The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter.qxd
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The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne
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Preface to the Second Edition 33
The Custom-House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter
Chapter I. The Prison-Door
Chapter II. The Market-Place
Chapter III. The Recognition
Chapter IV. The Interview
Chapter V. Hester at Her Needle
Chapter VI. Pearl
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Chapter VII. The Governor’s Hall
Chapter VIII. The Elf-Child and the Minister
Chapter IX. The Leech
Chapter X. The Leech and His Patient
Chapter XI. The Interior of a Heart
Chapter XII. The Minister’s Vigil
Chapter XIII. Another View of Hester
Chapter XIV. Hester and the Physician
Chapter XV. Hester and Pearl
Chapter XVI. A Forest Walk
Chapter XVII. The Pastor and His Parishioner
Chapter XVIII. A Flood of Sunshine
Chapter XIX. The Child at the Brook-Side
Chapter XX. The Minister in a Maze
Chapter XXI. The New England Holiday
Chapter XXII. The Procession
Chapter XXIII. The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter
Chapter XXIV. Conclusion
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Preface to the Second Edition1
Much to the author’s surprise, and (if he may say so without additional offence) considerably to his amusement, he finds that his
sketch of official life, introductory to THE SCARLET LETTER, has created an unprecedented excitement in the respectable community
immediately around him. It could hardly have been more violent,
indeed, had he burned down the Custom House, and quenched its last
smoking ember in the blood of a certain venerable personage, against
whom he is supposed to cherish a peculiar malevolence. As the public
1. Hawthorne added this preface to the second edition of the novel, published April 22,
1850, in order to comment on the controversy generated in Salem by his introductory
“Custom-House” essay. The text here is taken from the 1885 edition of the novel published in Boston by Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
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Preface to the Second Edition
disapprobation would weigh very heavily on him, were he conscious of
deserving it, the author begs leave to say that he has carefully read over
the introductory pages, with a purpose to alter or expunge whatever might
be found amiss, and to make the best reparation in his power for the atrocities of which he has been adjudged guilty. But it appears to him, that the
only remarkable features of the sketch are its frank and genuine goodhumor, and the general accuracy with which he has conveyed his sincere
impressions of the characters therein described. As to enmity, or ill-feeling
of any kind, personal or political, he utterly disclaims such motives. The
sketch might, perhaps, have been wholly omitted, without loss to the public, or detriment to the book; but, having undertaken to write it, he conceives that it could not have been done in a better or a kindlier spirit, nor,
so far as his abilities availed, with a livelier effect of truth.
The author is constrained, therefore, to republish his introductory
sketch without the change of a word.
SALEM, March 30, 1850.
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It is a little remarkable, that — though disinclined to talk overmuch
of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends — an
autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of
me, in addressing the public. The first time was three or four years since,
when I favored the reader — inexcusably, and for no earthly reason, that
either the indulgent reader or the intrusive author could imagine — with a
description of my way of life in the deep quietude of an Old Manse.2 And
2. Old Manse: A house where Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne lived from 1842 to 1845.
Hawthorne published Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846, a short story collection
that was famously reviewed by Herman Melville, who considered it a masterpiece of
American literature.
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now — because, beyond my deserts, I was happy enough to find a listener or two
on the former occasion — I again seize the public by the button, and talk of
my three years’ experience in a Custom-House. The example of the famous
“P. P., Clerk of this Parish,”3 was never more faithfully followed. The truth
seems to be, however, that, when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind,
the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never
take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his
schoolmates or lifemates. Some authors, indeed, do far more than this, and
indulge themselves in such confidential depths of revelation as could fittingly be addressed, only and exclusively, to the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy; as if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide world,
were certain to find out the divided segment of the writer’s own nature, and
complete his circle of existence by bringing him into communion with it. It
is scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where we speak impersonally. But — as thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed, unless the
speaker stand in some true relation with his audience — it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk; and then, a native reserve being thawed
by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances that lie
around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil.
To this extent and within these limits, an author, methinks, may be autobiographical, without violating either the reader’s rights or his own.
It will be seen, likewise, that this Custom-House sketch has a certain
propriety, of a kind always recognized in literature, as explaining how a
large portion of the following pages came into my possession, and as offering proofs of the authenticity of a narrative therein contained. This, in
fact, — a desire to put myself in my true position as editor, or very little
more, of the most prolix among the tales that make up my volume, — this,
and no other, is my true reason for assuming a personal relation with the
public. In accomplishing the main purpose, it has appeared allowable, by a
few extra touches, to give a faint representation of a mode of life not
heretofore described, together with some of the characters that move in it,
among whom the author happened to make one.
3. Memoirs of P. P., Clerk of this Parish is a parody written around 1715 by Alexander Pope and
John Gay.
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In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century
ago, in the days of old King Derby,4 was a bustling wharf, — but which is
now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or
no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, halfway down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a
Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood, — at the head, I
say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along
which, at the base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many
languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass, — here, with a view
from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and
thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick. From the
loftiest point of its roof, during precisely three and a half hours of each
forenoon, floats or droops, in breeze or calm, the banner of the republic;
but with the thirteen stripes turned vertically, instead of horizontally,
and thus indicating that a civil, and not a military post of Uncle Sam’s
government, is here established. Its front is ornamented with a portico
of half a dozen wooden pillars, supporting a balcony, beneath which a
flight of wide granite steps descends towards the street. Over the entrance
hovers an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread
wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of
intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw. With the
customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she
appears, by the fierceness of her beak and eye and the general truculency
of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community;
and especially to warn all citizens, careful of their safety, against intruding on the premises which she overshadows with her wings. Nevertheless,
vixenly as she looks, many people are seeking, at this very moment, to
shelter themselves under the wing of the federal eagle; imagining, I presume, that her bosom has all the softness and snugness of an eider-down
pillow. But she has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and,
sooner or later, — oftener soon than late, — is apt to fling off her nestlings
with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rankling wound from her
barbed arrows.
The pavement round about the above-described edifice — which we
may as well name at once as the Custom-House of the port — has grass
4. Elias Haskett Derby (1739–1799), a successful merchant and ship owner who helped establish Salem as an important center of maritime trade in the late eighteenth century.
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enough growing in its chinks to show that it has not, of late days, been
worn by any multitudinous resort of business. In some months of the year,
however, there often chances a forenoon when affairs move onward with
a livelier tread. Such occasions might remind the elderly citizen of that
period, before the last war with England, when Salem was a port by itself;
not scorned, as she is now, by her own merchants and ship-owners, who
permit her wharves to crumble to ruin, while their ventures go to swell,
needlessly and imperceptibly, the mighty flood of commerce at New York
or Boston. On some such morning, when three or four vessels happen to
have arrived at once, — usually from Africa or South America, — or to be on
the verge of their departure thitherward, there is a sound of frequent feet,
passing briskly up and down the granite steps. Here, before his own wife
has greeted him, you may greet the sea-flushed ship-master, just in port,
with his vessel’s papers under his arm in a tarnished tin box. Here, too,
comes his owner, cheerful or sombre, gracious or in the sulks, accordingly
as his scheme of the now accomplished voyage has been realized in merchandise that will readily be turned to gold, or has buried him under a bulk
of incommodities, such as nobody will care to rid him of. Here, likewise, —
the germ of the wrinkle-browed, grizzly-bearded, careworn merchant, — we
have the smart young clerk, who gets the taste of traffic as a wolf-cub does
of blood, and already sends adventures in his master’s ships, when he had
better be sailing mimic boats upon a mill-pond. Another figure in the
scene is the outward-bound sailor, in quest of a protection; or the recently
arrived one, pale and feeble, seeking a passport to the hospital. Nor must
we forget the captains of the rusty little schooners that bring firewood
from the British provinces; a rough-looking set of tarpaulins, without the
alertness of the Yankee aspect, but contributing an item of no slight
importance to our decaying trade.
Cluster all these individuals together, as they sometimes were, with
other miscellaneous ones to diversify the group, and, for the time being, it
made the Custom-House a stirring scene. More frequently, however, on
ascending the steps, you would discern — in the entry, if it were summer
time, or in their appropriate rooms, if wintry or inclement weather — a row
of venerable figures, sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped on
their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but
occasionally might be heard talking together, in voices between speech
and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants
of alms-houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence
on charity, on monopolized labor, or any thing else but their own independent exertions. These old gentlemen — seated, like Matthew, at the
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receipt of custom,5 but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him,
for apostolic errands — were Custom-House officers.
Furthermore, on the left hand as you enter the front door, is a certain
room or office, about fifteen feet square, and of a lofty height; with two of its
arched windows commanding a view of the aforesaid dilapidated wharf, and
the third looking across a narrow lane, and along a portion of Derby Street.
All three give glimpses of the shops of grocers, block-makers, slop-sellers,
and ship-chandlers; around the doors of which are generally to be seen,
laughing and gossiping, clusters of old salts, and such other wharf-rats as
haunt the Wapping of a seaport.6 The room itself is cobwebbed, and dingy
with old paint; its floor is strewn with gray sand, in a fashion that has elsewhere fallen into long disuse; and it is easy to conclude, from the general
slovenliness of the place, that this is a sanctuary into which womankind,
with her tools of magic, the broom and mop, has very infrequent access. In
the way of furniture, there is a stove with a voluminous funnel; an old pine
desk, with a three-legged stool beside it; two or three wooden-bottom chairs,
exceedingly decrepit and infirm; and, — not to forget the library, — on some
shelves, a score or two of volumes of the Acts of Congress, and a bulky Digest
of the Revenue Laws. A tin pipe ascends through the ceiling, and forms a
medium of vocal communication with other parts of the edifice. And here,
some six months ago, — pacing from corner to corner, or lounging on the
long-legged stool, with his elbow on the desk, and his eyes wandering up and
down the columns of the morning newspaper, — you might have recognized,
honored reader, the same individual who welcomed you into his cheery little
study, where the sunshine glimmered so pleasantly through the willow
branches, on the western side of the Old Manse. But now, should you go
thither to seek him, you would inquire in vain for the Locofoco7 Surveyor.
The besom of reform hath swept him out of office; and a worthier successor
wears his dignity and pockets his emoluments.
This old town of Salem — my native place, though I have dwelt much
away from it, both in boyhood and maturer years — possesses, or did possess, a hold on my affections, the force of which I have never realized during my seasons of actual residence here. Indeed, so far as its physical
aspect is concerned, with its flat, unvaried surface, covered chiefly with
5. The apostle Matthew, author of the Gospel of Matthew, was called by Jesus to become a disciple when he was a tax collector, “sitting at the receipt of custom” (Matthew 9:9).
6. Wapping was a dockside slum district of London; Hawthorne here refers to any such district.
7. Locofoco: A nickname for radical Democrats in the mid-nineteenth century.
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wooden houses, few or none of which pretend to architectural beauty, — its
irregularity, which is neither picturesque nor quaint, but only tame, — its
long and lazy street, lounging wearisomely through the whole extent of the
peninsula, with Gallows Hill and New Guinea at one end, and a view of the
alms-house at the other, — such being the features of my native town, it
would be quite as reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged checkerboard. And yet, though invariably happiest elsewhere,
there is within me a feeling for old Salem, which, in lack of a better phrase,
I must be content to call affection. The sentiment is probably assignable to
the deep and aged roots which my family has struck into the soil. It is now
nearly two centuries and a quarter since the original Briton, the earliest
emigrant of my name, made his appearance in the wild and forest-bordered
settlement, which has since become a city. And here his descendants have
been born and died, and have mingled their earthly substance with the soil;
until no small portion of it must necessarily be akin to the mortal frame
wherewith, for a little while, I walk the streets. In part, therefore, the attachment which I speak of is the mere sensuous sympathy of dust for dust. Few
of my countrymen can know what it is; nor, as frequent transplantation is
perhaps better for the stock, need they consider it desirable to know.
But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality. The figure of that first
ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was
present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still
haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely
claim in reference to the present phase of the town. I seem to have a stronger
claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and
steeple-crowned progenitor, — who came so early, with his Bible and his
sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large
a figure, as a man of war and peace, — a stronger claim than for myself, whose
name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator,
judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good
and evil. He was likewise a bitter persecutor; as witness the Quakers,8 who
have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard
8. Founded by George Fox in 1648, the Religious Society of Friends stressed finding the
“Inner Light” and rejected sacraments, ordained ministry, and set forms of worship. Its members, also called Quakers, were known for pacifism and simple dress and speech. They were
considered heretics by the Puritans and expelled after their initial arrival in Boston in 1656.
Hawthorne had earlier written a sympathetic account of their persecution in “The Gentle
Boy,” a story included in Twice-Told Tales (1837) and published separately, with illustrations
by Hawthorne’s future wife Sophia Peabody, in 1839.
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severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be
feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His
son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in
the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left
a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the
Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled
utterly to dust! I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they
are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of
being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take
shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by
them — as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the
race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist — may be now and henceforth removed.
Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed Puritans
would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins, that, after
so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne, as its topmost bough, an idler like
myself. No aim, that I have ever cherished, would they recognize as laudable; no success of mine — if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever
been brightened by success — would they deem otherwise than worthless,
if not positively disgraceful. “What is he?” murmurs one gray shadow of
my forefathers to the other. “A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life, — what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation, — may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow
might as well have been a fiddler!” Such are the compliments bandied
between my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet,
let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.
Planted deep, in the town’s earliest infancy and childhood, by these
two earnest and energetic men, the race has ever since subsisted here;
always, too, in respectability; never, so far as I have known, disgraced by a
single unworthy member; but seldom or never, on the other hand, after the
first two generations, performing any memorable deed, or so much as putting forward a claim to public notice. Gradually, they have sunk almost out
of sight; as old houses, here and there about the streets, get covered halfway to the eaves by the accumulation of new soil. From father to son, for
above a hundred years, they followed the sea; a gray-headed shipmaster, in
each generation, retiring from the quarter-deck to the homestead, while a
boy of fourteen took the hereditary place before the mast, confronting the
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salt spray and the gale, which had blustered against his sire and grandsire.
The boy, also, in due time, passed from the forecastle to the cabin, spent a
tempestuous manhood, and returned from his world-wanderings, to grow
old, and die, and mingle his dust with the natal earth. This long connection
of a family with one spot, as its place of birth and burial, creates a kindred
between the human being and the locality, quite independent of any charm
in the scenery or moral circumstances that surround him. It is not love, but
instinct. The new inhabitant — who came himself from a foreign land, or
whose father or grandfather came — has little claim to be called a Salemite;
he has no conception of the oyster-like tenacity with which an old settler,
over whom his third century is creeping, clings to the spot where his successive generations have been imbedded. It is no matter that the place is
joyless for him; that he is weary of the old wooden houses, the mud and
dust, the dead level of site and sentiment, the chill east wind, and the
chillest of social atmospheres; — all these, and whatever faults besides he
may see or imagine, are nothing to the purpose. The spell survives, and just
as powerfully as if the natal spot were an earthly paradise. So has it been in
my case. I felt it almost as a destiny to make Salem my home; so that the
mould of features and cast of character which had all along been familiar
here — ever, as one representative of the race lay down in his grave, another
assuming, as it were, his sentry-march along the Main Street — might still
in my little day be seen and recognized in the old town. Nevertheless, this
very sentiment is an evidence that the connection, which has become an
unhealthy one, should at last be severed. Human nature will not flourish,
any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series
of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike
their roots into unaccustomed earth.
On emerging from the Old Manse, it was chiefly this strange, indolent,
unjoyous attachment for my native town, that brought me to fill a place in
Uncle Sam’s brick edifice, when I might as well, or better, have gone somewhere else. My doom was on me. It was not the first time, nor the second,
that I had gone away, — as it seemed, permanently, — but yet returned, like
the bad half-penny; or as if Salem were for me the inevitable centre of the
universe. So, one fine morning, I ascended the flight of granite steps, with
the President’s commission in my pocket, and was introduced to the corps
of gentlemen who were to aid me in my weighty responsibility, as chief
executive officer of the Custom-House.
I doubt greatly — or rather, I do not doubt at all — whether any public
functionary of the United States, either in the civil or military line, has ever
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had such a patriarchal body of veterans under his orders as myself. The
whereabouts of the Oldest Inhabitant was at once settled, when I looked at
them. For upwards of twenty years before this epoch, the independent position of the Collector had kept the Salem Custom-House out of the whirlpool
of political vicissitude, which makes the tenure of office generally so fragile. A soldier, — New England’s most distinguished soldier, — he stood firmly
on the pedestal of his gallant services; and, himself secure in the wise liberality of the successive administrations through which he had held office,
he had been the safety of his subordinates in many an hour of danger and
heart-quake. General Miller9 was radically conservative; a man over whose
kindly nature habit had no slight influence; attaching himself strongly to
familiar faces, and with difficulty moved to change, even when change
might have brought unquestionable improvement. Thus, on taking charge
of my department, I found few but aged men. They were ancient sea-captains,
for the most part, who, after being tost on every sea, and standing up sturdily against life’s tempestuous blast, had finally drifted into this quiet
nook; where, with little to disturb them, except the periodical terrors of a
Presidential election, they one and all acquired a new lease of existence.
Though by no means less liable than their fellow-men to age and infirmity,
they had evidently some talisman or other that kept death at bay. Two or
three of their number, as I was assured, being gouty and rheumatic, or perhaps bed-ridden, never dreamed of making their appearance at the CustomHouse, during a large part of the year; but, after a torpid winter, would creep
out into the warm sunshine of May or June, go lazily about what they
termed duty, and, at their own leisure and convenience, betake themselves
to bed again. I must plead guilty to the charge of abbreviating the official
breath of more than one of these venerable servants of the republic. They
were allowed, on my representation, to rest from their arduous labors, and
soon afterwards — as if their sole principle of life had been zeal for their
country’s service; as I verily believe it was — withdrew to a better world. It is
a pious consolation to me, that, through my interference, a sufficient space
was allowed them for repentance of the evil and corrupt practices, into
which, as a matter of course, every Custom-House officer must be supposed
to fall. Neither the front nor the back entrance of the Custom-House opens
on the road to Paradise.
9. A hero of the War of 1812, General James F. Miller (1776–1851) served as Collector for the
port of Salem from 1825 to 1849. His family was very offended by Hawthorne’s portrayal.
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The greater part of my officers were Whigs.10 It was well for their venerable brotherhood, that the new Surveyor was not a politician, and, though
a faithful Democrat in principle, neither received nor held his office with
any reference to political services. Had it been otherwise, — had an active
politician been put into this influential post, to assume the easy task of
making head against a Whig Collector, whose infirmities withheld him
from the personal administration of his office, — hardly a man of the old
corps would have drawn the breath of official life, within a month after the
exterminating angel had come up the Custom-House steps. According to
the received code in such matters, it would have been nothing short of duty,
in a politician, to bring every one of those white heads under the axe of the
guillotine. It was plain enough to discern, that the old fellows dreaded some
such discourtesy at my hands. It pained, and at the same time amused me,
to behold the terrors that attended my advent; to see a furrowed cheek,
weather-beaten by half a century of storm, turn ashy pale at the glance of so
harmless an individual as myself; to detect, as one or another addressed
me, the tremor of a voice, which, in long-past days, had been wont to bellow
through a speaking-trumpet, hoarsely enough to frighten Boreas11 himself
to silence. They knew, these excellent old persons, that, by all established
rule, — and, as regarded some of them, weighed by their own lack of efficiency for business, — they ought to have given place to younger men, more
orthodox in politics, and altogether fitter than themselves to serve our
common Uncle. I knew it too, but could never quite find in my heart to act
upon the knowledge. Much and deservedly to my own discredit, therefore,
and considerably to the detriment of my official conscience, they continued, during my incumbency, to creep about the wharves, and loiter up and
down the Custom-House steps. They spent a good deal of time, also, asleep
in their accustomed corners, with their chairs tilted back against the wall;
awaking, however, once or twice in a forenoon, to bore one another with the
several thousandth repetition of old sea-stories, and mouldy jokes, that had
grown to be pass-words and countersigns among them.
The discovery was soon made, I imagine, that the new Surveyor had no
great harm in him. So, with lightsome hearts, and the happy consciousness
10. In the 1840s and early 1850s, the Whigs and the Democrats were the two primary political parties in the United States. The Whigs were committed to internal improvements, such
as national roads, and to a limited government.
11. Boreas: The Greek god of the north wind, usually depicted as bearded and exceptionally
strong. He was said to have sunk 400 Persian ships in defense of Athens.
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of being usefully employed, — in their own behalf, at least, if not for our
beloved country, — these good old gentlemen went through the various formalities of office. Sagaciously, under their spectacles, did they peep into
the holds of vessels! Mighty was their fuss about little matters, and marvellous, sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones to slip between
their fingers! Whenever such a mischance occurred, — when a wagon-load
of valuable merchandise had been smuggled ashore, at noonday, perhaps,
and directly beneath their unsuspicious noses, — nothing could exceed the
vigilance and alacrity with which they proceeded to lock, and double-lock,
and secure with tape and sealing-wax, all the avenues of the delinquent vessel. Instead of a reprimand for their previous negligence, the case seemed
rather to require an eulogium on their praiseworthy caution, after the mischief had happened; a grateful recognition of the promptitude of their zeal,
the moment that there was no longer any remedy!
Unless people are more than commonly disagreeable, it is my foolish
habit to contract a kindness for them. The better part of my companion’s
character, if it have a better part, is that which usually comes uppermost
in my regard, and forms the type whereby I recognize the man. As most of
these old Custom-House officers had good traits, and as my position in reference to them, being paternal and protective, was favorable to the growth
of friendly sentiments, I soon grew to like them all. It was pleasant, in the
summer forenoons, — when the fervent heat, that almost liquefied the rest
of the human family, merely communicated a genial warmth to their halftorpid systems, — it was pleasant to hear them chatting in the back entry, a
row of them all tipped against the wall, as usual; while the frozen witticisms of past generations were thawed out, and came bubbling with laughter from their lips. Externally, the jollity of aged men has much in common
with the mirth of children; the intellect, any more than a deep sense of
humor, has little to do with the matter; it is, with both, a gleam that plays
upon the surface, and imparts a sunny and cheery aspect alike to the green
branch, and gray, mouldering trunk. In one case, however, it is real sunshine; in the other, it more resembles the phosphorescent glow of decaying wood.
It would be sad injustice, the reader must understand, to represent all
my excellent old friends as in their dotage. In the first place, my coadjutors
were not invariably old; there were men among them in their strength and
prime, of marked ability and energy, and altogether superior to the sluggish and dependent mode of life on which their evil stars had cast them.
