flagrant hypocrisy causes such a man (alluding to himself), but refuses to accept Chillingworth’s argument that “God’s truth” “can be more for God’s glory [and] man’s welfare.” (Hawthorne, 91) Later on in the novel, it appears that this dismissal is rooted in his cowardly pride, i.e., his desire to be truly seen as “a pollution and a lie,” is overruled by his desire for his iniquity to remain concealed (Hawthorne 101); Arthur attempts to relieve himself of the painful pressure of his secret by making vague confessions that only add to his guilt, but provide no actual clarity to his congregation to perceive his true identity or spiritual state . (Hawthorne 99)
Loathing himself, Arthur tortures himself to the brink of death through fasts, scourging, and sleep deprivation to the point that he is hallucinating and “walking in the shadow of a dream.” (Hawthorne, 101) Yet, this is not enough. As a result, in Chapter Twelve, we see Dimmesdale visit the scaffold, impelled by oppressive guilt, and stand, alone, waiting for someone to pass by and comprehend the significance of his presence there. Even in his apparent intention to be exposed, Arthur obscures himself, ascending the steps in the dead of night and remaining silent when Reverend Wilson passes him. His desires war within him, and ultimately his desire to persist as a clandestine culprit overrules his desire to divulge his secret. As The Scarlet Letter progresses, readers note with increasing uneasiness that Arthur appears to gradually lose his grip on reality, laughing like a lunatic when he imagines the town discovering him on the scaffold. (Hawthorne 103-104) He surrenders momentarily to the embrace of Pearl, who seems to be his last connection to the real world, holding her hand as she entreats him to “stand here with mother and me, tomorrow noontide.” (Hawthorne 105) Even as he refuses her request, it seems that God and all creation implore Dimmesdale to reveal himself and be free: a blood-red meteor traces a brilliant “A” across the night sky, illuminating father, mother, and child.
Finally, Arthur discloses his final unwitting sign of shame by incessantly placing his hand over his heart. Though in his wretched cowardice he does not declare his iniquity, this evidence speaks volumes concerning his spiritual state. Pearl attests to this in her answer to Hester on why Hester wears the scarlet letter, “It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart!” Strong, yet not strong enough to confess, he acknowledges early on that disclosure would be superior to concealment, and entreats Hester to reveal him “who hath not the courage to grasp it for himself– the bitter, but the wholesome cup that is now presented to thy lips! […] What can thy silence do for him, except tempting him– yea, compel him, as it were– to add hypocrisy to sin?” (Hawthorne 47) One motivation supersedes all: shame. To his own demise, he rejects the idea of open repentance.
Consequently, his rejection of what he knows to be right sours and suffuses rottenness to not only his spiritual being but his physical body, bringing Arthur Dimmesdale to the verge of mental, spiritual, and physical collapse at the close of Chapter XII.