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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.