Then, moreover, the white locks of age were sometimes found to be the
thatch of an intellectual tenement in good repair. But, as respects the
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majority of my corps of veterans, there will be no wrong done, if I characterize them generally as a set of wearisome old souls, who had gathered
nothing worth preservation from their varied experience of life. They
seemed to have flung away all the golden grain of practical wisdom, which
they had enjoyed so many opportunities of harvesting, and most carefully
to have stored their memories with the husks. They spoke with far more
interest and unction of their morning’s breakfast, or yesterday’s, to-day’s,
or to-morrow’s dinner, than of the shipwreck of forty or fifty years ago, and
all the world’s wonders which they had witnessed with their youthful eyes.
The father of the Custom-House — the patriarch, not only of this little
squad of officials, but, I am bold to say, of the respectable body of tidewaiters all over the United States — was a certain permanent Inspector. He
might truly be termed a legitimate son of the revenue system, dyed in the
wool, or rather, born in the purple; since his sire, a Revolutionary colonel,
and formerly collector of the port, had created an office for him, and
appointed him to fill it, at a period of the early ages which few living men
can now remember. This Inspector, when I first knew him, was a man of
fourscore years,12 or thereabouts, and certainly one of the most wonderful
specimens of winter-green that you would be likely to discover in a lifetime’s search. With his florid cheek, his compact figure, smartly arrayed in
a bright-buttoned blue coat, his brisk and vigorous step, and his hale and
hearty aspect, altogether, he seemed — not young, indeed — but a kind of new
contrivance of Mother Nature in the shape of man, whom age and infirmity
had no business to touch. His voice and laugh, which perpetually re-echoed
through the Custom-House, had nothing of the tremulous quaver and
cackle of an old man’s utterance; they came strutting out of his lungs, like
the crow of a cock, or the blast of a clarion. Looking at him merely as an animal, — and there was very little else to look at, — he was a most satisfactory
object, from the thorough healthfulness and wholesomeness of his system,
and his capacity, at that extreme age, to enjoy all, or nearly all, the delights
which he had ever aimed at, or conceived of. The careless security of his life
in the Custom-House, on a regular income, and with but slight and infrequent apprehensions of removal, had no doubt contributed to make time
pass lightly over him. The original and more potent causes, however, lay in
the rare perfection of his animal nature, the moderate proportion of intellect, and the very trifling admixture of moral and spiritual ingredients;
12. fourscore years: Eighty years old. A score is a group of twenty items and is therefore the
equivalent of twenty years.
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these latter qualities, indeed, being in barely enough measure to keep the old
gentleman from walking on all-fours. He possessed no power of thought, no
depth of feeling, no troublesome sensibilities; nothing, in short, but a few
common-place instincts, which, aided by the cheerful temper that grew
inevitably out of his physical well-being, did duty very respectably, and to
general acceptance, in lieu of a heart. He had been the husband of three
wives, all long since dead; the father of twenty children, most of whom, at
every age of childhood or maturity, had likewise returned to dust. Here, one
would suppose, might have been sorrow enough to imbue the sunniest disposition, through and through, with a sable tinge. Not so with our old
Inspector! One brief sigh sufficed to carry off the entire burden of these
dismal reminiscences. The next moment, he was as ready for sport as any
unbreeched infant; far readier than the Collector’s junior clerk, who, at
nineteen years was much the elder and graver man of the two.
I used to watch and study this patriarchal personage with, I think,
livelier curiosity than any other form of humanity there presented to my
notice. He was, in truth, a rare phenomenon; so perfect in one point of view;
so shallow, so delusive, so impalpable, such an absolute nonentity, in every
other. My conclusion was that he had no soul, no heart, no mind; nothing,
as I have already said, but instincts; and yet, withal, so cunningly had the
few materials of his character been put together, that there was no painful
perception of deficiency, but, on my part, an entire contentment with what
I found in him. It might be difficult — and it was so — to conceive how he
should exist hereafter, so earthly and sensuous did he seem; but surely his
existence here, admitting that it was to terminate with his last breath, had
been not unkindly given; with no higher moral responsibilities than the
beasts of the field, but with a larger scope of enjoyment than theirs, and
with all their blessed immunity from the dreariness and duskiness of age.
One point, in which he had vastly the advantage over his four-footed
brethren, was his ability to recollect the good dinners which it had made
no small portion of the happiness of his life to eat. His gourmandism was
a highly agreeable trait; and to hear him talk of roast-meat was as appetizing as a pickle or an oyster. As he possessed no higher attribute, and neither sacrificed nor vitiated any spiritual endowment by devoting all his
energies and ingenuities to subserve the delight and profit of his maw, it
always pleased and satisfied me to hear him expatiate on fish, poultry, and
butcher’s meat, and the most eligible methods of preparing them for the
table. His reminiscences of good cheer, however ancient the date of the
actual banquet, seemed to bring the savor of pig or turkey under one’s very
nostrils. There were flavors on his palate, that had lingered there not less
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than sixty or seventy years, and were still apparently as fresh as that of the
mutton-chop which he had just devoured for his breakfast. I have heard
him smack his lips over dinners, every guest at which, except himself, had
long been food for worms. It was marvellous to observe how the ghosts of
bygone meals were continually rising up before him; not in anger or retribution, but as if grateful for his former appreciation, and seeking to reduplicate an endless series of enjoyment, at once shadowy and sensual. A
tenderloin of beef, a hind-quarter of veal, a spare-rib of pork, a particular
chicken, or a remarkably praiseworthy turkey, which had perhaps adorned
his board in the days of the elder Adams,13 would be remembered; while all
the subsequent experience of our race, and all the events that brightened
or darkened his individual career, had gone over him with as little permanent effect as the passing breeze. The chief tragic event of the old man’s
life, so far as I could judge, was his mishap with a certain goose, which
lived and died some twenty or forty years ago; a goose of most promising
figure, but which, at table, proved so inveterately tough that the carvingknife would make no impression on its carcass; and it could only be
divided with an axe and handsaw.
But it is time to quit this sketch; on which, however, I should be glad
to dwell at considerably more length, because, of all men whom I have ever
known, this individual was fittest to be a Custom-House officer. Most persons, owing to causes which I may not have space to hint at, suffer moral
detriment from this peculiar mode of life. The old Inspector was incapable
of it, and, were he to continue in office to the end of time, would be just as
good as he was then, and sit down to dinner with just as good an appetite.
There is one likeness, without which my gallery of Custom-House portraits would be strangely incomplete; but which my comparatively few
opportunities for observation enable me to sketch only in the merest outline. It is that of the Collector, our gallant old General, who, after his brilliant military service, subsequently to which he had ruled over a wild
Western territory, had come hither, twenty years before, to spend the
decline of his varied and honorable life. The brave soldier had already numbered, nearly or quite, his threescore years and ten, and was pursuing the
remainder of his earthly march, burdened with infirmities which even the
martial music of his own spirit-stirring recollections could do little towards
lightening. The step was palsied now, that had been foremost in the charge.
13. The elder Adams is John Adams, second president of the United States (1797–1801). The
turkey must have seemed very old indeed!
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It was only with the assistance of a servant, and by leaning his hand heavily on the iron balustrade, that he could slowly and painfully ascend the
Custom-House steps, and, with a toilsome progress across the floor, attain
his customary chair beside the fireplace. There he used to sit, gazing with
a somewhat dim serenity of aspect at the figures that came and went; amid
the rustle of papers, the administering of oaths, the discussion of business, and the casual talk of the office; all which sounds and circumstances
seemed but indistinctly to impress his senses, and hardly to make their way
into his inner sphere of contemplation. His countenance, in this repose,14
was mild and kindly. If his notice was sought, an expression of courtesy and
interest gleamed out upon his features; proving that there was light within
him, and that it was only the outward medium of the intellectual lamp that
obstructed the rays in their passage. The closer you penetrated to the substance of his mind, the sounder it appeared. When no longer called upon to
speak, or listen, either of which operations cost him an evident effort, his
face would briefly subside into its former not uncheerful quietude. It was
not painful to behold this look; for, though dim, it had not the imbecility of
decaying age. The framework of his nature, originally strong and massive,
was not yet crumbled into ruin.
To observe and define his character, however, under such disadvantages, was as difficult a task as to trace out and build up anew, in imagination, an old fortress, like Ticonderoga,15 from a view of its gray and
broken ruins. Here and there, perchance, the walls may remain almost
complete; but elsewhere may be only a shapeless mound, cumbrous with
its very strength, and overgrown, through long years of peace and neglect,
with grass and alien weeds.
Nevertheless, looking at the old warrior with affection, — for, slight as
was the communication between us, my feeling towards him, like that of all
bipeds and quadrupeds who knew him, might not improperly be termed
so, — I could discern the main points of his portrait. It was marked with the
noble and heroic qualities which showed it to be not a mere accident, but of
good right, that he had won a distinguished name. His spirit could never,
14. repose: Meaning to lie at rest, this word was frequently used by Hawthorne in connection
with his own authorship. Edgar Allan Poe also used this word to describe the “quiet, thoughtful,
[and] subdued” nature of Hawthorne’s works in an influential 1847 review of Twice-Told Tales.
15. Located ninety-five miles north of Albany, New York, on a neck of land between Lake
George and Lake Champlain, Fort Ticonderoga controlled the route between the Hudson
River Valley and Canada. It was the site of battles during the French and Indian wars and the
American Revolution.
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I conceive, have been characterized by an uneasy activity; it must, at any
period of his life, have required an impulse to set him in motion; but, once
stirred up, with obstacles to overcome, and an adequate object to be
attained, it was not in the man to give out or fail. The heat that had formerly
pervaded his nature, and which was not yet extinct, was never of the kind
that flashes and flickers in a blaze, but, rather, a deep, red glow, as of iron in
a furnace. Weight, solidity, firmness; this was the expression of his repose,
even in such decay as had crept untimely over him, at the period of which I
speak. But I could imagine, even then, that, under some excitement which
should go deeply into his consciousness, — roused by a trumpet-peal, loud
enough to awaken all of his energies that were not dead, but only slumbering, — he was yet capable of flinging off his infirmities like a sick man’s
gown, dropping the staff of age to seize a battle-sword, and starting up once
more a warrior. And, in so intense a moment, his demeanour would have
still been calm. Such an exhibition, however, was but to be pictured in
fancy; not to be anticipated, nor desired. What I saw in him — as evidently
as the indestructible ramparts of Old Ticonderoga, already cited as the
most appropriate simile — were the features of stubborn and ponderous
endurance, which might well have amounted to obstinacy in his earlier
days; of integrity, that, like most of his other endowments, lay in a somewhat heavy mass, and was just as unmalleable or unmanageable as a ton of
iron ore; and of benevolence, which, fiercely as he led the bayonets on at
Chippewa or Fort Erie,16 I take to be of quite as genuine a stamp as what
actuates any or all the polemical philanthropists of the age. He had slain
men with his own hand, for aught I know; — certainly, they had fallen, like
blades of grass at the sweep of the scythe, before the charge to which his
spirit imparted its triumphant energy; — but, be that as it might, there was
never in his heart so much cruelty as would have brushed the down off a
butterfly’s wing. I have not known the man, to whose innate kindliness I
would more confidently make an appeal.
Many characteristics — and those, too, which contribute not the least
forcibly to impart resemblance in a sketch — must have vanished, or been
obscured, before I met the General. All merely graceful attributes are usually the most evanescent; nor does Nature adorn the human ruin with blossoms of new beauty, that have their roots and proper nutriment only in the
chinks and crevices of decay, as she sows wall-flowers over the ruined
16. Important battlegrounds in the War of 1812.
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fortress of Ticonderoga. Still, even in respect of grace and beauty, there
were points well worth noting. A ray of humor, now and then, would make
its way through the veil of dim obstruction, and glimmer pleasantly upon
our faces. A trait of native elegance, seldom seen in the masculine character after childhood or early youth, was shown in the General’s fondness for
the sight and fragrance of flowers. An old soldier might be supposed to
prize only the bloody laurel on his brow; but here was one, who seemed to
have a young girl’s appreciation of the floral tribe.
There, beside the fireplace, the brave old General used to sit; while the
Surveyor — though seldom, when it could be avoided, taking upon himself
the difficult task of engaging him in conversation — was fond of standing at
a distance, and watching his quiet and almost slumberous countenance. He
seemed away from us, although we saw him but a few yards off; remote,
though we passed close beside his chair; unattainable, though we might
have stretched forth our hands and touched his own. It might be, that he
lived a more real life within his thoughts, than amid the unappropriate
environment of the Collector’s office. The evolutions of the parade; the
tumult of the battle; the flourish of old, heroic music, heard thirty years
before; — such scenes and sounds, perhaps, were all alive before his intellectual sense. Meanwhile, the merchants and ship-masters, the spruce
clerks, and uncouth sailors, entered and departed; the bustle of this commercial and Custom-House life kept up its little murmur round about him;
and neither with the men nor their affairs did the General appear to sustain
the most distant relation. He was as much out of place as an old sword —
now rusty, but which had flashed once in the battle’s front, and showed still
a bright gleam along its blade — would have been, among the inkstands,
paper-folders, and mahogany rulers, on the Deputy Collector’s desk.
There was one thing that much aided me in renewing and re-creating
the stalwart soldier of the Niagara frontier, — the man of true and simple
energy. It was the recollection of those memorable words of his, — “I’ll
try, Sir!”1 7 — spoken on the very verge of a desperate and heroic enterprise,
and breathing the soul and spirit of New England hardihood, comprehending all perils, and encountering all. If, in our country, valor were rewarded
by heraldic honor, this phrase — which it seems so easy to speak, but
which only he, with such a task of danger and glory before him, has ever
17. General Miller is best remembered for giving this response, as a young soldier, to the
daunting military assignment to take a British battery at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane during
the War of 1812.
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spoken — would be the best and fittest of all mottoes for the General’s
shield of arms.
It contributes greatly towards a man’s moral and intellectual health,
to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must
go out of himself to appreciate. The accidents of my life have often afforded
me this advantage, but never with more fulness and variety than during my
continuance in office. There was one man, especially, the observation of
whose character gave me a new idea of talent. His gifts were emphatically
those of a man of business; prompt, acute, clear-minded; with an eye that
saw through all perplexities, and a faculty of arrangement that made them
vanish, as by the waving of an enchanter’s wand. Bred up from boyhood in
the Custom-House, it was his proper field of activity; and the many intricacies of business, so harassing to the interloper, presented themselves
before him with the regularity of a perfectly comprehended system. In my
contemplation, he stood as the ideal of his class. He was, indeed, the
Custom-House in himself; or, at all events, the main-spring that kept its variously revolving wheels in motion; for, in an institution like this, where its
officers are appointed to subserve their own profit and convenience, and
seldom with a leading reference to their fitness for the duty to be performed, they must perforce seek elsewhere the dexterity which is not in
them. Thus, by an inevitable necessity, as a magnet attracts steel-filings, so
did our man of business draw to himself the difficulties which everybody
met with. With an easy condescension, and kind forbearance towards our
stupidity, — which, to his order of mind, must have seemed little short of
crime, — would he forthwith, by the merest touch of his finger, make the
incomprehensible as clear as daylight. The merchants valued him not less
than we, his esoteric friends. His integrity was perfect; it was a law of
nature with him, rather than a choice or a principle; nor can it be otherwise
than the main condition of an intellect so remarkably clear and accurate as
his, to be honest and regular in the administration of affairs. A stain on his
conscience, as to any thing that came within the range of his vocation,
would trouble such a man very much in the same way, though to a far
greater degree, than an error in the balance of an account, or an ink-blot on
the fair page of a book of record. Here, in a word, — and it is a rare instance
in my life, — I had met with a person thoroughly adapted to the situation
which he held.
Such were some of the people with whom I now found myself connected. I took it in good part at the hands of Providence, that I was thrown
into a position so little akin to my past habits; and set myself seriously to
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gather from it whatever profit was to be had. After my fellowship of toil
and impracticable schemes, with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm;18
after living for three years within the subtile influence of an intellect like
Emerson’s;19 after those wild, free days on the Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations beside our fire of fallen boughs, with Ellery Channing;
after talking with Thoreau about pine-trees and Indian relics, in his hermitage at Walden; after growing fastidious by sympathy with the classic
refinement of Hillard’s culture; after becoming imbued with poetic sentiment at Longfellow’s hearth-stone; — it was time, at length, that I should
exercise other faculties of my nature, and nourish myself with food for
which I had hitherto had little appetite. Even the old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott. I looked upon it
as an evidence, in some measure, of a system naturally well balanced, and
lacking no essential part of a thorough organization, that, with such associates to remember, I could mingle at once with men of altogether different qualities, and never murmur at the change.
Literature, its exertions and objects, were now of little moment in my
regard. I cared not, at this period, for books; they were apart from me.
Nature, — except it were human nature, — the nature that is developed in
earth and sky, was, in one sense, hidden from me; and all the imaginative
delight, wherewith it had been spiritualized, passed away out of my mind.
A gift, a faculty, if it had not been departed, was suspended and inanimate
within me. There would have been something sad, unutterably dreary, in
all this, had I not been conscious that it lay at my own option to recall
whatever was valuable in the past. It might be true, indeed, that this was a
life which could not, with impunity, be lived too long; else, it might make
me permanently other than I had been, without transforming me into any
shape which it would be worth my while to take. But I never considered it
as other than a transitory life. There was always a prophetic instinct, a low
whisper in my ear, that within no long period, and whenever a new change
of custom should be essential to my good, a change would come.
18. Founded in 1841 by George Ripley, Brook Farm, an experimental farming community in
West Roxbury, Massachusetts, was visited by a number of prominent Transcendentalists,
including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. Hawthorne lived there for eight
months in 1841, later writing about his experiences in The Blithedale Romance. The community was disbanded in 1847 shortly after its main building was destroyed by fire.
19. Emerson, Ellery Channing, Thoreau, Hillard, Longfellow, and Alcott were prominent literary Transcendentalists. Hawthorne is describing the Custom House as giving him “real
world” experience apart from the more rarefied literary world of Concord and Boston.
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Meanwhile, there I was, a Surveyor of the Revenue, and, so far as I
have been able to understand, as good a Surveyor as need be. A man of
thought, fancy, and sensibility, (had he ten times the Surveyor’s proportion
of those qualities,) may, at any time, be a man of affairs, if he will only
choose to give himself the trouble. My fellow-officers, and the merchants
and sea-captains with whom my official duties brought me into any manner
of connection, viewed me in no other light, and probably knew me in no
other character. None of them, I presume, had ever read a page of my inditing, or would have cared a fig the more for me if they had read them all; nor
would it have mended the matter, in the least, had those same unprofitable
pages been written with a pen like that of Burns or of Chaucer,20 each of
whom was a Custom-House officer in his day, as well as I. It is a good lesson — though it may often be a hard one — for a man who has dreamed of literary fame, and of making for himself a rank among the world’s dignitaries
by such means, to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are
recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at. I know not that I especially
needed the lesson, either in the way of warning or rebuke; but, at any rate, I
learned it thoroughly; nor, it gives me pleasure to reflect, did the truth, as it
came home to my perception, ever cost me a pang, or require to be thrown
off in a sigh. In the way of literary talk, it is true, the Naval Officer — an
excellent fellow, who came into office with me, and went out only a little
later — would often engage me in a discussion about one or the other of his
favorite topics, Napoleon or Shakespeare. The Collector’s junior clerk,
too, — a young gentleman who, it was whispered, occasionally covered a
sheet of Uncle Sam’s letter-paper with what (at the distance of a few yards,)
looked very much like poetry, — used now and then to speak to me of books,
as matters with which I might possibly be conversant. This was my all of lettered intercourse; and it was quite sufficient for my necessities.
No longer seeking nor caring that my name should be blazoned abroad
on title-pages, I smiled to think that it had now another kind of vogue. The
Custom-House marker imprinted it, with a stencil and black paint, on pepperbags, and baskets of anatto, and cigar-boxes, and bales of all kinds of
dutiable merchandise, in testimony that these commodities had paid the
impost, and gone regularly through the office. Borne on such queer vehicle
20. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer worked as Comptroller of the Customs for the port of
London. The Scottish poet Robert Burns worked for the Edinburgh Customs and Excise
Office from 1789 until his death in 1796.
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of fame, a knowledge of my existence, so far as a name conveys it, was carried where it had never been before, and, I hope, will never go again.
But the past was not dead. Once in a great while, the thoughts, that
had seemed so vital and so active, yet had been put to rest so quietly,
revived again. One of the most remarkable occasions, when the habit of
bygone days awoke in me, was that which brings it within the law of literary propriety to offer the public the sketch which I am now writing.
In the second story of the Custom-House, there is a large room, in
which the brick-work and naked rafters have never been covered with panelling and plaster. The edifice — originally projected on a scale adapted to
the old commercial enterprise of the port, and with an idea of subsequent
prosperity destined never to be realized — contains far more space than its
occupants know what to do with. This airy hall, therefore, over the Collector’s
apartments, remains unfinished to this day, and, in spite of the aged cobwebs that festoon its dusky beams, appears still to await the labor of the
carpenter and mason. At one end of the room, in a recess, were a number of
barrels, piled one upon another, containing bundles of official documents.
Large quantities of similar rubbish lay lumbering the floor. It was sorrowful to think how many days, and weeks, and months, and years of toil, had
been wasted on these musty papers, which were now only an encumbrance
on earth, and were hidden away in this forgotten corner, never more to be
glanced at by human eyes. But, then, what reams of other manuscripts —
filled, not with the dulness of official formalities, but with the thought of
inventive brains and the rich effusion of deep hearts — had gone equally to
oblivion; and that, moreover, without serving a purpose in their day, as
these heaped-up papers had, and — saddest of all — without purchasing for
their writers the comfortable livelihood which the clerks of the CustomHouse had gained by these worthless scratchings of the pen! Yet not altogether worthless, perhaps, as materials of local history. Here, no doubt,
statistics of the former commerce of Salem might be discovered, and
memorials of her princely merchants, — old King Derby, — old Billy Gray, —
old Simon Forrester, — and many another magnate in his day; whose powdered head, however, was scarcely in the tomb, before his mountain-pile of
wealth began to dwindle. The founders of the greater part of the families
which now compose the aristocracy of Salem might here be traced, from
the petty and obscure beginnings of their traffic, at periods generally
much posterior to the Revolution, upward to what their children look upon
as long-established rank.
