Nathaniel Hawthorne explores the theme of a war between passion and responsibility throughout The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth are all each individually caught in a struggle between passion and responsibility. However, it is Roger Chillingworth who best manifests this internal struggle. As a result of Pynne's and Dimmesdale's affair, Chillingworth becomes torn between his responsibilities to them and his selfish desire to seek revenge on them. Chillingworth's desire for revenge consumes his life. Chilingworth neglects his responsibilities as a husband, a doctor, and a "friend" as he seeks vengeance. Chillingworth is a scholar and uses his knowledge to disguise himself as a doctor, intent on tormenting Dimmesdale. Through Roger Chillingworth's deceptive relationships, Nathaniel Hawthorne shows how sin overwhelms and corrupts an individual. Chillingworth's quest for revenge overrides his obligatory responsibility to Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale throughout the novel.
Roger Chillingworth arrives in America to find his wife, Hester, atop the scaffold paying the price for her acts of adultery with Dimmesdale. Shortly thereafter his entire personality is taken over by a demonic passion for revenge at a time when he should be concerned for his wife and ways to ease her ignominy. This lack of responsibility stemmed from the origin of the marriage. Hester Prynne was much younger than Chillingworth when they were married, and he admits his mistake when he says, "Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay (79)." Their entire relationship dissolves in large part because of the weak foundation on which it was based. Instead of having the close and intimate relationship normally associated with marriage, they have a lukewarm love for each other that could not withstand the strain of such a crucible.