Prior to the Revolution, there is a dearth of records; the earlier documents and archives of the Custom-House having, probably, been carried
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off to Halifax, when all the King’s officials accompanied the British army
in its flight from Boston. It has often been a matter of regret with me; for,
going back, perhaps, to the days of the Protectorate, those papers must
have contained many references to forgotten or remembered men, and to
antique customs, which would have affected me with the same pleasure as
when I used to pick up Indian arrow-heads in the field near the Old Manse.
But, one idle and rainy day, it was my fortune to make a discovery of
some little interest. Poking and burrowing into the heaped-up rubbish in
the corner; unfolding one and another document, and reading the names
of vessels that had long ago foundered at sea or rotted at the wharves, and
those of merchants, never heard of now on ’Change, nor very readily decipherable on their mossy tombstones; glancing at such matters with the
saddened, weary, half-reluctant interest which we bestow on the corpse of
dead activity, — and exerting my fancy, sluggish with little use, to raise up
from these dry bones an image of the old town’s brighter aspect, when
India was a new region, and only Salem knew the way thither, — I chanced
to lay my hand on a small package, carefully done up in a piece of ancient
yellow parchment. This envelope had the air of an official record of some
period long past, when clerks engrossed their stiff and formal chirography21 on more substantial materials than at present. There was something
about it that quickened an instinctive curiosity, and made me undo the
faded red tape, that tied up the package, with the sense that a treasure
would here be brought to light. Unbending the rigid folds of the parchment
cover, I found it to be a commission, under the hand and seal of Governor
Shirley,22 in favor of one Jonathan Pue, as Surveyor of his Majesty’s
Customs for the port of Salem, in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. I
remembered to have read (probably in Felt’s Annals)23 a notice of the
decease of Mr. Surveyor Pue,24 about fourscore years ago; and likewise, in
a newspaper of recent times, an account of the digging up of his remains
21. chirography: Handwriting or penmanship.
22. William Shirley (1694–1771) was a British lawyer and merchant’s son who became an
influential diplomat in New England. After acting as Surveyor of the King’s Wood, he was
governor of New England from 1741 to 1749 and 1753 to 1756 and was instrumental in various
economic and military conflicts with the French.
23. Joseph B. Felt wrote the Salem history book The Annals of Salem: From Its First
Settlement in 1827.
24. Though the rest of the anecdote is fictional, Jonathan Pue’s name is indeed mentioned in
Felt’s Annals, which records only that Pue assumed Surveyorship in 1752 and died March 24,
1760. Pue’s gravestone still stands in the yard of St. Peter’s Church.
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in the little grave-yard of St. Peter’s Church, during the renewal of that edifice. Nothing, if I rightly call to mind, was left of my respected predecessor,
save an imperfect skeleton, and some fragments of apparel, and a wig of
majestic frizzle; which, unlike the head that it once adorned, was in very
satisfactory preservation. But, on examining the papers which the parchment commission served to envelop, I found more traces of Mr. Pue’s mental part, and the internal operations of his head, than the frizzled wig had
contained of the venerable skull itself.
They were documents, in short, not official, but of a private nature,
or, at least, written in his private capacity, and apparently with his own
hand. I could account for their being included in the heap of CustomHouse lumber only by the fact, that Mr. Pue’s death had happened suddenly; and that these papers, which he probably kept in his official desk,
had never come to the knowledge of his heirs, or were supposed to relate to
the business of the revenue. On the transfer of the archives to Halifax, this
package, proving to be of no public concern, was left behind, and had
remained ever since unopened.
The ancient Surveyor — being little molested, I suppose, at that early
day, with business pertaining to his office — seems to have devoted some of
his many leisure hours to researches as a local antiquarian, and other
inquisitions of a similar nature. These supplied material for petty activity
to a mind that would otherwise have been eaten up with rust.
A portion of his facts, by the by, did me good service in the preparation of the article entitled “MAIN STREET,”25 included in the present volume. The remainder may perhaps be applied to purposes equally valuable,
hereafter, or not impossibly may be worked up, so far as they go, into a regular history of Salem, should my veneration for the natal soil ever impel
me to so pious a task. Meanwhile, they shall be at the command of any gentleman, inclined, and competent, to take the unprofitable labor off my
hands. As a final disposition, I contemplate depositing them with the
Essex Historical Society.26
25. “Main Street”: The title of a sketch about the history of Salem published by Hawthorne in
Elizabeth Peabody’s Aesthetic Papers in 1849. It was subsequently collected in The Snow
Image and Other Twice Told Tales (1851). Hawthorne originally intended to reprint it, along
with The Scarlet Letter and other short pieces, in a collection to be called “Old Time Legends.”
Hawthorne sent “The Custom-House” essay to his publisher, James T. Fields, on January 15,
1850. He did not send the final chapters of The Scarlet Letter until February 3.
26. Later known as the Essex Institute and now incorporated into the Peabody Essex Museum,
the Essex Historical Society was a landmark in Hawthorne’s Salem.
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But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were
traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and
defaced; so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left. It had been
wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and
the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives
evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of
picking out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth, — for time, and wear, and
a sacrilegious moth, had reduced it to little other than a rag, — on careful
examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A. By an
accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a
quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and
dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of
solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves
upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly, there
was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as
it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating
itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind.
While thus perplexed, — and cogitating, among other hypotheses,
whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the
white men used to contrive in order to take the eyes of Indians, — I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me, — the reader may smile, but
must not doubt my word, — it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if
the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.
In the absorbing contemplation of the scarlet letter, I had hitherto
neglected to examine a small roll of dingy paper, around which it had been
twisted. This I now opened, and had the satisfaction to find, recorded by the
old Surveyor’s pen, a reasonably complete explanation of the whole affair.
There were several foolscap sheets,27 containing many particulars respecting the life and conversation of one Hester Prynne, who appeared to have
been rather a noteworthy personage in the view of our ancestors. She had
flourished during a period between the early days of Massachusetts and
27. foolscap sheets: Sheets of writing or printing paper typically 16 13 inches in size,
named for the watermark of a dunce’s cap formerly applied to such paper.
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the close of the seventeenth century. Aged persons, alive in the time of
Mr. Surveyor Pue, and from whose oral testimony he had made up his narrative, remembered her, in their youth, as a very old, but not decrepit woman,
of a stately and solemn aspect. It had been her habit, from an almost immemorial date, to go about the country as a kind of voluntary nurse, and doing
whatever miscellaneous good she might; taking upon herself, likewise, to
give advice in all matters, especially those of the heart; by which means, as
a person of such propensities inevitably must, she gained from many people the reverence due to an angel, but, I should imagine, was looked upon by
others as an intruder and a nuisance. Prying farther into the manuscript, I
found the record of other doings and sufferings of this singular woman, for
most of which the reader is referred to the story entitled “THE SCARLET
LETTER”; and it should be borne carefully in mind, that the main facts
of that story are authorized and authenticated by the document of
Mr. Surveyor Pue. The original papers, together with the scarlet letter itself, —
a most curious relic, — are still in my possession, and shall be freely exhibited to whomsoever, induced by the great interest of the narrative, may
desire a sight of them. I must not be understood as affirming, that, in the
dressing up of the tale, and imagining the motives and modes of passion
that influenced the characters who figure in it, I have invariably confined
myself within the limits of the old Surveyor’s half a dozen sheets of
foolscap. On the contrary, I have allowed myself, as to such points, nearly or
altogether as much license as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention. What I contend for is the authenticity of the outline.
This incident recalled my mind, in some degree, to its old track. There
seemed to be here the groundwork of a tale. It impressed me as if the
ancient Surveyor, in his garb of a hundred years gone by, and wearing his
immortal wig, — which was buried with him, but did not perish in the
grave, — had met me in the deserted chamber of the Custom-House. In his
port was the dignity of one who had borne his Majesty’s commission, and
who was therefore illuminated by a ray of the splendor that shone so dazzlingly about the throne. How unlike, alas! the hang-dog look of a republican official, who, as the servant of the people, feels himself less than the
least, and below the lowest, of his masters. With his own ghostly hand, the
obscurely seen, but majestic, figure had imparted to me the scarlet symbol,
and the little roll of explanatory manuscript. With his own ghostly voice, he
had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty and reverence towards him, — who might reasonably regard himself as my official
ancestor, — to bring his mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations before the
public. “Do this,” said the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue, emphatically nodding
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the head that looked so imposing within its memorable wig, “do this, and
the profit shall be all your own! You will shortly need it; for it is not in your
days as it was in mine, when a man’s office was a life-lease, and oftentimes
an heirloom. But, I charge you, in this matter of old Mistress Prynne, give to
your predecessor’s memory the credit which will be rightfully its due!” And
I said to the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue, — “I will!”
On Hester Prynne’s story, therefore, I bestowed much thought. It was the
subject of my meditations for many an hour, while pacing to and fro across
my room, or traversing, with a hundredfold repetition, the long extent from
the front-door of the Custom-House to the side-entrance, and back again.
Great were the weariness and annoyance of the old Inspector and the Weighers
and Gaugers, whose slumbers were disturbed by the unmercifully lengthened
tramp of my passing and returning footsteps. Remembering their own former
habits, they used to say that the Surveyor was walking the quarter-deck. They
probably fancied that my sole object — and, indeed, the sole object for which
a sane man could ever put himself into voluntary motion — was, to get an
appetite for dinner. And to say the truth, an appetite, sharpened by the eastwind that generally blew along the passage, was the only valuable result of so
much indefatigable exercise. So little adapted is the atmosphere of a CustomHouse to the delicate harvest of fancy and sensibility, that, had I remained
there through ten Presidencies yet to come, I doubt whether the tale of “The
Scarlet Letter” would ever have been brought before the public eye. My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable
dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of
the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable, by any heat that I
could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead
corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. “What have you to do with us?” that expression seemed to say.
“The little power you might have once possessed over the tribe of unrealities
is gone! You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go, then, and
earn your wages!” In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion.
It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam
claimed as his share of my daily life, that this wretched numbness held possession of me. It went with me on my sea-shore walks and rambles into the
country, whenever — which was seldom and reluctantly — I bestirred myself
to seek that invigorating charm of Nature, which used to give me such freshness and activity of thought, the moment that I stepped across the threshold
of the Old Manse. The same torpor, as regarded the capacity for intellectual
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effort, accompanied me home, and weighed upon me in the chamber which I
most absurdly termed my study. Nor did it quit me when, late at night, I sat
in the deserted parlour, lighted only by the glimmering coal-fire and the
moon, striving to picture forth imaginary scenes, which, the next day, might
flow out on the brightening page in many-hued description.
If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an hour, it might well
be deemed a hopeless case. Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white
upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly, — making every
object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility, —
is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with
his illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of the well-known
apartment; the chairs, with each its separate individuality; the centretable, sustaining a work-basket, a volume or two, and an extinguished
lamp; the sofa; the book-case; the picture on the wall; — all these details, so
completely seen, are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem
to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing is
too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity
thereby. A child’s shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage; the
hobby-horse; — whatever, in a word, has been used or played with, during
the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness,
though still almost as vividly present as by daylight. Thus, therefore, the
floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere
between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary
may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might
enter here, without affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with
the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form,
beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic
moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had
returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.
The somewhat dim coal-fire has an essential influence in producing
the effect which I would describe. It throws its unobtrusive tinge throughout the room, with a faint ruddiness upon the walls and ceiling, and a
reflected gleam from the polish of the furniture. This warmer light mingles
itself with the cold spirituality of the moonbeams, and communicates, as it
were, a heart and sensibilities of human tenderness to the forms which
fancy summons up. It converts them from snow-images into men and
women. Glancing at the looking-glass, we behold — deep within its haunted
verge — the smouldering glow of the half-extinguished anthracite, the white
moonbeams on the floor, and a repetition of all the gleam and shadow of
the picture, with one remove farther from the actual, and nearer to the
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imaginative. Then, at such an hour, and with this scene before him, if a
man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look
like truth, he need never try to write romances.
But, for myself, during the whole of my Custom-House experience,
moonlight and sunshine, and the glow of fire-light, were just alike in my
regard; and neither of them was of one whit more avail than the twinkle of a
tallow-candle. An entire class of susceptibilities, and a gift connected with
them, — of no great richness or value, but the best I had, — was gone from me.
It is my belief, however, that, had I attempted a different order of composition, my faculties would not have been found so pointless and inefficacious. I might, for instance, have contented myself with writing out the
narratives of a veteran shipmaster, one of the Inspectors, whom I should be
most ungrateful not to mention; since scarcely a day passed that he did not
stir me to laughter and admiration by his marvellous gifts as a story-teller.
Could I have preserved the picturesque force of his style, and the humorous
coloring which nature taught him how to throw over his descriptions, the
result, I honestly believe, would have been something new in literature. Or I
might readily have found a more serious task. It was a folly, with the materiality of this daily life pressing so intrusively upon me, to attempt to fling
myself back into another age; or to insist on creating the semblance of a
world out of airy matter, when, at every moment, the impalpable beauty of
my soap-bubble was broken by the rude contact of some actual circumstance. The wiser effort would have been, to diffuse thought and imagination through the opaque substance of to-day, and thus to make it a bright
transparency; to spiritualize the burden that began to weigh so heavily; to
seek, resolutely, the true and indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty
and wearisome incidents, and ordinary characters, with which I was now
conversant. The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before
me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its
deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf
presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting
hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the
insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may
be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and
write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.
These perceptions have come too late. At the instant, I was only conscious that what would have been a pleasure once was now a hopeless toil.
There was no occasion to make much moan about this state of affairs. I had
ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a
tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs. That was all. But, nevertheless, it is
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any thing but agreeable to be haunted by a suspicion that one’s intellect is
dwindling away; or exhaling, without your consciousness, like ether out of
a phial; so that, at every glance, you find a smaller and less volatile residuum.
Of the fact, there could be no doubt; and, examining myself and others, I
was led to conclusions in reference to the effect of public office on the character, not very favorable to the mode of life in question. In some other form,
perhaps, I may hereafter develop these effects. Suffice it here to say that a
Custom-House officer, of long continuance, can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable personage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure by
which he holds his situation, and another, the very nature of his business,
which — though, I trust, an honest one — is of such a sort that he does not
share in the united effort of mankind.
An effect — which I believe to be observable, more or less, in every
individual who has occupied the position — is, that, while he leans on the
mighty arm of the Republic, his own proper strength departs from him. He
loses, in an extent proportioned to the weakness or force of his original
nature, the capability of self-support. If he possesses an unusual share of
native energy, or the enervating magic of place do not operate too long
upon him, his forfeited powers may be redeemable. The ejected officer —
fortunate in the unkindly shove that sends him forth betimes, to struggle
amid a struggling world — may return to himself, and become all that he
has ever been. But this seldom happens. He usually keeps his ground just
long enough for his own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews all
unstrung, to totter along the difficult footpath of life as he best may.
Conscious of his own infirmity, — that his tempered steel and elasticity are
lost, — he for ever afterwards looks wistfully about him in quest of support
external to himself. His pervading and continual hope — a hallucination,
which, in the face of all discouragement, and making light of impossibilities, haunts him while he lives, and, I fancy, like the convulsive throes of
the cholera, torments him for a brief space after death — is, that, finally,
and in no long time, by some happy coincidence of circumstances, he shall
be restored to office. This faith, more than any thing else, steals the pith
and availability out of whatever enterprise he may dream of undertaking.
Why should he toil and moil, and be at so much trouble to pick himself up
out of the mud, when, in a little while hence, the strong arm of his Uncle
will raise and support him? Why should he work for his living here, or go to
dig gold in California, when he is so soon to be made happy, at monthly
intervals, with a little pile of glittering coin out of his Uncle’s pocket? It is
sadly curious to observe how slight a taste of office suffices to infect
a poor fellow with this singular disease. Uncle Sam’s gold — meaning no
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disrespect to the worthy old gentleman — has, in this respect, a quality of
enchantment like that of the Devil’s wages. Whoever touches it should
look well to himself, or he may find the bargain to go hard against him,
involving, if not his soul, yet many of its better attributes; its sturdy force,
its courage and constancy, its truth, its self-reliance, and all that gives the
emphasis to manly character.
Here was a fine prospect in the distance! Not that the Surveyor brought
the lesson home to himself, or admitted that he could be so utterly undone,
either by continuance in office, or ejectment. Yet my reflections were not the
most comfortable. I began to grow melancholy and restless; continually prying into my mind, to discover which of its poor properties were gone, and
what degree of detriment had already accrued to the remainder. I endeavoured to calculate how much longer I could stay in the Custom-House, and
yet go forth a man. To confess the truth, it was my greatest apprehension, —
as it would never be a measure of policy to turn out so quiet an individual as
myself, and it being hardly in the nature of a public officer to resign, — it was
my chief trouble, therefore, that I was likely to grow gray and decrepit in the
Surveyorship, and become much such another animal as the old Inspector.
Might it not, in the tedious lapse of official life that lay before me, finally be
with me as it was with this venerable friend, — to make the dinner-hour the
nucleus of the day, and to spend the rest of it, as an old dog spends it, asleep
in the sunshine or the shade? A dreary look-forward this, for a man who felt
it to be the best definition of happiness to live throughout the whole range of
his faculties and sensibilities! But, all this while, I was giving myself very
unnecessary alarm. Providence had meditated better things for me than I
could possibly imagine for myself.
A remarkable event of the third year of my Surveyorship — to adopt the
tone of “P. P.”— was the election of General Taylor to the Presidency.28 It is
essential, in order to form29 a complete estimate of the advantages of official life, to view the incumbent at the in-coming of a hostile administration.
His position is then one of the most singularly irksome, and, in every contingency, disagreeable, that a wretched mortal can possibly occupy; with
28. Zachary Taylor (1784–1850), a career soldier who became particularly well known during
the Mexican War, became president in March 1849. Hawthorne, a Democrat whom opponents
saw as clashing with the new Whig administration, was removed from his position in the
Salem Custom House later that summer.
29. The word form was not included in the first and second editions of The Scarlet Letter, but
it has been added here to help the sentence make better sense. The word is also added in the
Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
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seldom an alternative of good, on either hand, although what presents itself
to him as the worst event may very probably be the best. But it is a strange
experience, to a man of pride and sensibility, to know that his interests are
within the control of individuals who neither love nor understand him, and
by whom, since one or the other must needs happen, he would rather be
injured than obliged. Strange, too, for one who has kept his calmness
throughout the contest, to observe the bloodthirstiness that is developed in
the hour of triumph, and to be conscious that he is himself among its
objects! There are few uglier traits of human nature than this tendency —
which I now witnessed in men no worse than their neighbours — to grow
cruel, merely because they possessed the power of inflicting harm. If the
guillotine, as applied to office-holders, were a literal fact, instead of one of
the most apt of metaphors, it is my sincere belief, that the active members
of the victorious party were sufficiently excited to have chopped off all our
heads, and have thanked Heaven for the opportunity! It appears to me — who
have been a calm and curious observer, as well in victory as defeat — that
this fierce and bitter spirit of malice and revenge has never distinguished
the many triumphs of my own party as it now did that of the Whigs. The
Democrats take the offices, as a general rule, because they need them, and
because the practice of many years has made it the law of political warfare,
which, unless a different system be proclaimed, it was weakness and cowardice to murmur at. But the long habit of victory has made them generous.
They know how to spare, when they see occasion; and when they strike, the
axe may be sharp, indeed, but its edge is seldom poisoned with ill-will; nor
is it their custom ignominiously to kick the head which they have just
struck off.
In short, unpleasant as was my predicament, at best, I saw much reason to congratulate myself that I was on the losing side, rather than the triumphant one. If, heretofore, I had been none of the warmest of partisans, I
began now, at this season of peril and adversity, to be pretty acutely sensible with which party my predilections lay; nor was it without something
like regret and shame, that, according to a reasonable calculation of
chances, I saw my own prospect of retaining office to be better than those
of my Democratic brethren. But who can see an inch into futurity, beyond
his nose? My own head was the first that fell!
The moment when a man’s head drops off is seldom or never, I am
inclined to think, precisely the most agreeable of his life. Nevertheless,
like the greater part of our misfortunes, even so serious a contingency
brings its remedy and consolation with it, if the sufferer will but make the
best, rather than the worst, of the accident which has befallen him. In my
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particular case, the consolatory topics were close at hand, and, indeed, had
suggested themselves to my meditations a considerable time before it was
requisite to use them. In view of my previous weariness of office, and
vague thoughts of resignation, my fortune somewhat resembled that of a
person who should entertain an idea of committing suicide, and, altogether beyond his hopes, meet with the good hap to be murdered. In the
Custom-House, as before in the Old Manse, I had spent three years; a term
long enough to rest a weary brain; long enough to break off old intellectual
habits, and make room for new ones; long enough, and too long, to have
lived in an unnatural state, doing what was really of no advantage nor
delight to any human being, and withholding myself from toil that would,
at least, have stilled an unquiet impulse in me. Then, moreover, as
regarded his unceremonious ejectment, the late Surveyor was not altogether ill-pleased to be recognized by the Whigs as an enemy; since his
inactivity in political affairs, — his tendency to roam, at will, in that broad
and quiet field where all mankind may meet, rather than confine himself
to those narrow paths where brethren of the same household must diverge
from one another, — had sometimes made it questionable with his brother
Democrats whether he was a friend. Now, after he had won the crown of
martyrdom, (though with no longer a head to wear it on,) the point might
be looked upon as settled. Finally, little heroic as he was, it seemed more
decorous to be overthrown in the downfall of the party with which he had
been content to stand, than to remain a forlorn survivor, when so many
worthier men were falling; and, at last, after subsisting for four years on
the mercy of a hostile administration, to be compelled then to define his
position anew, and claim the yet more humiliating mercy of a friendly one.
Meanwhile, the press had taken up my affair, and kept me, for a week
or two, careering through the public prints, in my decapitated state, like
Irving’s Headless Horseman;30 ghastly and grim, and longing to be buried,
as a political dead man ought. So much for my figurative self. The real
human being, all this time, with his head safely on his shoulders, had
brought himself to the comfortable conclusion, that every thing was for
the best; and, making an investment in ink, paper, and steel-pens, had
opened his long-disused writing-desk, and was again a literary man.
30. Washington Irving, a prominent American short story writer, is best known for “The
Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the story of a schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane who sees a headless horseman.
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Now it was, that the lucubrations of my ancient predecessor,
Mr. Surveyor Pue, came into play. Rusty through long idleness, some little
space was requisite before my intellectual machinery could be brought to
work upon the tale, with an effect in any degree satisfactory. Even yet,
though my thoughts were ultimately much absorbed in the task, it wears,
to my eye, a stern and sombre aspect; too much ungladdened by genial sunshine; too little relieved by the tender and familiar influences which
soften almost every scene of nature and real life, and, undoubtedly, should
soften every picture of them. This uncaptivating effect is perhaps due to
the period of hardly accomplished revolution, and still seething turmoil,
in which the story shaped itself. It is no indication, however, of a lack of
cheerfulness in the writer’s mind; for he was happier, while straying
through the gloom of these sunless fantasies, than at any time since he
had quitted the Old Manse. Some of the briefer articles, which contribute
to make up the volume, have likewise been written since my involuntary
withdrawal from the toils and honors of public life, and the remainder are
gleaned from annuals and magazines, of such antique date that they have
gone round the circle, and come back to novelty again.* Keeping up the
metaphor of the political guillotine, the whole may be considered as the
which I am now bringing to a close, if too autobiographical for a modest
person to publish in his lifetime, will readily be excused in a gentleman
who writes from beyond the grave. Peace be with all the world! My blessing
on my friends! My forgiveness to my enemies! For I am in the realm of
The life of the Custom-House lies like a dream behind me. The old
Inspector, — who, by the by, I regret to say, was overthrown and killed by a
horse, some time ago; else he would certainly have lived for ever, — he, and
all those other venerable personages who sat with him at the receipt of
custom, are but shadows in my view; white-headed and wrinkled images,
which my fancy used to sport with, and has now flung aside for ever. The
merchants, — Pingree, Phillips, Shepard, Upton, Kimball, Bertram, Hunt, —
these, and many other names, which had such a classic familiarity for my
ear six months ago, — these men of traffic, who seemed to occupy so important a position in the world, — how little time has it required to disconnect
me from them all, not merely in act, but recollection! It is with an effort
* At the time of writing this article, the author intended to publish, along with The Scarlet
Letter, several shorter tales and sketches. These it has been thought advisable to defer.
[Author’s note]
Intro to Scarlet Letter.qxd
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that I recall the figures and appellations of these few. Soon, likewise, my
old native town will loom upon me through the haze of memory, a mist
brooding over and around it; as if it were no portion of the real earth, but
an overgrown village in cloud-land, with only imaginary inhabitants to
people its wooden houses, and walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque prolixity of its main street. Henceforth, it ceases to be a reality of
my life. I am a citizen of somewhere else. My good townspeople will not
much regret me; for — though it has been as dear an object as any, in my literary efforts, to be of some importance in their eyes, and to win myself a
pleasant memory in this abode and burial-place of so many of my forefathers — there has never been, for me, the genial atmosphere which a literary man requires, in order to ripen the best harvest of his mind. I shall
do better amongst other faces; and these familiar ones, it need hardly be
said, will do just as well without me.
It may be, however, — O, transporting and triumphant thought! — that
the great-grandchildren of the present race may sometimes think kindly
of the scribbler of bygone days, when the antiquary of days to come, among
the sites memorable in the town’s history, shall point out the locality of
31. Hawthorne is here describing how he hopes that posterity will remember him. The town
pump will be worth pointing out, he muses, because of the ongoing popularity of his sketch,
“A Rill from the Town-Pump” (1835).
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Chapter I. The Prison-Door
A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray,
steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods,
and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice,
the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with
iron spikes.
The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue
and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized
it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In
accordance with this rule, it may safely be assumed that the forefathers
of Boston had built the first prison-house, somewhere in the vicinity
of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burialground, on Isaac Johnson’s lot, and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres in the old
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church-yard of King’s Chapel.32 Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years
after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with
weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to
its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of
its oaken door looked more antique than any thing else in the new world. Like
all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era.
Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was
a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-peru,33 and such
unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil
that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But, on
one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rosebush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be
imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he
went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in
token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.
This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history;
but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long
after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed
it, — or whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up
under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson,34 as she entered the
prison-door, — we shall not take upon us to determine. Finding it so
directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from
that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of
its flowers and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or
relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.
32. Built in 1688, King’s Chapel was the first Anglican church in Boston.
33. Burdock is a type of thistle. Pig-weed refers to a number of fast-growing leafy plants used
by some to feed pigs. Apple-peru is a weed from tropical America with white or blue flowers.
All are considered weeds.
34. Having followed the Puritans to Massachusetts in the 1630s, Ann Hutchinson (1591–1643)
caused controversy when she began holding “conventicles,” or lay religious meetings, in her
home, and “prophecying,” or giving inspired exposition of the scripture. Puritan leaders
eventually put her on trial for heresy and banished her and her family to Rhode Island.
Hawthorne had published a sketch about her in the Salem Gazette in 1830.
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Chapter II. The Market-Place
The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer
morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large
number of the inhabitants of Boston; all with their eyes intently fastened on
the iron-clamped oaken door. Amongst any other population, or at a later
period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the
bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful
business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated
execution of some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had
but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But, in that early severity of
the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be
drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant,35 or an undutiful child,
whom his parents had given over to the civil authority, was to be corrected at
the whipping-post. It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist,36 was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle or vagrant
Indian, whom the white man’s fire-water had made riotous about the streets,
was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest. It might be, too,
that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins,37 the bitter-tempered widow of the
magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. In either case, there was very much
the same solemnity of demeanour on the part of the spectators; as befitted a
people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose
character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and severest
acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful. Meagre,
indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from
such bystanders at the scaffold. On the other hand, a penalty which, in our
days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be
invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.
It was a circumstance to be noted, on the summer morning when our
story begins its course, that the women, of whom there were several in the
35. bond-servant: An individual who willingly binds himself or herself to a master for a particular length of time (often seven years) in exchange for a specific payment. In many cases,
this took the form of money for passage to America. Such a “seven years’ slave” greets Hester
Prynne at Governor Bellingham’s home in chapter 7.
36. Antinomianism attests that God’s grace frees individuals from the necessity of following
moral law, a position that the Puritans saw as the worst kind of heresy. On the Quakers, see note 8.
37. Hawthorne here incorporates another actual historical figure into his fiction. Ann
Hibbins was executed for witchcraft in 1656, although Puritan historians disagreed about
whether she was the widow of a merchant or a magistrate.
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crowd, appeared to take a peculiar interest in whatever penal infliction
might be expected to ensue. The age had not so much refinement, that any
sense of impropriety restrained the wearers of petticoat and farthingale38
from stepping forth into the public ways, and wedging their not unsubstantial persons, if occasion were, into the throng nearest to the scaffold
at an execution. Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in
those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding, than in their
fair descendants, separated from them by a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother has
transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate and briefer
beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not a character of less force and
solidity, than her own. The women, who were now standing about the
prison-door, stood within less than half a century of the period when the
man-like Elizabeth39 had been the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex. They were her countrywomen; and the beef and ale of their
native land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into
their composition. The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on broad
shoulders and well-developed busts, and on round and ruddy cheeks, that
had ripened in the far-off island, and had hardly yet grown paler or thinner
in the atmosphere of New England. There was, moreover, a boldness and
rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be,
that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport
or its volume of tone.
“Goodwives,” said a hard-featured dame of fifty, “I’ll tell ye a piece of
my mind. It would be greatly for the public behoof, if we women, being of
mature age and church-members in good repute, should have the handling
of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne. What think ye, gossips? If
the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot
together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not!”40
“People say,” said another, “that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her
godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have
come upon his congregation.”
38. Women. A farthingale is a type of hoop structure worn under a skirt to give it additional
39. Queen Elizabeth I of England was frequently criticized by her detractors for being manlike, both in person and in position.
40. trow not: Think not.
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“The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch, — that is a truth,” added a third autumnal matron. “At the very least,
they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead.
Madame Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she, — the
naughty baggage, — little will she care what they put upon the bodice of
her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!”
“Ah, but,” interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the
hand, “let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her
“What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her
gown, or the flesh of her forehead?” cried another female, the ugliest as
well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. “This woman has
brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there no law for it? Truly
there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives
and daughters go astray!”
“Mercy on us, goodwife,” exclaimed a man in the crowd, “is there no
virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows?
That is the hardest word yet! Hush, now, gossips; for the lock is turning in
the prison-door, and here comes Mistress Prynne herself.”
The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared, in
the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and
grisly presence of the town-beadle,41 with a sword by his side and his staff
of office in his hand. This personage prefigured and represented in his
aspect the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law, which it was
his business to administer in its final and closest application to the
offender. Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his
right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward
until, on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action
marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the
open air, as if by her own free-will. She bore in her arms a child, a baby of
some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from
the too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought it
acquainted only with the gray twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome
apartment of the prison.
41. town-beadle: An individual who was responsible for keeping order in the town and delivering official proclamations; a kind of town policeman or constable.
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When the young woman — the mother of this child — stood fully
revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the
infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought
or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one
token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the
baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a
glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and
neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with
an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared
the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in
accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed
by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large
scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity
of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a
marked brow and deep black eyes. She was lady-like, too, after the manner of
the feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace, which
is now recognized as its indication. And never had Hester Prynne appeared
more lady-like, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued
from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to
behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and
even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the
misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. It may be true, that, to
a sensitive observer, there was something exquisitely painful in it. Her attire,
which, indeed, she had wrought for the occasion, in prison, and had modelled
much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the
desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity.
But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer, —
so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with
Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time, —
was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated
upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary
relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.
“She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain,” remarked one of
the female spectators; “but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy,
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contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in
the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?”
“It were well,” muttered the most iron-visaged of the old dames, “if we
stripped Madam Hester’s rich gown off her dainty shoulders; and as for
the red letter, which she hath stitched so curiously, I’ll bestow a rag of
mine own rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one!”
“O, peace, neighbours, peace!” whispered their youngest companion.
“Do not let her hear you! Not a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she
has felt it in her heart.”
The grim beadle now made a gesture with his staff.
“Make way, good people, make way, in the King’s name,” cried he.
“Open a passage; and, I promise ye, Mistress Prynne shall be set where
man, woman, and child may have a fair sight of her brave apparel, from
this time till an hour past meridian. A blessing on the righteous Colony of
the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine! Come
along, Madam Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the market-place!”
A lane was forthwith opened through the crowd of spectators.
Preceded by the beadle, and attended by an irregular procession of
stern-browed men and unkindly-visaged women, Hester Prynne set forth
towards the place appointed for her punishment. A crowd of eager and
curious schoolboys, understanding little of the matter in hand, except that
it gave them a half-holiday, ran before her progress, turning their heads
continually to stare into her face, and at the winking baby in her arms, and
at the ignominious letter on her breast. It was no great distance, in those
days, from the prison-door to the market-place. Measured by the prisoner’s
experience, however, it might be reckoned a journey of some length; for,
haughty as her demeanour was, she perchance underwent an agony from
every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been
flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon. In our nature,
however, there is a provision, alike marvellous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures by its present
torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it. With almost a serene
deportment, therefore, Hester Prynne passed through this portion of her
ordeal, and came to a sort of scaffold, at the western extremity of the
market-place. It stood nearly beneath the eaves of Boston’s earliest
church, and appeared to be a fixture there.
In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine, which
now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an
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agent in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the guillotine
among the terrorists of France. It was, in short, the platform of the pillory;42 and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so
fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it
up to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made
manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage,
methinks, against our common nature, — whatever be the delinquencies of
the individual, — no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to
hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do. In
Hester Prynne’s instance, however, as not unfrequently in other cases, her
sentence bore, that she should stand a certain time upon the platform, but
without undergoing that gripe about the neck and confinement of the
head, the proneness to which was the most devilish characteristic of this
ugly engine. Knowing well her part, she ascended a flight of wooden steps,
and was thus displayed to the surrounding multitude, at about the height
of a man’s shoulders above the street.
Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have
seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and
with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of
Divine Maternity, which so many illustrious painters have vied with one
another to represent; something which should remind him, indeed, but
only by contrast, of that sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant
was to redeem the world. Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the
most sacred quality of human life, working such effect, that the world was
only the darker for this woman’s beauty, and the more lost for the infant
that she had borne.
The scene was not without a mixture of awe, such as must always invest
the spectacle of guilt and shame in a fellow-creature, before society shall have
grown corrupt enough to smile, instead of shuddering, at it. The witnesses of
Hester Prynne’s disgrace had not yet passed beyond their simplicity. They
were stern enough to look upon her death, had that been the sentence, without a murmur at its severity, but had none of the heartlessness of another
42. pillory: A device for public punishment that is very similar to stocks. While stocks lock a
prisoner’s hands and feet in place with hinged boards, a pillory forces prisoners to remain
standing with their necks and hands placed through holes in a board. Of the two, the pillory
is much more cruel because prisoners often sustained neck injuries and were unable to
defend themselves from anything thrown by the crowd. Pillories were generally placed on
raised platforms in public areas.
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social state, which would find only a theme for jest in an exhibition like the
present. Even had there been a disposition to turn the matter into ridicule, it
must have been repressed and overpowered by the solemn presence of men no
less dignified than the Governor, and several of his counsellors, a judge, a
general, and the ministers of the town; all of whom sat or stood in a balcony of
the meeting-house, looking down upon the platform. When such personages
could constitute a part of the spectacle, without risking the majesty or reverence of rank and office, it was safely to be inferred that the infliction of a legal
sentence would have an earnest and effectual meaning. Accordingly, the
crowd was sombre and grave. The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a
woman might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and concentrated at her bosom. It was almost intolerable to
be borne. Of an impulsive and passionate nature, she had fortified herself
to encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely, wreaking
itself in every variety of insult; but there was a quality so much more terrible
in the solemn mood of the popular mind, that she longed rather to behold all
those rigid countenances contorted with scornful merriment, and herself the
object. Had a roar of laughter burst from the multitude, — each man, each
woman, each little shrill-voiced child, contributing their individual parts, —
Hester Prynne might have repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful smile.
But, under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to endure, she felt, at
moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of her lungs, and
cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once.
Yet there were intervals when the whole scene, in which she was the
most conspicuous object, seemed to vanish from her eyes, or, at least,
glimmered indistinctly before them, like a mass of imperfectly shaped and
spectral images. Her mind, and especially her memory, was preternaturally active, and kept bringing up other scenes than this roughly hewn
street of a little town, on the edge of the Western wilderness; other faces
than were lowering upon her from beneath the brims of those steeplecrowned hats. Reminiscences, the most trifling and immaterial, passages
of infancy and school-days, sports, childish quarrels, and the little domestic traits of her maiden years, came swarming back upon her, intermingled with recollections of whatever was gravest in her subsequent life; one
picture precisely as vivid as another; as if all were of similar importance,
or all alike a play. Possibly, it was an instinctive device of her spirit to
relieve itself, by the exhibition of these phantasmagoric forms, from the
cruel weight and hardness of the reality.
Be that as it might, the scaffold of the pillory was a point of view
that revealed to Hester Prynne the entire track along which she had been
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treading, since her happy infancy. Standing on that miserable eminence,
she saw again her native village, in Old England, and her paternal home; a
decayed house of gray stone, with a poverty-stricken aspect, but retaining
a half-obliterated shield of arms over the portal, in token of antique gentility. She saw her father’s face, with its bold brow, and reverend white
beard, that flowed over the old-fashioned Elizabethan ruff; her mother’s,
too, with the look of heedful and anxious love which it always wore in her
remembrance, and which, even since her death, had so often laid the
impediment of a gentle remonstrance in her daughter’s pathway. She saw
her own face, glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating all the interior
of the dusky mirror in which she had been wont to gaze at it. There she
beheld another countenance, of a man well stricken in years, a pale, thin,
scholar-like visage, with eyes dim and bleared by the lamp-light that had
served them to pore over many ponderous books. Yet those same bleared
optics had a strange, penetrating power, when it was their owner’s purpose to read the human soul. This figure of the study and the cloister, as
Hester Prynne’s womanly fancy failed not to recall, was slightly deformed,
with the left shoulder a trifle higher than the right. Next rose before her, in
memory’s picture-gallery, the intricate and narrow thoroughfares, the tall,
gray houses, the huge cathedrals, and the public edifices, ancient in date
and quaint in architecture, of a Continental city;43 where a new life had
awaited her, still in connection with the misshapen scholar; a new life, but
feeding itself on time-worn materials, like a tuft of green moss on a crumbling wall. Lastly, in lieu of these shifting scenes, came back the rude
market-place of the Puritan settlement, with all the townspeople assembled and levelling their stern regards at Hester Prynne, — yes, at herself, —
who stood on the scaffold of the pillory, an infant on her arm, and the letter
A, in scarlet, fantastically embroidered with gold thread, upon her bosom!
Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that
it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and
even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the
shame were real. Yes! — these were her realities, — all else had vanished!
43. Amsterdam. Many English Puritans also emigrated to Holland.
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Chapter III. The Recognition
Chapter III. The Recognition
From this intense consciousness of being the object of severe and universal observation, the wearer of the scarlet letter was at length relieved
by discerning, on the outskirts of the crowd, a figure which irresistibly
took possession of her thoughts. An Indian, in his native garb, was standing there; but the red men were not so infrequent visitors of the English
settlements, that one of them would have attracted any notice from Hester
Prynne, at such a time; much less would he have excluded all other objects
and ideas from her mind. By the Indian’s side, and evidently sustaining a
companionship with him, stood a white man, clad in a strange disarray of
civilized and savage costume.
He was small in stature, with a furrowed visage, which, as yet, could
hardly be termed aged. There was a remarkable intelligence in his features, as of a person who had so cultivated his mental part that it could not
fail to mould the physical to itself, and become manifest by unmistakable
tokens. Although, by a seemingly careless arrangement of his heterogeneous garb, he had endeavoured to conceal or abate the peculiarity, it was
sufficiently evident to Hester Prynne, that one of this man’s shoulders
rose higher than the other. Again, at the first instant of perceiving that
thin visage, and the slight deformity of the figure, she pressed her infant
to her bosom, with so convulsive a force that the poor babe uttered another
cry of pain. But the mother did not seem to hear it.
At his arrival in the market-place, and some time before she saw him,
the stranger had bent his eyes on Hester Prynne. It was carelessly, at first,
like a man chiefly accustomed to look inward, and to whom external matters
are of little value and import, unless they bear relation to something within
his mind. Very soon, however, his look became keen and penetrative. A
writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly
over them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions
in open sight. His face darkened with some powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an effort of his will, that, save at
a single moment, its expression might have passed for calmness. After a brief
space, the convulsion grew almost imperceptible, and finally subsided into
the depths of his nature. When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne fastened
on his own, and saw that she appeared to recognize him, he slowly and calmly
raised his finger, made a gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips.
Then, touching the shoulder of a townsman who stood near to him, he
addressed him in a formal and courteous manner.
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“I pray you, good Sir,” said he, “who is this woman? — and wherefore is
she here set up to public shame?”
“You must needs be a stranger in this region, friend,” answered the
townsman, looking curiously at the questioner and his savage companion;
“else you would surely have heard of Mistress Hester Prynne, and her evil
doings. She hath raised a great scandal, I promise you, in godly Master
Dimmesdale’s church.”
“You say truly,” replied the other. “I am a stranger, and have been a wanderer, sorely against my will. I have met with grievous mishaps by sea and
land, and have been long held in bonds among the heathen-folk, to the southward; and am now brought hither by this Indian, to be redeemed out of my
captivity.44 Will it please you, therefore, to tell me of Hester Prynne’s, — have
I her name rightly? — of this woman’s offences, and what has brought her to
yonder scaffold?”
“Truly, friend, and methinks it must gladden your heart, after your
troubles and sojourn in the wilderness,” said the townsman, “to find yourself, at length, in a land where iniquity is searched out, and punished in the
sight of rulers and people, as here in our godly New England. Yonder woman,
Sir, you must know, was the wife of a certain learned man, English by birth,
but who had long dwelt in Amsterdam, whence, some good time agone, he
was minded to cross over and cast in his lot with us of the Massachusetts. To
this purpose, he sent his wife before him, remaining himself to look after
some necessary affairs. Marry, good Sir, in some two years, or less, that the
woman has been a dweller here in Boston, no tidings have come of this
learned gentleman, Master Prynne; and his young wife, look you, being left
to her own misguidance — — ”
“Ah! — aha! — I conceive you,” said the stranger with a bitter smile. “So
learned a man as you speak of should have learned this too in his books.
And who, by your favor, Sir, may be the father of yonder babe — it is some
three or four months old, I should judge — which Mistress Prynne is holding in her arms?”
44. Chillingworth has been held as a captive, or prisoner, by the Native Americans, and has
now been brought to Boston to be freed in return for ransom money. This scene thus hearkens back to Puritan captivity narratives, by Mary Rowlandson and others, that give first-person accounts of colonists’ experience with the Native Americans. These narratives also
frequently invoke redemption in its biblical sense: Just as slaves could be bought out of captivity by the payment of a particular debt, Christians believe that the death of Jesus pays for
the inevitable punishment for sinful lives.
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“Of a truth, friend, that matter remaineth a riddle; and the Daniel who
shall expound it45 is yet a-wanting,” answered the townsman. “Madam Hester
absolutely refuseth to speak, and the magistrates have laid their heads
together in vain. Peradventure the guilty one stands looking on at this sad
spectacle, unknown of man, and forgetting that God sees him.”
“The learned man,” observed the stranger, with another smile, “should
come himself to look into the mystery.”
“It behooves him well, if he be still in life,” responded the townsman.
“Now, good Sir, our Massachusetts magistracy, bethinking themselves
that this woman is youthful and fair, and doubtless was strongly tempted
to her fall; — and that, moreover, as is most likely, her husband may be at
the bottom of the sea; — they have not been bold to put in force the extremity of our righteous law against her. The penalty thereof is death. But, in
their great mercy and tenderness of heart, they have doomed Mistress
Prynne to stand only a space of three hours on the platform of the pillory,
and then and thereafter, for the remainder of her natural life, to wear a
mark of shame upon her bosom.”
“A wise sentence!” remarked the stranger, gravely bowing his head.
“Thus she will be a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter
be engraved upon her tombstone. It irks me, nevertheless, that the partner
of her iniquity should not, at least, stand on the scaffold by her side. But he
will be known! — he will be known! — he will be known!”
He bowed courteously to the communicative townsman, and, whispering a few words to his Indian attendant, they both made their way
through the crowd.
While this passed, Hester Prynne had been standing on her pedestal,
still with a fixed gaze towards the stranger; so fixed a gaze, that, at moments
of intense absorption, all other objects in the visible world seemed to vanish, leaving only him and her. Such an interview, perhaps, would have been
more terrible than even to meet him as she now did, with the hot, midday
sun burning down upon her face, and lighting up its shame; with the
scarlet token of infamy on her breast; with the sin-born infant in her
arms; with a whole people, drawn forth as to a festival, staring at the
features that should have been seen only in the quiet gleam of the fireside,
in the happy shadow of a home, or beneath a matronly veil, at church.
45. The biblical book of Daniel tells the story of an Old Testament prophet at the time of
the Persian empire who was known for interpreting dreams and, in one case, divine writing
on a wall.
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Dreadful as it was, she was conscious of a shelter in the presence of
these thousand witnesses. It was better to stand thus, with so many
betwixt him and her, than to greet him, face to face, they two alone. She
fled for refuge, as it were, to the public exposure, and dreaded the moment
when its protection should be withdrawn from her. Involved in these
thoughts, she scarcely heard a voice behind her until it had repeated her
name more than once, in a loud and solemn tone, audible to the whole
“Hearken unto me, Hester Prynne!” said the voice.
It has already been noticed, that directly over the platform on which
Hester Prynne stood was a kind of balcony, or open gallery, appended to
the meeting-house. It was the place whence proclamations were wont to be
made, amidst an assemblage of the magistracy, with all the ceremonial
that attended such public observances in those days. Here, to witness the
scene which we are describing, sat Governor Bellingham46 himself, with
four sergeants about his chair, bearing halberds, as a guard of honor. He
wore a dark feather in his hat, a border of embroidery on his cloak, and a
black velvet tunic beneath; a gentleman advanced in years, and with a
hard experience written in his wrinkles. He was not ill fitted to be the head
and representative of a community, which owed its origin and progress,
and its present state of development, not to the impulses of youth, but to
the stern and tempered energies of manhood, and the sombre sagacity of
age; accomplishing so much, precisely because it imagined and hoped so
little. The other eminent characters, by whom the chief ruler was surrounded, were distinguished by a dignity of mien, belonging to a period
when the forms of authority were felt to possess the sacredness of divine
institutions. They were, doubtless, good men, just, and sage. But, out of
the whole human family, it would not have been easy to select the same
number of wise and virtuous persons, who should be less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman’s heart, and disentangling its mesh
of good and evil, than the sages of rigid aspect towards whom Hester
Prynne now turned her face. She seemed conscious, indeed, that whatever
sympathy she might expect lay in the larger and warmer heart of the multitude; for, as she lifted her eyes towards the balcony, the unhappy woman
grew pale and trembled.
46. Originally a lawyer, Richard Bellingham emigrated from England to Boston in 1634,
eventually serving as magistrate and then governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was
succeeded by John Winthrop.
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The voice which had called her attention was that of the reverend and
famous John Wilson,47 the eldest clergyman of Boston, a great scholar,
like most of his contemporaries in the profession, and withal a man of
kind and genial spirit. This last attribute, however, had been less carefully
developed than his intellectual gifts, and was, in truth, rather a matter of
shame than self-congratulation with him. There he stood, with a border of
grizzled locks beneath his skull-cap; while his gray eyes, accustomed to
the shaded light of his study, were winking, like those of Hester’s infant, in
the unadulterated sunshine. He looked like the darkly engraved portraits
which we see prefixed to old volumes of sermons; and had no more right
than one of those portraits would have, to step forth, as he now did, and
meddle with a question of human guilt, passion, and anguish.
“Hester Prynne,” said the clergyman, “I have striven with my young
brother here, under whose preaching of the word you have been privileged
to sit,” — here Mr. Wilson laid his hand on the shoulder of a pale young man
beside him, — “I have sought, I say, to persuade this godly youth, that he
should deal with you, here in the face of Heaven, and before these wise and
upright rulers, and in hearing of all the people, as touching the vileness
and blackness of your sin. Knowing your natural temper better than I, he
could the better judge what arguments to use, whether of tenderness or
terror, such as might prevail over your hardness and obstinacy; insomuch
that you should no longer hide the name of him who tempted you to this
grievous fall. But he opposes to me, (with a young man’s over-softness,
albeit wise beyond his years,) that it were wronging the very nature of
woman to force her to lay open her heart’s secrets in such broad daylight,
and in presence of so great a multitude. Truly, as I sought to convince him,
the shame lay in the commission of the sin, and not in the showing of it
forth. What say you to it, once again, brother Dimmesdale? Must it be thou
or I that shall deal with this poor sinner’s soul?”
There was a murmur among the dignified and reverend occupants of
the balcony; and Governor Bellingham gave expression to its purport, speaking in an authoritative voice, although tempered with respect towards the
youthful clergyman whom he addressed.
“Good Master Dimmesdale,” said he, “the responsibility of this
woman’s soul lies greatly with you. It behooves you, therefore, to exhort
her to repentance, and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof.”
47. After becoming one of the earliest Puritan settlers of Massachusetts in 1630, John Wilson
became a leading minister.
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The directness of this appeal drew the eyes of the whole crowd upon
the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale; a young clergyman, who had come from
one of the great English universities, bringing all the learning of the age
into our wild forest-land. His eloquence and religious fervor had already
given the earnest of high eminence in his profession. He was a person of
very striking aspect, with a white, lofty, and impending brow, large, brown,
melancholy eyes, and a mouth which, unless when he forcibly compressed
it, was apt to be tremulous, expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast
power of self-restraint. Notwithstanding his high native gifts and scholarlike attainments, there was an air about this young minister, — an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look, — as of a being who felt himself
quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human existence, and could
only be at ease in some seclusion of his own. Therefore, so far as his duties
would permit, he trode in the shadowy by-paths, and thus kept himself
simple and childlike; coming forth, when occasion was, with a freshness,
and fragrance, and dewy purity of thought, which, as many people said,
affected them like the speech of an angel.
Such was the young man whom the Reverend Mr. Wilson and the
Governor had introduced so openly to the public notice, bidding him speak,
in the hearing of all men, to that mystery of a woman’s soul, so sacred even
in its pollution. The trying nature of his position drove the blood from his
cheek, and made his lips tremulous.
“Speak to the woman, my brother,” said Mr. Wilson. “It is of moment
to her soul, and therefore, as the worshipful Governor says, momentous to
thine own, in whose charge hers is. Exhort her to confess the truth!”
The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale bent his head, in silent prayer, as it
seemed, and then came forward.
“Hester Prynne,” said he, leaning over the balcony, and looking down
steadfastly into her eyes, “thou hearest what this good man says, and seest
the accountability under which I labor. If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s
peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual
to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and
fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for
him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place,
and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so,
than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him,
except it tempt him — yea, compel him, as it were — to add hypocrisy to sin?
Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou mayest
work out an open triumph over the evil within thee, and the sorrow without.
Take heed how thou deniest to him — who, perchance, hath not the courage
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to grasp it for himself — the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!”
The young pastor’s voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken. The feeling that it so evidently manifested, rather than the direct purport of the words, caused it to vibrate within all hearts, and brought the
listeners into one accord of sympathy. Even the poor baby, at Hester’s
bosom, was affected by the same influence; for it directed its hitherto
vacant gaze towards Mr. Dimmesdale, and held up its little arms, with a
half pleased, half plaintive murmur. So powerful seemed the minister’s
appeal, that the people could not believe but that Hester Prynne would
speak out the guilty name; or else that the guilty one himself, in whatever
high or lowly place he stood, would be drawn forth by an inward and
inevitable necessity, and compelled to ascend the scaffold.
Hester shook her head.
“Woman, transgress not beyond the limits of Heaven’s mercy!” cried
the Reverend Mr. Wilson, more harshly than before. “That little babe hath
been gifted with a voice, to second and confirm the counsel which thou
hast heard. Speak out the name! That, and thy repentance, may avail to
take the scarlet letter off thy breast.”
“Never!” replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into
the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman. “It is too deeply
branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as
well as mine!”
“Speak, woman!” said another voice, coldly and sternly, proceeding
from the crowd about the scaffold. “Speak; and give your child a father!”
“I will not speak!” answered Hester, turning pale as death, but
responding to this voice, which she too surely recognized. “And my child
must seek a heavenly Father; she shall never know an earthly one!”
“She will not speak!” murmured Mr. Dimmesdale, who, leaning over
the balcony, with his hand upon his heart, had awaited the result of his
appeal. He now drew back, with a long respiration. “Wondrous strength
and generosity of a woman’s heart! She will not speak!”
Discerning the impracticable state of the poor culprit’s mind, the
elder clergyman, who had carefully prepared himself for the occasion,
addressed to the multitude a discourse on sin, in all its branches, but with
continual reference to the ignominious letter. So forcibly did he dwell upon
this symbol, for the hour or more during which his periods were rolling over
the people’s heads, that it assumed new terrors in their imagination, and
seemed to derive its scarlet hue from the flames of the infernal pit. Hester
Prynne, meanwhile, kept her place upon the pedestal of shame, with glazed
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eyes, and an air of weary indifference. She had borne, that morning, all that
nature could endure; and as her temperament was not of the order that
escapes from too intense suffering by a swoon, her spirit could only shelter
itself beneath a stony crust of insensibility, while the faculties of animal
life remained entire. In this state, the voice of the preacher thundered
remorselessly, but unavailingly, upon her ears. The infant, during the latter
portion of her ordeal, pierced the air with its wailings and screams; she
strove to hush it, mechanically, but seemed scarcely to sympathize with its
trouble. With the same hard demeanour, she was led back to prison, and
vanished from the public gaze within its iron-clamped portal. It was whispered, by those who peered after her, that the scarlet letter threw a lurid
gleam along the dark passage-way of the interior.
Chapter IV. The Interview
After her return to the prison, Hester Prynne was found to be in a state
of nervous excitement that demanded constant watchfulness, lest she
should perpetrate violence on herself, or do some half-frenzied mischief to
the poor babe. As night approached, it proving impossible to quell her
insubordination by rebuke or threats of punishment, Master Brackett, the
jailer, thought fit to introduce a physician. He described him as a man of
skill in all Christian modes of physical science, and likewise familiar with
whatever the savage people could teach, in respect to medicinal herbs and
roots that grew in the forest. To say the truth, there was much need of professional assistance, not merely for Hester herself, but still more urgently
for the child; who, drawing its sustenance from the maternal bosom, seemed
to have drank in with it all the turmoil, the anguish, and despair, which
pervaded the mother’s system. It now writhed in convulsions of pain, and
was a forcible type, in its little frame, of the moral agony which Hester
Prynne had borne throughout the day.
Closely following the jailer into the dismal apartment, appeared that
individual, of singular aspect, whose presence in the crowd had been of such
deep interest to the wearer of the scarlet letter. He was lodged in the prison,
not as suspected of any offence, but as the most convenient and suitable
mode of disposing of him, until the magistrates should have conferred with
the Indian sagamores respecting his ransom. His name was announced as
Roger Chillingworth. The jailer, after ushering him into the room, remained
a moment, marvelling at the comparative quiet that followed his entrance;
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for Hester Prynne had immediately become as still as death, although the
child continued to moan.
“Prithee, friend, leave me alone with my patient,” said the practitioner. “Trust me, good jailer, you shall briefly have peace in your house;
and, I promise you, Mistress Prynne shall hereafter be more amenable to
just authority than you may have found her heretofore.”
“Nay, if your worship can accomplish that,” answered Master Brackett,
“I shall own you for a man of skill indeed! Verily, the woman hath been like
a possessed one; and there lacks little, that I should take in hand to drive
Satan out of her with stripes.”
The stranger had entered the room with the characteristic quietude
of the profession to which he announced himself as belonging. Nor did
his demeanour change, when the withdrawal of the prison-keeper left him
face to face with the woman, whose absorbed notice of him, in the crowd,
had intimated so close a relation between himself and her. His first care
was given to the child; whose cries, indeed, as she lay writhing on the
trundle-bed, made it of peremptory necessity to postpone all other business to the task of soothing her. He examined the infant carefully, and
then proceeded to unclasp a leathern case, which he took from beneath his
dress. It appeared to contain certain medical preparations, one of which
he mingled with a cup of water.
“My old studies in alchemy,” observed he, “and my sojourn, for above
a year past, among a people well versed in the kindly properties of simples,
have made a better physician of me than many that claim the medical degree.
Here, woman! The child is yours, — she is none of mine, — neither will she
recognize my voice or aspect as a father’s. Administer this draught, therefore, with thine own hand.”
Hester repelled the offered medicine, at the same time gazing with
strongly marked apprehension into his face.
“Wouldst thou avenge thyself on the innocent babe?” whispered she.
“Foolish woman!” responded the physician, half coldly, half soothingly.
“What should ail me to harm this misbegotten and miserable babe? The
medicine is potent for good; and were it my child, — yea, mine own, as well
as thine! — I could do no better for it.”
As she still hesitated, being, in fact, in no reasonable state of mind,
he took the infant in his arms, and himself administered the draught. It
soon proved its efficacy, and redeemed the leech’s pledge. The moans of the
little patient subsided; its convulsive tossings gradually ceased; and in a
few moments, as is the custom of young children after relief from pain, it
sank into a profound and dewy slumber. The physician, as he had a fair
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right to be termed, next bestowed his attention on the mother. With calm
and intent scrutiny, he felt her pulse, looked into her eyes, — a gaze that made
her heart shrink and shudder, because so familiar, and yet so strange and
cold, — and, finally, satisfied with his investigation, proceeded to mingle
another draught.
“I know not Lethe nor Nepenthe,”48 remarked he; “but I have learned
many new secrets in the wilderness, and here is one of them, — a recipe that
an Indian taught me, in requital of some lessons of my own, that were as
old as Paracelsus.49 Drink it! It may be less soothing than a sinless conscience. That I cannot give thee. But it will calm the swell and heaving of
thy passion, like oil thrown on the waves of a tempestuous sea.”
He presented the cup to Hester, who received it with a slow, earnest
look into his face; not precisely a look of fear, yet full of doubt and questioning, as to what his purposes might be. She looked also at her slumbering
“I have thought of death,” said she, — “have wished for it, — would even
have prayed for it, were it fit that such as I should pray for any thing. Yet,
if death be in this cup, I bid thee think again, ere thou beholdest me quaff
it. See! It is even now at my lips.”
“Drink, then,” replied he, still with the same cold composure. “Dost
thou know me so little, Hester Prynne? Are my purposes wont to be so shallow? Even if I imagine a scheme of vengeance, what could I do better for my
object than to let thee live, — than to give thee medicines against all harm
and peril of life, — so that this burning shame may still blaze upon thy
bosom?” — As he spoke, he laid his long forefinger on the scarlet letter,
which forthwith seemed to scorch into Hester’s breast, as if it had been
red-hot. He noticed her involuntary gesture, and smiled. — “Live, therefore,
and bear about thy doom with thee, in the eyes of men and women, — in the
eyes of him whom thou didst call thy husband, — in the eyes of yonder
child! And, that thou mayest live, take off this draught.”
Without further expostulation or delay, Hester Prynne drained the cup,
and, at the motion of the man of skill, seated herself on the bed where the
child was sleeping; while he drew the only chair which the room afforded,
and took his own seat beside her. She could not but tremble at these
48. In Greek mythology, drinking water from the river Lethe in Hades (hell) led people to forget their previous lives. Nepenthe was a drug that the ancient Greeks used to relieve pain and
49. Paracelsus: A famous sixteenth-century Swiss master of medicine and alchemy.
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preparations; for she felt that — having now done all that humanity, or principle, or, if so it were, a refined cruelty, impelled him to do, for the relief of
physical suffering — he was next to treat with her as the man whom she had
most deeply and irreparably injured.
“Hester,” said he, “I ask not wherefore, nor how, thou hast fallen into
the pit, or say rather, thou hast ascended to the pedestal of infamy, on which
I found thee. The reason is not far to seek. It was my folly, and thy weakness.
I, — a man of thought, — the book-worm of great libraries, — a man already in
decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge, —
what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own! Misshapen from my
birth-hour, how could I delude myself with the idea that intellectual gifts
might veil physical deformity in a young girl’s fantasy! Men call me wise. If
sages were ever wise in their own behoof, I might have foreseen all this. I
might have known that, as I came out of the vast and dismal forest, and
entered this settlement of Christian men, the very first object to meet my
eyes would be thyself, Hester Prynne, standing up, a statue of ignominy,
before the people. Nay, from the moment when we came down the old
church-steps together, a married pair, I might have beheld the bale-fire of
that scarlet letter blazing at the end of our path!”
“Thou knowest,” said Hester, — for, depressed as she was, she could
not endure this last quiet stab at the token of her shame, — “thou knowest
that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any.”
“True!” replied he. “It was my folly! I have said it. But, up to that epoch
of my life, I had lived in vain. The world had been so cheerless! My heart was
a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one! It seemed not so wild a dream, —
old as I was, and sombre as I was, and misshapen as I was, — that the simple
bliss, which is scattered far and wide, for all mankind to gather up, might
yet be mine. And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost
chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made
“I have greatly wronged thee,” murmured Hester.
“We have wronged each other,” answered he. “Mine was the first
wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay. Therefore, as a man who has not thought and philosophized in vain, I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between thee
and me, the scale hangs fairly balanced. But, Hester, the man lives who has
wronged us both! Who is he?”
“Ask me not!” replied Hester Prynne, looking firmly into his face. “That
thou shalt never know!”
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“Never, sayest thou?” rejoined he, with a smile of dark and self-relying
intelligence. “Never know him! Believe me, Hester, there are few things, —
whether in the outward world, or, to a certain depth, in the invisible sphere
of thought, — few things hidden from the man, who devotes himself
earnestly and unreservedly to the solution of a mystery. Thou mayest cover
up thy secret from the prying multitude. Thou mayest conceal it, too, from
the ministers and magistrates, even as thou didst this day, when they
sought to wrench the name out of thy heart, and give thee a partner on thy
pedestal. But, as for me, I come to the inquest with other senses than they
possess. I shall seek this man, as I have sought truth in books; as I have
sought gold in alchemy. There is a sympathy that will make me conscious of
him. I shall see him tremble. I shall feel myself shudder, suddenly and
unawares. Sooner or later, he must needs be mine!”
The eyes of the wrinkled scholar glowed so intensely upon her, that
Hester Prynne clasped her hands over her heart, dreading lest he should
read the secret there at once.
“Thou wilt not reveal his name? Not the less he is mine,” resumed he,
with a look of confidence, as if destiny were at one with him. “He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garment, as thou dost; but I shall read it on his
heart. Yet fear not for him! Think not that I shall interfere with Heaven’s own
method of retribution, or, to my own loss, betray him to the gripe of human
law. Neither do thou imagine that I shall contrive aught against his life; no,
nor against his fame; if, as I judge, he be a man of fair repute. Let him live!
Let him hide himself in outward honor, if he may! Not the less he shall
be mine!”
“Thy acts are like mercy,” said Hester, bewildered and appalled. “But
thy words interpret thee as a terror!”
“One thing, thou that wast my wife, I would enjoin upon thee,” continued the scholar. “Thou hast kept the secret of thy paramour. Keep, likewise,
mine! There are none in this land that know me. Breathe not, to any human
soul, that thou didst ever call me husband! Here, on this wild outskirt of
the earth, I shall pitch my tent; for, elsewhere a wanderer, and isolated
from human interests, I find here a woman, a man, a child, amongst whom
and myself there exist the closest ligaments. No matter whether of love or
hate; no matter whether of right or wrong! Thou and thine, Hester Prynne,
belong to me. My home is where thou art, and where he is. But betray
me not!”
“Wherefore dost thou desire it?” inquired Hester, shrinking, she
hardly knew why, from this secret bond. “Why not announce thyself openly,
and cast me off at once?”
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“It may be,” he replied, “because I will not encounter the dishonor that
besmirches the husband of a faithless woman. It may be for other reasons.
Enough, it is my purpose to live and die unknown. Let, therefore, thy husband be to the world as one already dead, and of whom no tidings shall ever
come. Recognize me not, by word, by sign, by look! Breathe not the secret,
above all, to the man thou wottest of.50 Shouldst thou fail me in this,
beware! His fame, his position, his life, will be in my hands. Beware!”
“I will keep thy secret, as I have his,” said Hester.
“Swear it!” rejoined he.
And she took the oath.
“And now, Mistress Prynne,” said old Roger Chillingworth, as he was
hereafter to be named, “I leave thee alone; alone with thy infant, and the
scarlet letter! How is it, Hester? Doth thy sentence bind thee to wear the
token in thy sleep? Art thou not afraid of nightmares and hideous dreams?”
“Why dost thou smile so at me?” inquired Hester, troubled at the
expression of his eyes. “Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the forest
round about us? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin
of my soul?”
“Not thy soul,” he answered, with another smile. “No, not thine!”
Chapter V. Hester at Her Needle
Hester Prynne’s term of confinement was now at an end. Her prison-door
was thrown open, and she came forth into the sunshine, which, falling on all
alike, seemed, to her sick and morbid heart, as if meant for no other purpose
than to reveal the scarlet letter on her breast. Perhaps there was a more real
torture in her first unattended footsteps from the threshold of the prison,
than even in the procession and spectacle that have been described, where
she was made the common infamy, at which all mankind was summoned to
point its finger. Then, she was supported by an unnatural tension of the
nerves, and by all the combative energy of her character, which enabled her to
convert the scene into a kind of lurid triumph. It was, moreover, a separate
and insulated event, to occur but once in her lifetime, and to meet which,
therefore, reckless of economy, she might call up the vital strength that would
50. thou wottest of: You know of.
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have sufficed for many quiet years. The very law that condemned her — a giant
of stern features, but with vigor to support, as well as to annihilate, in his iron
arm — had held her up, through the terrible ordeal of her ignominy. But now,
with this unattended walk from her prison-door, began the daily custom, and
she must either sustain and carry it forward by the ordinary resources of her
nature, or sink beneath it. She could no longer borrow from the future, to help
her through the present grief. To-morrow would bring its own trial with it; so
would the next day, and so would the next; each its own trial, and yet the very
same that was now so unutterably grievous to be borne. The days of the far-off
future would toil onward, still with the same burden for her to take up, and
bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating days, and
added years, would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame. Throughout
them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at
which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify
and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion. Thus the
young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming
on her breast, — at her, the child of honorable parents, — at her, the mother of
a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, — at her, who had once been innocent, — as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. And over her grave, the infamy
that she must carry thither would be her only monument.
It may seem marvellous, that, with the world before her, — kept by no
restrictive clause of her condemnation within the limits of the Puritan settlement, so remote and so obscure, — free to return to her birthplace, or to
any other European land, and there hide her character and identity under a
new exterior, as completely as if emerging into another state of being, — and
having also the passes of the dark, inscrutable forest open to her, where the
wildness of her nature might assimilate itself with a people whose customs
and life were alien from the law that had condemned her, — it may seem marvellous, that this woman should still call that place her home, where, and
where only, she must needs be the type of shame. But there is a fatality, a
feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which
almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghostlike, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their
lifetime; and still the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it.
Her sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil. It
was as if a new birth, with stronger assimilations than the first, had converted the forest-land, still so uncongenial to every other pilgrim and wanderer, into Hester Prynne’s wild and dreary, but life-long home. All other
scenes of earth — even that village of rural England, where happy infancy
and stainless maidenhood seemed yet to be in her mother’s keeping, like
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garments put off long ago — were foreign to her, in comparison. The chain
that bound her here was of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul, but
never could be broken.
It might be, too, — doubtless it was so, although she hid the secret from
herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent
from its hole, — it might be that another feeling kept her within the scene
and pathway that had been so fatal. There dwelt, there trode the feet of one
with whom she deemed herself connected in a union, that, unrecognized on
earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make
that their marriage-altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution. Over and
over again, the tempter of souls had thrust this idea upon Hester’s contemplation, and laughed at the passionate and desperate joy with which she
seized, and then strove to cast it from her. She barely looked the idea in the
face, and hastened to bar it in its dungeon. What she compelled herself to
believe, — what, finally, she reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a
resident of New England, — was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here,
she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the
scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily
shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that
which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom.
Hester Prynne, therefore, did not flee. On the outskirts of the town,
within the verge of the peninsula, but not in close vicinity to any other habitation, there was a small thatched cottage. It had been built by an earlier settler, and abandoned, because the soil about it was too sterile for cultivation,
while its comparative remoteness put it out of the sphere of that social activity which already marked the habits of the emigrants. It stood on the shore,
looking across a basin of the sea at the forest-covered hills, towards the west.
A clump of scrubby trees, such as alone grew on the peninsula, did not so
much conceal the cottage from view, as seem to denote that here was some
object which would fain have been, or at least ought to be, concealed. In this
little, lonesome dwelling, with some slender means that she possessed, and
by the license of the magistrates, who still kept an inquisitorial watch over
her, Hester established herself, with her infant child. A mystic shadow of
suspicion immediately attached itself to the spot. Children, too young to
comprehend wherefore this woman should be shut out from the sphere of
human charities, would creep nigh enough to behold her plying her needle at
the cottage-window, or standing in the door-way, or laboring in her little garden, or coming forth along the pathway that led townward; and, discerning
the scarlet letter on her breast, would scamper off, with a strange, contagious fear.
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Lonely as was Hester’s situation, and without a friend on earth who
dared to show himself, she, however, incurred no risk of want. She possessed
an art that sufficed, even in a land that afforded comparatively little scope for
its exercise, to supply food for her thriving infant and herself. It was the art —
then, as now, almost the only one within a woman’s grasp — of needle-work.
She bore on her breast, in the curiously embroidered letter, a specimen of her
delicate and imaginative skill, of which the dames of a court might gladly
have availed themselves, to add the richer and more spiritual adornment of
human ingenuity to their fabrics of silk and gold. Here, indeed, in the sable
simplicity that generally characterized the Puritanic modes of dress, there
might be an infrequent call for the finer productions of her handiwork. Yet
the taste of the age, demanding whatever was elaborate in compositions of
this kind, did not fail to extend its influence over our stern progenitors, who
had cast behind them so many fashions which it might seem harder to
dispense with. Public ceremonies, such as ordinations, the installation of
magistrates, and all that could give majesty to the forms in which a new government manifested itself to the people, were, as a matter of policy, marked by
a stately and well-conducted ceremonial, and a sombre, but yet a studied magnificence. Deep ruffs, painfully wrought bands, and gorgeously embroidered
gloves, were all deemed necessary to the official state of men assuming the
reins of power; and were readily allowed to individuals dignified by rank or
wealth, even while sumptuary laws forbade these and similar extravagances
to the plebeian order. In the array of funerals, too, — whether for the apparel of
the dead body, or to typify, by manifold emblematic devices of sable cloth and
snowy lawn, the sorrow of the survivors, — there was a frequent and characteristic demand for such labor as Hester Prynne could supply. Baby-linen —
for babies then wore robes of state — afforded still another possibility of toil
and emolument.
By degrees, nor very slowly, her handiwork became what would now be
termed the fashion. Whether from commiseration for a woman of so miserable a destiny; or from the morbid curiosity that gives a fictitious value even
to common or worthless things; or by whatever other intangible circumstance was then, as now, sufficient to bestow, on some persons, what others
might seek in vain; or because Hester really filled a gap which must otherwise have remained vacant; it is certain that she had ready and fairly
requited employment for as many hours as she saw fit to occupy with her
needle. Vanity, it may be, chose to mortify itself, by putting on, for ceremonials of pomp and state, the garments that had been wrought by her sinful
hands. Her needle-work was seen on the ruff of the Governor; military
men wore it on their scarfs, and the minister on his band; it decked the
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baby’s little cap; it was shut up, to be mildewed and moulder away, in the
coffins of the dead. But it is not recorded that, in a single instance, her skill
was called in aid to embroider the white veil which was to cover the pure
blushes of a bride. The exception indicated the ever relentless vigor with
which society frowned upon her sin.
Hester sought not to acquire any thing beyond a subsistence, of the
plainest and most ascetic description, for herself, and a simple abundance for
her child. Her own dress was of the coarsest materials and the most sombre
hue; with only that one ornament, — the scarlet letter, — which it was her
doom to wear. The child’s attire, on the other hand, was distinguished by a
fanciful, or, we may rather say, a fantastic ingenuity, which served, indeed, to
heighten the airy charm that early began to develop itself in the little girl, but
which appeared to have also a deeper meaning. We may speak further of it
hereafter. Except for that small expenditure in the decoration of her infant,
Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself, and who not unfrequently insulted the hand that fed
them. Much of the time, which she might readily have applied to the better
efforts of her art, she employed in making coarse garments for the poor. It is
probable that there was an idea of penance in this mode of occupation, and
that she offered up a real sacrifice of enjoyment, in devoting so many hours to
such rude handiwork. She had in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic, — a taste for the gorgeously beautiful, which, save in the exquisite
productions of her needle, found nothing else, in all the possibilities of her
life, to exercise itself upon. Women derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to
the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle. To Hester Prynne it might
have been a mode of expressing, and therefore soothing, the passion of her
life. Like all other joys, she rejected it as sin. This morbid meddling of conscience with an immaterial matter betokened, it is to be feared, no genuine
and steadfast penitence, but something doubtful, something that might be
deeply wrong beneath.
In this manner, Hester Prynne came to have a part to perform in the
world. With her native energy of character, and rare capacity, it could not
entirely cast her off, although it had set a mark upon her, more intolerable
to a woman’s heart than that which branded the brow of Cain.51 In all her
51. Cain: The eldest son of Adam and Eve, Cain becomes the world’s first murderer by killing
his brother Abel when God was pleased with Abel’s offering and not Cain’s (Genesis 4). As
punishment, Cain was to roam the earth, and God’s mark (traditionally understood to be on
his forehead) would protect him from harm.
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intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as
if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of
those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that
she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or
communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than
the rest of human kind. She stood apart from mortal interests, yet close
beside them, like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside, and can no
longer make itself seen or felt; no more smile with the household joy, nor
mourn with the kindred sorrow; or, should it succeed in manifesting its
forbidden sympathy, awakening only terror and horrible repugnance. These
emotions, in fact, and its bitterest scorn besides, seemed to be the sole portion that she retained in the universal heart. It was not an age of delicacy;
and her position, although she understood it well, and was in little danger
of forgetting it, was often brought before her vivid self-perception, like a
new anguish, by the rudest touch upon the tenderest spot. The poor, as we
have already said, whom she sought out to be the objects of her bounty,
often reviled the hand that was stretched forth to succor them. Dames of
elevated rank, likewise, whose doors she entered in the way of her occupation, were accustomed to distil drops of bitterness into her heart; sometimes through that alchemy of quiet malice, by which women can concoct a
subtile poison from ordinary trifles; and sometimes, also, by a coarser
expression, that fell upon the sufferer’s defenceless breast like a rough
blow upon an ulcerated wound. Hester had schooled herself long and well;
she never responded to these attacks, save by a flush of crimson that rose
irrepressibly over her pale cheek, and again subsided into the depths of her
bosom. She was patient, — a martyr, indeed, — but she forebore to pray for
enemies; lest, in spite of her forgiving aspirations, the words of the blessing
should stubbornly twist themselves into a curse.
Continually, and in a thousand other ways, did she feel the innumerable throbs of anguish that had been so cunningly contrived for her by the
undying, the ever-active sentence of the Puritan tribunal. Clergymen
paused in the street to address words of exhortation, that brought a crowd,
with its mingled grin and frown, around the poor, sinful woman. If she
entered a church, trusting to share the Sabbath smile of the Universal
Father, it was often her mishap to find herself the text of the discourse. She
grew to have a dread of children; for they had imbibed from their parents a
vague idea of something horrible in this dreary woman, gliding silently
through the town, with never any companion but one only child. Therefore,
first allowing her to pass, they pursued her at a distance with shrill cries,
and the utterance of a word that had no distinct purport to their own minds,
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but was none the less terrible to her, as proceeding from lips that babbled it
unconsciously. It seemed to argue so wide a diffusion of her shame, that all
nature knew of it; it could have caused her no deeper pang, had the leaves of
the trees whispered the dark story among themselves, — had the summer
breeze murmured about it, — had the wintry blast shrieked it aloud!
Another peculiar torture was felt in the gaze of a new eye. When strangers
looked curiously at the scarlet letter, — and none ever failed to do so, — they
branded it afresh into Hester’s soul; so that, oftentimes, she could scarcely
refrain, yet always did refrain, from covering the symbol with her hand. But
then, again, an accustomed eye had likewise its own anguish to inflict. Its
cool stare of familiarity was intolerable. From first to last, in short, Hester
Prynne had always this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon the
token; the spot never grew callous; it seemed, on the contrary, to grow more
sensitive with daily torture.
But sometimes, once in many days, or perchance in many months, she
felt an eye — a human eye — upon the ignominious brand, that seemed to
give a momentary relief, as if half of her agony were shared. The next
instant, back it all rushed again, with still a deeper throb of pain; for, in that
brief interval, she had sinned anew. Had Hester sinned alone?
Her imagination was somewhat affected, and, had she been of a softer
moral and intellectual fibre, would have been still more so, by the strange
and solitary anguish of her life. Walking to and fro, with those lonely footsteps, in the little world with which she was outwardly connected, it now and
then appeared to Hester, — if altogether fancy, it was nevertheless too potent
to be resisted, — she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed
her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing,
that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts.
She was terror-stricken by the revelations that were thus made. What were
they? Could they be other than the insidious whispers of the bad angel, who
would fain have persuaded the struggling woman, as yet only half his victim,
that the outward guise of purity was but a lie, and that, if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom
besides Hester Prynne’s? Or, must she receive those intimations — so
obscure, yet so distinct — as truth? In all her miserable experience, there was
nothing else so awful and so loathsome as this sense. It perplexed, as well as
shocked her, by the irreverent inopportuneness of the occasions that
brought it into vivid action. Sometimes, the red infamy upon her breast
would give a sympathetic throb, as she passed near a venerable minister or
magistrate, the model of piety and justice, to whom that age of antique reverence looked up, as to a mortal man in fellowship with angels. “What evil
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thing is at hand?” would Hester say to herself. Lifting her reluctant eyes,
there would be nothing human within the scope of view, save the form of this
earthly saint! Again, a mystic sisterhood would contumaciously assert itself,
as she met the sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the rumor
of all tongues, had kept cold snow within her bosom throughout life. That
unsunned snow in the matron’s bosom, and the burning shame on Hester
Prynne’s, — what had the two in common? Or, once more, the electric thrill
would give her warning, — “Behold, Hester, here is a companion!” — and,
looking up, she would detect the eyes of a young maiden glancing at the scarlet letter, shyly and aside, and quickly averted, with a faint, chill crimson in
her cheeks; as if her purity were somewhat sullied by that momentary
glance. O Fiend, whose talisman was that fatal symbol, wouldst thou leave
nothing, whether in youth or age, for this poor sinner to revere? — Such loss
of faith is ever one of the saddest results of sin. Be it accepted as a proof that
all was not corrupt in this poor victim of her own frailty, and man’s hard law,
that Hester Prynne yet struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal was guilty
like herself.
The vulgar, who, in those dreary old times, were always contributing
a grotesque horror to what interested their imaginations, had a story
about the scarlet letter which we might readily work up into a terrific legend. They averred, that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an
earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight, whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night-time.
And we must needs say, it seared Hester’s bosom so deeply, that perhaps
there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be
inclined to admit.
Chapter VI. Pearl
We have as yet hardly spoken of the infant; that little creature, whose
innocent life had sprung, by the inscrutable decree of Providence, a lovely
and immortal flower, out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion. How
strange it seemed to the sad woman, as she watched the growth, and the
beauty that became every day more brilliant, and the intelligence that
threw its quivering sunshine over the tiny features of this child! Her
Pearl! — For so had Hester called her; not as a name expressive of her aspect,
which had nothing of the calm, white, unimpassioned lustre that would be
indicated by the comparison. But she named the infant “Pearl,” as being of
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great price,52— purchased with all she had, — her mother’s only treasure!
How strange, indeed! Man had marked this woman’s sin by a scarlet letter,
which had such potent and disastrous efficacy that no human sympathy
could reach her, save it were sinful like herself. God, as a direct consequence of the sin which man thus punished, had given her a lovely child,
whose place was on that same dishonored bosom, to connect her parent for
ever with the race and descent of mortals, and to be finally a blessed soul in
heaven! Yet these thoughts affected Hester Prynne less with hope than
apprehension. She knew that her deed had been evil; she could have no
faith, therefore, that its result would be for good. Day after day, she looked
fearfully into the child’s expanding nature; ever dreading to detect some
dark and wild peculiarity, that should correspond with the guiltiness to
which she owed her being.
Certainly, there was no physical defect. By its perfect shape, its vigor,
and its natural dexterity in the use of all its untried limbs, the infant was
worthy to have been brought forth in Eden; worthy to have been left there,
to be the plaything of the angels, after the world’s first parents were driven
out. The child had a native grace which does not invariably coexist with
faultless beauty; its attire, however simple, always impressed the beholder
as if it were the very garb that precisely became it best. But little Pearl was
not clad in rustic weeds. Her mother, with a morbid purpose that may be
better understood hereafter, had bought the richest tissues53 that could be
procured, and allowed her imaginative faculty its full play in the arrangement and decoration of the dresses which the child wore, before the public
eye. So magnificent was the small figure, when thus arrayed, and such was
the splendor of Pearl’s own proper beauty, shining through the gorgeous
robes which might have extinguished a paler loveliness, that there was an
absolute circle of radiance around her, on the darksome cottage-floor. And
yet a russet gown, torn and soiled with the child’s rude play, made a picture
of her just as perfect. Pearl’s aspect was imbued with a spell of infinite variety; in this one child there were many children, comprehending the full
scope between the wild-flower prettiness of a peasant-baby, and the pomp,
in little, of an infant princess. Throughout all, however, there was a trait of
passion, a certain depth of hue, which she never lost; and if, in any of her
52. Hester’s naming of Pearl is a biblical allusion: “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went out
and sold all he had, and bought it” (Matthew 13:45–46).
53. tissues: Fine cloths, often interwoven with gold or silver.
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changes, she had grown fainter or paler, she would have ceased to be herself; — it would have been no longer Pearl!
This outward mutability indicated, and did not more than fairly
express, the various properties of her inner life. Her nature appeared to
possess depth, too, as well as variety; but — or else Hester’s fears deceived
her — it lacked reference and adaptation to the world into which she was
born. The child could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being, whose
elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder; or with
an order peculiar to themselves, amidst which the point of variety and
arrangement was difficult or impossible to be discovered. Hester could
only account for the child’s character — and even then, most vaguely and
imperfectly — by recalling what she herself had been, during that momentous period while Pearl was imbibing her soul from the spiritual world,
and her bodily frame from its material of earth. The mother’s impassioned
state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn
infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally,
they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery lustre, the
black shadow, and the untempered light, of the intervening substance.
Above all, the warfare of Hester’s spirit, at that epoch, was perpetuated in
Pearl. She could recognize her wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper, and even some of the very cloud-shapes of gloom and
despondency that had brooded in her heart. They were now illuminated by
the morning radiance of a young child’s disposition, but, later in the day of
earthly existence, might be prolific of the storm and whirlwind.
The discipline of the family, in those days, was of a far more rigid
kind than now. The frown, the harsh rebuke, the frequent application of
the rod, enjoined by Scriptural authority, were used, not merely in the way
of punishment for actual offences, but as a wholesome regimen for the
growth and promotion of all childish virtues. Hester Prynne, nevertheless,
the lonely mother of this one child, ran little risk of erring on the side of
undue severity. Mindful, however, of her own errors and misfortunes, she
early sought to impose a tender, but strict, control over the infant immortality that was committed to her charge. But the task was beyond her
skill. After testing both smiles and frowns, and proving that neither mode
of treatment possessed any calculable influence, Hester was ultimately
compelled to stand aside, and permit the child to be swayed by her own
impulses. Physical compulsion or restraint was effectual, of course, while
it lasted. As to any other kind of discipline, whether addressed to her mind
or heart, little Pearl might or might not be within its reach, in accordance
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with the caprice that ruled the moment. Her mother, while Pearl was yet an
infant, grew acquainted with a certain peculiar look, that warned her when
it would be labor thrown away to insist, persuade, or plead. It was a look so
intelligent, yet inexplicable, so perverse, sometimes so malicious, but generally accompanied by a wild flow of spirits, that Hester could not help
questioning, at such moments, whether Pearl was a human child. She seemed
rather an airy sprite, which, after playing its fantastic sports for a little
while upon the cottage-floor, would flit away with a mocking smile. Whenever
that look appeared in her wild, bright, deeply black eyes, it invested her
with a strange remoteness and intangibility; it was as if she were hovering
in the air and might vanish, like a glimmering light that comes we know
not whence, and goes we know not whither. Beholding it, Hester was constrained to rush towards the child, — to pursue the little elf in the flight
which she invariably began, — to snatch her to her bosom, with a close
pressure and earnest kisses, — not so much from overflowing love, as to
assure herself that Pearl was flesh and blood, and not utterly delusive. But
Pearl’s laugh, when she was caught, though full of merriment and music,
made her mother more doubtful than before.
Heart-smitten at this bewildering and baffling spell, that so often
came between herself and her sole treasure, whom she had bought so dear,
and who was all her world, Hester sometimes burst into passionate tears.
Then, perhaps, — for there was no foreseeing how it might affect her, —
Pearl would frown, and clench her little fist, and harden her small features
into a stern, unsympathizing look of discontent. Not seldom, she would
laugh anew, and louder than before, like a thing incapable and unintelligent of human sorrow. Or — but this more rarely happened — she would be
convulsed with a rage of grief, and sob out her love for her mother, in broken words, and seem intent on proving that she had a heart, by breaking it.
Yet Hester was hardly safe in confiding herself to that gusty tenderness; it
passed, as suddenly as it came. Brooding over all these matters, the mother
felt like one who has evoked a spirit, but, by some irregularity in the
process of conjuration, has failed to win the master-word that should control this new and incomprehensible intelligence. Her only real comfort
was when the child lay in the placidity of sleep. Then she was sure of her,
and tasted hours of quiet, sad, delicious happiness; until — perhaps with
that perverse expression glimmering from beneath her opening lids — little
Pearl awoke!
How soon — with what strange rapidity, indeed! — did Pearl arrive at
an age that was capable of social intercourse, beyond the mother’s everready smile and nonsense-words! And then what a happiness would it have
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been, could Hester Prynne have heard her clear, bird-like voice mingling
with the uproar of other childish voices, and have distinguished and unravelled her own darling’s tones, amid all the entangled outcry of a group of
sportive children! But this could never be. Pearl was a born outcast of the
infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right
among christened infants. Nothing was more remarkable than the
instinct, as it seemed, with which the child comprehended her loneliness;
the destiny that had drawn an inviolable circle round about her; the whole
peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other children. Never,
since her release from prison, had Hester met the public gaze without her.
In all her walks about the town, Pearl, too, was there; first as the babe in
arms, and afterwards as the little girl, small companion of her mother,
holding a forefinger with her whole grasp, and tripping along at the rate of
three or four footsteps to one of Hester’s. She saw the children of the settlement, on the grassy margin of the street, or at the domestic thresholds,
disporting themselves in such grim fashion as the Puritanic nurture
would permit; playing at going to church, perchance; or at scourging
Quakers; or taking scalps in a sham-fight with the Indians; or scaring one
another with freaks of imitative witchcraft. Pearl saw, and gazed intently,
but never sought to make acquaintance. If spoken to, she would not speak
again. If the children gathered about her, as they sometimes did, Pearl
would grow positively terrible in her puny wrath, snatching up stones to
fling at them, with shrill, incoherent exclamations that made her mother
tremble, because they had so much the sound of a witch’s anathemas in
some unknown tongue.
The truth was, that the little Puritans, being of the most intolerant
brood that ever lived, had got a vague idea of something outlandish,
unearthly, or at variance with ordinary fashions, in the mother and child;
and therefore scorned them in their hearts, and not unfrequently reviled
them with their tongues. Pearl felt the sentiment, and requited it with the
bitterest hatred that can be supposed to rankle in a childish bosom. These
outbreaks of a fierce temper had a kind of value, and even comfort, for her
mother; because there was at least an intelligible earnestness in the mood,
instead of the fitful caprice that so often thwarted her in the child’s manifestations. It appalled her, nevertheless, to discern here, again, a shadowy
reflection of the evil that had existed in herself. All this enmity and passion had Pearl inherited, by inalienable right, out of Hester’s heart. Mother
and daughter stood together in the same circle of seclusion from human
society; and in the nature of the child seemed to be perpetuated those
unquiet elements that had distracted Hester Prynne before Pearl’s birth,
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but had since begun to be soothed away by the softening influences of
At home, within and around her mother’s cottage, Pearl wanted not a
wide and various circle of acquaintance. The spell of life went forth from
her ever creative spirit, and communicated itself to a thousand objects, as a
torch kindles a flame wherever it may be applied. The unlikeliest materials,
a stick, a bunch of rags, a flower, were the puppets of Pearl’s witchcraft,
and, without undergoing any outward change, became spiritually adapted
to whatever drama occupied the stage of her inner world. Her one babyvoice served a multitude of imaginary personages, old and young, to talk
withal. The pine-trees, aged, black, and solemn, and flinging groans and
other melancholy utterances on the breeze, needed little transformation to
figure as Puritan elders; the ugliest weeds of the garden were their children, whom Pearl smote down and uprooted, most unmercifully. It was wonderful, the vast variety of forms into which she threw her intellect, with no
continuity, indeed, but darting up and dancing, always in a state of preternatural activity, — soon sinking down, as if exhausted by so rapid and feverish a tide of life, — and succeeded by other shapes of a similar wild energy. It
was like nothing so much as the phantasmagoric play of the northern lights.
In the mere exercise of the fancy, however, and the sportiveness of a growing mind, there might be little more than was observable in other children
of bright faculties; except as Pearl, in the dearth of human playmates, was
thrown more upon the visionary throng which she created. The singularity
lay in the hostile feelings with which the child regarded all these offsprings
of her own heart and mind. She never created a friend, but seemed always
to be sowing broadcast the dragon’s teeth, whence sprung a harvest of
armed enemies, against whom she rushed to battle.54 It was inexpressibly
sad — then what depth of sorrow to a mother, who felt in her own heart the
cause! — to observe, in one so young, this constant recognition of an adverse
world, and so fierce a training of the energies that were to make good her
cause, in the contest that must ensue.
Gazing at Pearl, Hester Prynne often dropped her work upon her knees,
and cried out, with an agony which she would fain have hidden, but which
made utterance for itself, betwixt speech and a groan, — “O Father in
54. In Greek mythology, the hero Cadmus planted the teeth of a dragon, or serpent, he had
killed; the teeth later grew into armed warriors. To “sow broadcast” means to scatter seeds
across a wide surface rather than in rows. Even when Pearl is playing with imaginary friends,
she creates enemies rather than comrades.
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Heaven, — if Thou art still my Father, — what is this being which I have
brought into the world!” And Pearl, overhearing the ejaculation, or aware,
through some more subtile channel, of those throbs of anguish, would
turn her vivid and beautiful little face upon her mother, smile with spritelike intelligence, and resume her play.
One peculiarity of the child’s deportment remains yet to be told. The
very first thing which she had noticed, in her life, was — what? — not the
mother’s smile, responding to it, as other babies do, by that faint, embryo
smile of the little mouth, remembered so doubtfully afterwards, and with
such fond discussion whether it were indeed a smile. By no means! But
that first object of which Pearl seemed to become aware was — shall we say
it? — the scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom! One day, as her mother stooped
over the cradle, the infant’s eyes had been caught by the glimmering of the
gold embroidery about the letter; and, putting up her little hand, she
grasped at it, smiling, not doubtfully, but with a decided gleam that gave
her face the look of a much older child. Then, gasping for breath, did
Hester Prynne clutch the fatal token, instinctively endeavouring to tear it
away; so infinite was the torture inflicted by the intelligent touch of Pearl’s
baby-hand. Again, as if her mother’s agonized gesture were meant only to
make sport for her, did little Pearl look into her eyes, and smile! From that
epoch, except when the child was asleep, Hester had never felt a moment’s
safety; not a moment’s calm enjoyment of her. Weeks, it is true, would
sometimes elapse, during which Pearl’s gaze might never once be fixed
upon the scarlet letter; but then, again, it would come at unawares, like
the stroke of sudden death, and always with that peculiar smile, and odd
expression of the eyes.
Once, this freakish, elvish cast came into the child’s eyes, while Hester
was looking at her own image in them, as mothers are fond of doing; and,
suddenly, — for women in solitude, and with troubled hearts, are pestered
with unaccountable delusions, — she fancied that she beheld, not her own
miniature portrait, but another face in the small black mirror of Pearl’s eye.
It was a face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice, yet bearing the semblance of
features that she had known full well, though seldom with a smile, and
never with malice, in them. It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child,
and had just then peeped forth in mockery. Many a time afterwards had
Hester been tortured, though less vividly, by the same illusion.
In the afternoon of a certain summer’s day, after Pearl grew big enough
to run about, she amused herself with gathering handfuls of wild-flowers,
and flinging them, one by one, at her mother’s bosom; dancing up and down,
like a little elf, whenever she hit the scarlet letter. Hester’s first motion had
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been to cover her bosom with her clasped hands. But, whether from pride or
resignation, or a feeling that her penance might best be wrought out by this
unutterable pain, she resisted the impulse, and sat erect, pale as death, looking sadly into little Pearl’s wild eyes. Still came the battery of flowers, almost
invariably hitting the mark, and covering the mother’s breast with hurts for
which she could find no balm in this world, nor knew how to seek it in
another. At last, her shot being all expended, the child stood still and gazed
at Hester, with that little, laughing image of a fiend peeping out — or,
whether it peeped or no, her mother so imagined it — from the unsearchable
abyss of her black eyes.
“Child, what art thou?” cried the mother.
“O, I am your little Pearl!” answered the child.
But, while she said it, Pearl laughed and began to dance up and down,
with the humorsome gesticulation of a little imp, whose next freak might
be to fly up the chimney.
“Art thou my child, in very truth?” asked Hester.
Nor did she put the question altogether idly, but, for the moment, with
a portion of genuine earnestness; for, such was Pearl’s wonderful intelligence, that her mother half doubted whether she were not acquainted with
the secret spell of her existence, and might not now reveal herself.
“Yes; I am little Pearl!” repeated the child, continuing her antics.
“Thou art not my child! Thou art no Pearl of mine!” said the mother,
half playfully; for it was often the case that a sportive impulse came over
her, in the midst of her deepest suffering. “Tell me, then, what thou art,
and who sent thee hither?”
“Tell me, mother!” said the child, seriously, coming up to Hester, and
pressing herself close to her knees. “Do thou tell me!”
“Thy Heavenly Father sent thee!” answered Hester Prynne.
But she said it with a hesitation that did not escape the acuteness of
the child. Whether moved only by her ordinary freakishness, or because
an evil spirit prompted her, she put up her small forefinger, and touched
the scarlet letter.
“He did not send me!” cried she, positively. “I have no Heavenly
“Hush, Pearl, hush! Thou must not talk so!” answered the mother,
suppressing a groan. “He sent us all into the world. He sent even me, thy
mother. Then, much more, thee! Or, if not, thou strange and elfish child,
whence didst thou come?”
“Tell me! Tell me!” repeated Pearl, no longer seriously, but laughing,
and capering about the floor, “It is thou that must tell me!”
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But Hester could not resolve the query, being herself in a dismal
labyrinth of doubt. She remembered — betwixt a smile and a shudder — the
talk of the neighbouring townspeople; who, seeking vainly elsewhere for
the child’s paternity, and observing some of her odd attributes, had given
out that poor little Pearl was a demon offspring; such as, ever since old
Catholic times, had occasionally been seen on earth, through the agency of
their mothers’ sin, and to promote some foul and wicked purpose. Luther,
according to the scandal of his monkish enemies, was a brat of that hellish
breed; nor was Pearl the only child to whom this inauspicious origin was
assigned, among the New England Puritans.
Chapter VII. The Governor’s Hall
Hester Prynne went, one day, to the mansion of Governor Bellingham,
with a pair of gloves which she had fringed and embroidered to his order,
and which were to be worn on some great occasion of state; for, though the
chances of a popular election had caused this former ruler to descend a
step or two from the highest rank, he still held an honorable and influential place among the colonial magistracy.
Another and far more important reason than the delivery of a pair of
embroidered gloves impelled Hester, at this time, to seek an interview with a
personage of so much power and activity in the affairs of the settlement. It
had reached her ears, that there was a design on the part of some of the leading inhabitants, cherishing the more rigid order of principles in religion and
government, to deprive her of her child. On the supposition that Pearl, as
already hinted, was of demon origin, these good people not unreasonably
argued that a Christian interest in the mother’s soul required them to
remove such a stumbling-block from her path. If the child, on the other hand,
were really capable of moral and religious growth, and possessed the elements of ultimate salvation, then, surely, it would enjoy all the fairer
prospect of these advantages by being transferred to wiser and better
guardianship than Hester Prynne’s. Among those who promoted the design,
Governor Bellingham was said to be one of the most busy. It may appear singular, and, indeed, not a little ludicrous, that an affair of this kind, which, in
later days, would have been referred to no higher jurisdiction than that of
the selectmen of the town, should then have been a question publicly discussed, and on which statesmen of eminence took sides. At that epoch of
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pristine simplicity, however, matters of even slighter public interest, and of
far less intrinsic weight than the welfare of Hester and her child, were
strangely mixed up with the deliberations of legislators and acts of state.
The period was hardly, if at all, earlier than that of our story, when a dispute
concerning the right of property in a pig, not only caused a fierce and bitter
contest in the legislative body of the colony, but resulted in an important
modification of the framework itself of the legislature.
Full of concern, therefore, — but so conscious of her own right, that it
seemed scarcely an unequal match between the public, on the one side, and
a lonely woman, backed by the sympathies of nature, on the other, — Hester
Prynne set forth from her solitary cottage. Little Pearl, of course, was her
companion. She was now of an age to run lightly along by her mother’s side,
and, constantly in motion from morn till sunset, could have accomplished a
much longer journey than that before her. Often, nevertheless, more from
caprice than necessity, she demanded to be taken up in arms, but was soon
as imperious to be set down again, and frisked onward before Hester on the
grassy pathway, with many a harmless trip and tumble. We have spoken of
Pearl’s rich and luxuriant beauty; a beauty that shone with deep and vivid
tints; a bright complexion, eyes possessing intensity both of depth and
glow, and hair already of a deep, glossy brown, and which, in after years,
would be nearly akin to black. There was fire in her and throughout her; she
seemed the unpremeditated offshoot of a passionate moment. Her mother,
in contriving the child’s garb, had allowed the gorgeous tendencies of her
imagination their full play; arraying her in a crimson velvet tunic, of a
peculiar cut, abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of gold
thread. So much strength of coloring, which must have given a wan and pallid aspect to cheeks of a fainter bloom, was admirably adapted to Pearl’s
beauty, and made her the very brightest little jet of flame that ever danced
upon the earth.
But it was a remarkable attribute of this garb, and, indeed, of the child’s
whole appearance, that it irresistibly and inevitably reminded the beholder
of the token which Hester Prynne was doomed to wear upon her bosom. It
was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!
The mother herself — as if the red ignominy were so deeply scorched into
her brain, that all her conceptions assumed its form — had carefully wrought
out the similitude; lavishing many hours of morbid ingenuity, to create an
analogy between the object of her affection, and the emblem of her guilt and
torture. But, in truth, Pearl was the one, as well as the other; and only in consequence of that identity had Hester contrived so perfectly to represent the
scarlet letter in her appearance.
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As the two wayfarers came within the precincts of the town, the children of the Puritans looked up from their play, — or what passed for play
with those sombre little urchins, — and spake gravely one to another: —
“Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a
truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by
her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!”
But Pearl, who was a dauntless child, after frowning, stamping her
foot, and shaking her little hand with a variety of threatening gestures, suddenly made a rush at the knot of her enemies, and put them all to flight. She
resembled, in her fierce pursuit of them, an infant pestilence, — the scarlet
fever, or some such half-fledged angel of judgment, — whose mission was to
punish the sins of the rising generation. She screamed and shouted, too,
with a terrific volume of sound, which doubtless caused the hearts of the
fugitives to quake within them. The victory accomplished, Pearl returned
quietly to her mother, and looked up smiling into her face.
Without further adventure, they reached the dwelling of Governor
Bellingham. This was a large wooden house, built in a fashion of which there
are specimens still extant in the streets of our elder towns; now moss-grown,
crumbling to decay, and melancholy at heart with the many sorrowful or joyful occurrences remembered or forgotten, that have happened, and passed
away, within their dusky chambers. Then, however, there was the freshness
of the passing year on its exterior, and the cheerfulness, gleaming forth
from the sunny windows, of a human habitation into which death had never
entered. It had indeed a very cheery aspect; the walls being overspread with
a kind of stucco, in which fragments of broken glass were plentifully intermixed; so that, when the sunshine fell aslant-wise over the front of the edifice, it glittered and sparkled as if diamonds had been flung against it by the
double handful. The brilliancy might have befitted Aladdin’s palace, rather
than the mansion of a grave old Puritan ruler. It was further decorated with
strange and seemingly cabalistic figures and diagrams,55 suitable to the
quaint taste of the age, which had been drawn in the stucco when newly laid
on, and had now grown hard and durable, for the admiration of after times.
Pearl, looking at this bright wonder of a house, began to caper and
dance, and imperatively required that the whole breadth of sunshine should
be stripped off its front, and given her to play with.
55. The Kabballa is a notoriously complex set of texts that interprets the Torah and constructs a doctrine of esoteric knowledge about God and the universe. It gave rise to a mystical sect of Judaism.
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Chapter VII. The Governor’s Hall 109
“No, my little Pearl!” said her mother. “Thou must gather thine own
sunshine. I have none to give thee!”
They approached the door; which was of an arched form, and flanked
on each side by a narrow tower or projection of the edifice, in both of which
were lattice-windows, with wooden shutters to close over them at need.
Lifting the iron hammer that hung at the portal, Hester Prynne gave a
summons, which was answered by one of the Governor’s bond-servants; a
free-born Englishman, but now a seven years’ slave. During that term he
was to be the property of his master, and as much a commodity of bargain
and sale as an ox, or a joint-stool. The serf wore the blue coat, which was
the customary garb of serving-men at that period, and long before, in the
old hereditary halls of England.
“Is the worshipful Governor Bellingham within?” inquired Hester.
“Yea, forsooth,” replied the bond-servant, staring with wide-open eyes
at the scarlet letter, which, being a new-comer in the country, he had never
before seen. “Yea, his honorable worship is within. But he hath a godly minister or two with him, and likewise a leech. Ye may not see his worship now.”
“Nevertheless, I will enter,” answered Hester Prynne; and the bondservant, perhaps judging from the decision of her air and the glittering
symbol in her bosom, that she was a great lady in the land, offered no
So the mother and little Pearl were admitted into the hall of entrance.
With many variations, suggested by the nature of his building-materials,
diversity of climate, and a different mode of social life, Governor Bellingham
had planned his new habitation after the residences of gentlemen of fair
estate in his native land. Here, then, was a wide and reasonably lofty hall,
extending through the whole depth of the house, and forming a medium of
general communication, more or less directly, with all the other apartments.
At one extremity, this spacious room was lighted by the windows of the two
towers, which formed a small recess on either side of the portal. At the other
end, though partly muffled by a curtain, it was more powerfully illuminated
by one of those embowed hall-windows which we read of in old books, and
which was provided with a deep and cushioned seat. Here, on the cushion, lay
a folio tome, probably of the Chronicles of England,56 or other such substantial literature; even as, in our own days, we scatter gilded volumes on the centre-table, to be turned over by the casual guest. The furniture of the hall
consisted of some ponderous chairs, the backs of which were elaborately
56. The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, by Raphael Holinshed (1577).
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carved with wreaths of oaken flowers; and likewise a table in the same taste;
the whole being of the Elizabethan age, or perhaps earlier, and heirlooms,
transferred hither from the Governor’s paternal home. On the table — in token
that the sentiment of old English hospitality had not been left behind — stood
a large pewter tankard, at the bottom of which, had Hester or Pearl peeped
into it, they might have seen the frothy remnant of a recent draught of ale.
On the wall hung a row of portraits, representing the forefathers of the
Bellingham lineage, some with armour on their breasts, and others with
stately ruffs and robes of peace. All were characterized by the sternness and
severity which old portraits so invariably put on; as if they were the ghosts,
rather than the pictures, of departed worthies, and were gazing with harsh
and intolerant criticism at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men.
At about the centre of the oaken panels, that lined the hall, was suspended a suit of mail, not, like the pictures, an ancestral relic, but of the most
modern date; for it had been manufactured by a skilful armorer in London,
the same year in which Governor Bellingham came over to New England.
There was a steel head-piece, a cuirass, a gorget, and greaves, with a pair of
gauntlets and a sword hanging beneath; all, and especially the helmet and
breastplate, so highly burnished as to glow with white radiance, and scatter
an illumination everywhere about upon the floor. This bright panoply was not
meant for mere idle show, but had been worn by the Governor on many a
solemn muster and training field, and had glittered, moreover, at the head of
a regiment in the Pequod war.57 For, though bred a lawyer, and accustomed to
speak of Bacon, Coke, Noye, and Finch,58 as his professional associates, the
exigencies of this new country had transformed Governor Bellingham into a
soldier, as well as a statesman and ruler.
Little Pearl — who was as greatly pleased with the gleaming armour
as she had been with the glittering frontispiece of the house — spent some
time looking into the polished mirror of the breastplate.
“Mother,” cried she, “I see you here. Look! Look!”
Hester looked, by way of humoring the child; and she saw that, owing to
the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet letter was represented in
exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. In truth, she seemed absolutely hidden
behind it. Pearl pointed upward, also, at a similar picture in the head-piece;
57. In 1637, this confrontation between the English settlers of Massachusetts and Connecticut
and the Pequod Indians virtually demolished the Pequod population.
58. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English lawyers who contributed to common law.
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smiling at her mother, with the elfish intelligence that was so familiar an
expression on her small physiognomy. That look of naughty merriment was
likewise reflected in the mirror, with so much breadth and intensity of
effect, that it made Hester Prynne feel as if it could not be the image of her
own child, but of an imp who was seeking to mould itself into Pearl’s shape.
“Come along, Pearl!” said she, drawing her away, “Come and look into
this fair garden. It may be, we shall see flowers there; more beautiful ones
than we find in the woods.”
Pearl, accordingly, ran to the bow-window, at the farther end of the
hall, and looked along the vista of a garden-walk, carpeted with closely
shaven grass, and bordered with some rude and immature attempt at
shrubbery. But the proprietor appeared already to have relinquished, as
hopeless, the effort to perpetuate on this side of the Atlantic, in a hard soil
and amid the close struggle for subsistence, the native English taste for
ornamental gardening. Cabbages grew in plain sight; and a pumpkin vine,
rooted at some distance, had run across the intervening space, and
deposited one of its gigantic products directly beneath the hall-windows,
as if to warn the Governor that this great lump of vegetable gold was as
rich an ornament as New England earth would offer him. There were a few
rose-bushes, however, and a number of apple-trees, probably the descendants of those planted by the Reverend Mr. Blackstone,59 the first settler
of the peninsula; that half mythological personage who rides through our
early annals, seated on the back of a bull.
Pearl, seeing the rose-bushes, began to cry for a red rose, and would
not be pacified.
“Hush, child, hush!” said her mother earnestly. “Do not cry, dear little
Pearl! I hear voices in the garden. The Governor is coming, and gentlemen
along with him!”
In fact, adown the vista of the garden-avenue, a number of persons
were seen approaching towards the house. Pearl, in utter scorn of her
mother’s attempt to quiet her, gave an eldritch scream, and then became
silent; not from any notion of obedience, but because the quick and mobile
curiosity of her disposition was excited by the appearance of those new
59. The Reverend Richard Blackstone (1595–1675) has been called Boston’s first white resident because he emigrated in 1623 and became a prominent early citizen of the town.
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Chapter VIII. The Elf-Child and the Minister
Governor Bellingham, in a loose gown and easy cap, — such as elderly
gentlemen loved to indue themselves with, in their domestic privacy, —
walked foremost, and appeared to be showing off his estate, and expatiating on his projected improvements. The wide circumference of an elaborate
ruff, beneath his gray beard, in the antiquated fashion of King James’s
reign, caused his head to look not a little like that of John the Baptist in a
charger. The impression made by his aspect, so rigid and severe, and frostbitten with more than autumnal age, was hardly in keeping with the appliances of worldly enjoyment wherewith he had evidently done his utmost to
surround himself. But it is an error to suppose that our great forefathers —
though accustomed to speak and think of human existence as a state
merely of trial and warfare, and though unfeignedly prepared to sacrifice
goods and life at the behest of duty — made it a matter of conscience to
reject such means of comfort, or even luxury, as lay fairly within their
grasp. This creed was never taught, for instance, by the venerable pastor,
John Wilson, whose beard, white as a snow-drift, was seen over Governor
Bellingham’s shoulders; while its wearer suggested that pears and peaches
might yet be naturalized in the New England climate, and that purple
grapes might possibly be compelled to flourish, against the sunny gardenwall. The old clergyman, nurtured at the rich bosom of the English Church,
had a long established and legitimate taste for all good and comfortable
things; and however stern he might show himself in the pulpit, or in his
public reproof of such transgressions as that of Hester Prynne, still, the
genial benevolence of his private life had won him warmer affection than
was accorded to any of his professional contemporaries.
Behind the Governor and Mr. Wilson came two other guests; one, the
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, whom the reader may remember, as having
taken a brief and reluctant part in the scene of Hester Prynne’s disgrace; and,
in close companionship with him, old Roger Chillingworth, a person of great
skill in physic, who, for two or three years past, had been settled in the town.
It was understood that this learned man was the physician as well as friend of
the young minister, whose health had severely suffered, of late, by his too
unreserved self-sacrifice to the labors and duties of the pastoral relation.
The Governor, in advance of his visitors, ascended one or two steps,
and, throwing open the leaves of the great hall-window, found himself
close to little Pearl. The shadow of the curtain fell on Hester Prynne, and
partially concealed her.
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“What have we here?” said Governor Bellingham, looking with surprise at the scarlet little figure before him. “I profess, I have never seen the
like, since my days of vanity, in old King James’s time, when I was wont to
esteem it a high favor to be admitted to a court mask!60 There used to be a
swarm of these small apparitions, in holiday-time; and we called them
children of the Lord of Misrule. But how gat such a guest into my hall?”
“Ay, indeed!” cried good old Mr. Wilson. “What little bird of scarlet
plumage may this be? Methinks I have seen just such figures, when the
sun has been shining through a richly painted window, and tracing out the
golden and crimson images across the floor. But that was in the old land.
Prithee, young one, who art thou, and what has ailed thy mother to bedizen
thee in this strange fashion? Art thou a Christian child, — ha? Dost know
thy catechism? Or art thou one of those naughty elfs or fairies, whom we
thought to have left behind us, with other relics of Papistry, in merry old
“I am mother’s child,” answered the scarlet vision, “and my name is
“Pearl? — Ruby, rather! — or Coral! — or Red Rose, at the very least,
judging from thy hue!” responded the old minister, putting forth his hand
in a vain attempt to pat little Pearl on the cheek. “But where is this mother
of thine? Ah! I see,” he added; and, turning to Governor Bellingham, whispered, — “This is the selfsame child of whom we have held speech together;
and behold here the unhappy woman, Hester Prynne, her mother!”
“Sayest thou so?” cried the Governor. “Nay, we might have judged
that such a child’s mother must needs be a scarlet woman, and a worthy
type of her of Babylon!62 But she comes at a good time; and we will look
into this matter forthwith.”
60. King James I of England (1603–1625) is perhaps best known for commissioning and publishing an English translation of the Bible, now known as the Authorized Version. During his
reign, the court mask/masque was a fashionable form of entertainment in which aristocratic
individuals would perform the central roles in plays constructed with elaborate sets and fantastic musical and dancing scenes.
61. The Puritans discouraged the reading of fairy tales, focusing instead on more didactic tales
that taught moral character and conduct. By emphasizing that Pearl should know the catechism rather than folk tales, Mr. Wilson presents this moral view of education while also implying that Pearl herself is an elf or fairy: spirits that the Puritans associated with the devil.
62. A central figure of the apocalyptic book of Revelation is often called the whore of Babylon;
Revelation 17:3–5 refers to a woman dressed in purple, scarlet, gold, and pearls with a cup filled
with “abominations and filthiness of her fornication.” Hawthorne rather cleverly invokes the word
“whore” without actually writing it. The Puritans used the term to refer to the Catholic Church.
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Governor Bellingham stepped through the window into the hall, followed by his three guests.
“Hester Prynne,” said he, fixing his naturally stern regard on the
wearer of the scarlet letter, “there hath been much question concerning
thee, of late. The point hath been weightily discussed, whether we, that are
of authority and influence, do well discharge our consciences by trusting
an immortal soul, such as there is in yonder child, to the guidance of one
who hath stumbled and fallen, amid the pitfalls of this world. Speak thou,
the child’s own mother! Were it not, thinkest thou, for thy little one’s temporal and eternal welfare, that she be taken out of thy charge, and clad
soberly, and disciplined strictly, and instructed in the truths of heaven and
earth? What canst thou do for the child, in this kind?”
“I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this!” answered
Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token.
“Woman, it is thy badge of shame!” replied the stern magistrate. “It is
because of the stain which that letter indicates, that we would transfer thy
child to other hands.”
“Nevertheless,” said the mother calmly, though growing more pale,
“this badge hath taught me, — it daily teaches me, — it is teaching me at
this moment, — lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better,
albeit they can profit nothing to myself.”
“We will judge warily,” said Bellingham, “and look well what we are
about to do. Good Master Wilson, I pray you, examine this Pearl, — since
that is her name, — and see whether she hath had such Christian nurture
as befits a child of her age.”
The old minister seated himself in an arm-chair, and made an effort
to draw Pearl betwixt his knees. But the child, unaccustomed to the touch
or familiarity of any but her mother, escaped through the open window
and stood on the upper step, looking like a wild, tropical bird, of rich
plumage, ready to take flight into the upper air. Mr. Wilson, not a little
astonished at this outbreak, — for he was a grandfatherly sort of personage, and usually a vast favorite with children, — essayed, however, to proceed with the examination.
“Pearl,” said he, with great solemnity, “thou must take heed to instruction, that so, in due season, thou mayest wear in thy bosom the pearl of
great price. Canst thou tell me, my child, who made thee?”
Now Pearl knew well enough who made her; for Hester Prynne, the
daughter of a pious home, very soon after her talk with the child about her
Heavenly Father, had begun to inform her of those truths which the human
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spirit, at whatever stage of immaturity, imbibes with such eager interest.
Pearl, therefore, so large were the attainments of her three years’ lifetime,
could have borne a fair examination in the New England Primer, or the first
column of the Westminster Catechism,63 although unacquainted with the
outward form of either of those celebrated works. But that perversity,
which all children have more or less of, and of which little Pearl had a tenfold portion, now, at the most inopportune moment, took thorough possession of her, and closed her lips, or impelled her to speak words amiss. After
putting her finger in her mouth, with many ungracious refusals to answer
good Mr. Wilson’s question, the child finally announced that she had not
been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild
roses, that grew by the prison-door.
This fantasy was probably suggested by the near proximity of the
Governor’s red roses, as Pearl stood outside of the window; together with her
recollection of the prison rose-bush, which she had passed in coming hither.
Old Roger Chillingworth, with a smile on his face, whispered something in the young clergyman’s ear. Hester Prynne looked at the man of
skill, and even then, with her fate hanging in the balance, was startled to
perceive what a change had come over his features, — how much uglier they
were, — how his dark complexion seemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen, — since the days when she had familiarly known him.
She met his eyes for an instant, but was immediately constrained to give all
her attention to the scene now going forward.
“This is awful!” cried the Governor, slowly recovering from the astonishment into which Pearl’s response had thrown him. “Here is a child of
three years old, and she cannot tell who made her! Without question, she is
equally in the dark as to her soul, its present depravity, and future destiny!
Methinks, gentlemen, we need inquire no further.”
Hester caught hold of Pearl, and drew her forcibly into her arms, confronting the old Puritan magistrate with almost a fierce expression. Alone
in the world, cast off by it, and with this sole treasure to keep her heart
alive, she felt that she possessed indefeasible rights against the world, and
was ready to defend them to the death.
63. A primer is a first book used to teach the letters of the alphabet. The New England Primer
was an early one, although it was probably not published until around 1690 — after the setting of The Scarlet Letter. The Westminster Catechism was printed in 1647 and gave a series
of questions and answers based on biblical passages. It was widely used by the Puritans.
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“God gave me the child!” cried she. “He gave her, in requital of all
things else, which ye had taken from me. She is my happiness! — she is my
torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me, too!
See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so
endowed with a million-fold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall
not take her! I will die first!”
“My poor woman,” said the not unkind old minister, “the child shall
be well cared for! — far better than thou canst do it.”
“God gave her into my keeping,” repeated Hester Prynne, raising her
voice almost to a shriek. “I will not give her up!”— And here by a sudden
impulse, she turned to the young clergyman, Mr. Dimmesdale, at whom, up
to this moment, she had seemed hardly so much as once to direct her
eyes. — “Speak thou for me!” cried she. “Thou wast my pastor, and hadst
charge of my soul, and knowest me better than these men can. I will not
lose the child! Speak for me! Thou knowest, — for thou hast sympathies
which these men lack! — thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a
mother’s rights, and how much the stronger they are, when that mother
has but her child and the scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will not lose the
child! Look to it!”
At this wild and singular appeal, which indicated that Hester
Prynne’s situation had provoked her to little less than madness, the young
minister at once came forward, pale, and holding his hand over his heart,
as was his custom whenever his peculiarly nervous temperament was
thrown into agitation. He looked now more careworn and emaciated than
as we described him at the scene of Hester’s public ignominy; and whether
it were his failing health, or whatever the cause might be, his large dark
eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth.
“There is truth in what she says,” began the minister, with a voice
sweet, tremulous, but powerful, insomuch that the hall re-echoed, and the
hollow armor rang with it — “truth in what Hester says, and in the feeling
which inspires her! God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive
knowledge of its nature and requirements, — both seemingly so peculiar, —
which no other mortal being can possess. And, moreover, is there not
a quality of awful sacredness in the relation between this mother and
this child?”
“Ay! — how is that, good Master Dimmesdale?” interrupted the
Governor. “Make that plain, I pray you!”
“It must be even so,” resumed the minister. “For, if we deem it otherwise, do we not thereby say that the Heavenly Father, the Creator of all
flesh, hath lightly recognized a deed of sin, and made of no account the
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distinction between unhallowed lust and holy love? This child of its father’s
guilt and its mother’s shame has come from the hand of God, to work in
many ways upon her heart, who pleads so earnestly, and with such bitterness of spirit, the right to keep her. It was meant for a blessing; for the one
blessing of her life! It was meant, doubtless, as the mother herself hath told
us, for a retribution too; a torture, to be felt at many an unthought of
moment; a pang, a sting, an ever-recurring agony, in the midst of a troubled
joy! Hath she not expressed this thought in the garb of the poor child, so
forcibly reminding us of that red symbol which sears her bosom?”
“Well said, again!” cried good Mr. Wilson. “I feared the woman had no
better thought than to make a mountebank of her child!”
“O, not so! — not so!” continued Mr. Dimmesdale. “She recognizes,
believe me, the solemn miracle which God hath wrought, in the existence
of that child. And may she feel, too, — what, methinks, is the very truth, —
that this boon was meant, above all things else, to keep the mother’s soul
alive, and to preserve her from blacker depths of sin into which Satan
might else have sought to plunge her! Therefore it is good for this poor,
sinful woman that she hath an infant immortality, a being capable of eternal joy or sorrow, confided to her care, — to be trained up by her to righteousness, — to remind her, at every moment, of her fall, — but yet to teach
her, as it were by the Creator’s sacred pledge, that, if she bring the child to
heaven, the child also will bring its parent thither! Herein is the sinful
mother happier than the sinful father. For Hester Prynne’s sake, then, and
no less for the poor child’s sake, let us leave them as Providence hath seen
fit to place them!”
“You speak, my friend, with a strange earnestness,” said old Roger
Chillingworth, smiling at him.
“And there is weighty import in what my young brother hath spoken,”
added the Reverend Mr. Wilson. “What say you, worshipful Master
Bellingham? Hath he not pleaded well for the poor woman?”
“Indeed hath he,” answered the magistrate, “and hath adduced such
arguments, that we will even leave the matter as it now stands; so long,
at least, as there shall be no further scandal in the woman. Care must be
had, nevertheless, to put the child to due and stated examination in the
catechism at thy hands or Master Dimmesdale’s. Moreover, at a proper
season, the tithing-men must take heed that she go both to school and to
The young minister, on ceasing to speak, had withdrawn a few steps
from the group, and stood with his face partially concealed in the heavy
folds of the window-curtain; while the shadow of his figure, which the
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sunlight cast upon the floor, was tremulous with the vehemence of his
appeal. Pearl, that wild and flighty little elf, stole softly towards him, and,
taking his hand in the grasp of both her own, laid her cheek against it; a
caress so tender, and withal so unobtrusive, that her mother, who was
looking on, asked herself, — “Is that my Pearl?” Yet she knew that there was
love in the child’s heart, although it mostly revealed itself in passion, and
hardly twice in her lifetime had been softened by such gentleness as now.
The minister, — for, save the long-sought regards of woman, nothing is
sweeter than these marks of childish preference, accorded spontaneously
by a spiritual instinct, and therefore seeming to imply in us something
truly worthy to be loved, — the minister looked round, laid his hand on the
child’s head, hesitated an instant, and then kissed her brow. Little Pearl’s
unwonted mood of sentiment lasted no longer; she laughed, and went
capering down the hall, so airily, that old Mr. Wilson raised a question
whether even her tiptoes touched the floor.
“The little baggage hath witchcraft in her, I profess,” said he to
Mr. Dimmesdale. “She needs no old woman’s broomstick to fly withal!”
“A strange child!” remarked old Roger Chillingworth. “It is easy to see
the mother’s part in her. Would it be beyond a philosopher’s research,
think ye, gentlemen, to analyze that child’s nature, and, from its make and
mould, to give a shrewd guess at the father?”
“Nay; it would be sinful, in such a question, to follow the clew of profane philosophy,” said Mr. Wilson. “Better to fast and pray upon it; and
still better, it may be, to leave the mystery as we find it, unless Providence
reveal it of its own accord. Thereby, every good Christian man hath a title
to show a father’s kindness towards the poor, deserted babe.”
The affair being so satisfactorily concluded, Hester Prynne, with
Pearl, departed from the house. As they descended the steps, it is averred
that the lattice of a chamber-window was thrown open, and forth into the
sunny day was thrust the face of Mistress Hibbins, Governor Bellingham’s
bitter-tempered sister, and the same who, a few years later, was executed
as a witch.
“Hist, hist!” said she, while her ill-omened physiognomy seemed
to cast a shadow over the cheerful newness of the house. “Wilt thou go
with us to-night? There will be a merry company in the forest; and I
wellnigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should
make one.”
“Make my excuse to him, so please you!” answered Hester, with a triumphant smile. “I must tarry at home, and keep watch over my little Pearl.
Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the
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forest, and signed my name in the Black Man’s book too, and that with
mine own blood!”
“We shall have thee there anon!” said the witch-lady, frowning, as she
drew back her head.
But here — if we suppose this interview betwixt Mistress Hibbins and
Hester Prynne to be authentic, and not a parable — was already an illustration of the young minister’s argument against sundering the relation of a
fallen mother to the offspring of her frailty. Even thus early had the child
saved her from Satan’s snare.
Chapter IX. The Leech64
Under the appellation of Roger Chillingworth, the reader will remember, was hidden another name, which its former wearer had resolved
should never more be spoken. It has been related, how, in the crowd that
witnessed Hester Prynne’s ignominious exposure, stood 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. Her matronly fame was
trodden under all men’s feet. Infamy was babbling around her in the public
market-place. For her kindred, should the tidings ever reach them, and for
the companions of her unspotted life, there remained nothing but the contagion of her dishonor; which would not fail to be distributed in strict
accordance and proportion with the intimacy and sacredness of their previous relationship. Then why — since the choice was with himself — should
the individual, whose connection with the fallen woman had been the
most intimate and sacred of them all, come forward to vindicate his claim
to an inheritance so little desirable? He resolved not to be pilloried beside
her on her pedestal of shame. Unknown to all but Hester Prynne, and possessing the lock and key of her silence, he chose to withdraw his name
from the roll of mankind, and, as regarded his former ties and interest, to
vanish out of life as completely as if he indeed lay at the bottom of the
ocean, whither rumor had long ago consigned him. This purpose once
effected, new interests would immediately spring up, and likewise a new
64. leech: An archaic term for physician. Doctors used leeches to remove “bad” blood from
their patients and were frequently identified by this term.
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purpose; dark, it is true, if not guilty, but of force enough to engage the full
strength of his faculties.
In pursuance of this resolve, he took up his residence in the Puritan
town, as Roger Chillingworth, without other introduction than the learning and intelligence of which he possessed more than a common measure.
As his studies, at a previous period of his life, had made him extensively
acquainted with the medical science of the day, it was as a physician that
he presented himself, and as such was cordially received. Skilful men, of
the medical and chirurgical profession, were of rare occurrence in the
colony. They seldom, it would appear, partook of the religious zeal that
brought other emigrants across the Atlantic. In their researches into the
human frame, it may be that the higher and more subtile faculties of such
men were materialized, and that they lost the spiritual view of existence
amid the intricacies of that wondrous mechanism, which seemed to
involve art enough to comprise all of life within itself. At all events, the
health of the good town of Boston, so far as medicine had aught to do with
it, had hitherto lain in the guardianship of an aged deacon and apothecary,
whose piety and godly deportment were stronger testimonials in his favor,
than any that he could have produced in the shape of a diploma. The only
surgeon was one who combined the occasional exercise of that noble art
with the daily and habitual flourish of a razor. To such a professional body
Roger Chillingworth was a brilliant acquisition. He soon manifested his
familiarity with the ponderous and imposing machinery of antique
physic; in which every remedy contained a multitude of far-fetched and
heterogeneous ingredients, as elaborately compounded as if the proposed
result had been the Elixir of Life. In his Indian captivity, moreover, he had
gained much knowledge of the properties of native herbs and roots; nor
did he conceal from his patients, that these simple medicines, Nature’s
boon to the untutored savage, had quite as large a share of his own confidence as the European pharmacopoeia, which so many learned doctors
had spent centuries in elaborating.
This learned stranger was exemplary, as regarded at least the outward forms of a religious life, and, early after his arrival, had chosen for
his spiritual guide the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. The young divine, whose
scholar-like renown still lived in Oxford, was considered by his more fervent admirers as little less than a heaven-ordained apostle, destined,
should he live and labor for the ordinary term of life, to do as great deeds
for the now feeble New England Church, as the early Fathers had achieved
for the infancy of the Christian faith. About this period, however, the
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health of Mr. Dimmesdale had evidently begun to fail. By those best
acquainted with his habits, the paleness of the young minister’s cheek was
accounted for by his too earnest devotion to study, his scrupulous fulfilment of parochial duty, and, more than all, by the fasts and vigils of which
he made a frequent practice, in order to keep the grossness of this earthly
state from clogging and obscuring his spiritual lamp. Some declared, that,
if Mr. Dimmesdale were really going to die, it was cause enough, that the
world was not worthy to be any longer trodden by his feet. He himself, on
the other hand, with characteristic humility, avowed his belief that if
Providence should see fit to remove him, it would be because of his own
unworthiness to perform its humblest mission here on earth. With all this
difference of opinion as to the cause of his decline, there could be no question of the fact. His form grew emaciated; his voice, though still rich and
sweet, had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay in it; he was often
observed, on any slight alarm or other sudden accident, to put his hand
over his heart, with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of pain.
Such was the young clergyman’s condition, and so imminent the
prospect that his dawning light would be extinguished, all untimely, when
Roger Chillingworth made his advent to the town. His first entry on the
scene, few people could tell whence, dropping down, as it were, out of the
sky, or starting from the nether earth, had an aspect of mystery, which was
easily heightened to the miraculous. He was now known to be a man of skill;
it was observed that he gathered herbs, and the blossoms of wild-flowers,
and dug up roots and plucked off twigs from the forest-trees, like one
acquainted with hidden virtues in what was valueless to common eyes. He
was heard to speak of Sir Kenelm Digby,65 and other famous men, — whose
scientific attainments were esteemed hardly less than supernatural, — as
having been his correspondents or associates. Why, with such rank in the
learned world, had he come hither? What could he, whose sphere was in
great cities, be seeking in the wilderness? In answer to this query, a rumor
gained ground, — and, however absurd, was entertained by some very sensible people, — that Heaven had wrought an absolute miracle, by transporting an eminent Doctor of Physic, from a German university bodily through
the air, and setting him down at the door of Mr. Dimmesdale’s study!
65. Sir Kenelm Digby: A seventeenth-century scientist whose beliefs and practices represented a mix of scientific methodology and alchemy. In 1644, he published two works: Nature
of Bodies and The Immortality of Reasonable Souls.
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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
so opportune arrival.
This idea was countenanced by the strong interest which the physician ever manifested in the young clergyman; he attached himself to him
as a parishioner, and sought to win a friendly regard and confidence
from his naturally reserved sensibility. He expressed great alarm at his
pastor’s state of health, but was anxious to attempt the cure, and, if early
undertaken, seemed not despondent of a favorable result. The elders, the
deacons, the motherly dames, and the young and fair maidens, of
Mr. Dimmesdale’s flock, were alike importunate that he should make trial
of the physician’s frankly offered skill. Mr. Dimmesdale gently repelled
their entreaties.
“I need no medicine,” said he.
But how could the young minister say so, when, with every successive
Sabbath, his cheek was paler and thinner, and his voice more tremulous
than before, — when it had now become a constant habit, rather than a
casual gesture, to press his hand over his heart? Was he weary of his
labors? Did he wish to die? These questions were solemnly propounded to
Mr. Dimmesdale by the elder ministers of Boston and the deacons of his
church, who, to use their own phrase, “dealt with him,” on the sin of rejecting the aid which Providence so manifestly held out. He listened in silence,
and finally promised to confer with the physician.
“Were it God’s will,” said the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, when, in
fulfilment of this pledge, he requested old Roger Chillingworth’s professional advice, “I could be well content, that my labors, and my sorrows,
and my sins, and my pains, should shortly end with me, and what is
earthly of them be buried in my grave, and the spiritual go with me to my
eternal state, rather than that you should put your skill to the proof in my
“Ah,” replied Roger Chillingworth, with that quietness which, whether
imposed or natural, marked all his deportment, “it is thus that a young
clergyman is apt to speak. Youthful men, not having taken a deep root, give
up their hold of life so easily! And saintly men, who walk with God on earth,
would fain be away, to walk with him on the golden pavements of the New
“Nay,” rejoined the young minister, putting his hand to his heart,
with a flush of pain flitting over his brow, “were I worthier to walk there, I
could be better content to toil here.”
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“Good men ever interpret themselves too meanly,” said the physician.
In this manner, the mysterious old Roger Chillingworth became the
medical adviser of the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. As not only the disease
interested the physician, but he was strongly moved to look into the character and qualities of the patient, these two men, so different in age, came
gradually to spend much time together. For the sake of the minister’s
health, and to enable the leech to gather plants with healing balm in them,
they took long walks on the seashore, or in the forest; mingling various
talk with the plash and murmur of the waves, and the solemn wind-anthem
among the tree-tops. Often, likewise, one was the guest of the other, in his
place of study and retirement. 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. In truth, he was startled, if not shocked, to find this
attribute in the physician. Mr. Dimmesdale was a true priest, a true religionist, with the reverential sentiment largely developed, and an order of
mind that impelled itself powerfully along the track of a creed, and wore
its passage continually deeper with the lapse of time. In no state of society
would he have been what is called a man of liberal views; it would always
be essential to his peace to feel the pressure of a faith about him, supporting, while it confined him within its iron framework. Not the less, however,
though with a tremulous enjoyment, did he feel the occasional relief of
looking at the universe through the medium of another kind of intellect
than those with which he habitually held converse. It was as if a window
were thrown open, admitting a freer atmosphere into the close and stifled
study, where his life was wasting itself away, amid lamp-light, or obstructed
day-beams, and the musty fragrance, be it sensual or moral, that exhales
from books. But the air was too fresh and chill to be long breathed, with
comfort. So the minister, and the physician with him, withdrew again
within the limits of what their church defined as orthodox.
Thus Roger Chillingworth scrutinized his patient carefully, both as he
saw him in his ordinary life, keeping an accustomed pathway in the range
of thoughts familiar to him, and as he appeared when thrown amidst other
moral scenery, the novelty of which might call out something new to the
surface of his character. He deemed it essential, it would seem, to know the
man, before attempting to do him good. Wherever there is a heart and an
intellect, the diseases of the physical frame are tinged with the peculiarities of these. In Arthur Dimmesdale, thought and imagination were so
active, and sensibility so intense, that the bodily infirmity would be likely
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to have its groundwork there. So Roger Chillingworth — the man of skill, the
kind and friendly physician — strove to go deep into his patient’s bosom,
delving among his principles, prying into his recollections, and probing
every thing with a cautious touch, like a treasure-seeker in a dark cavern.
Few secrets can escape an investigator, who has opportunity and license to
undertake such a quest, and skill to follow it up. A man burdened with a
secret should especially avoid the intimacy of his physician. If the latter
possess native sagacity, and a nameless something more, — let us call it
intuition; if he show no intrusive egotism, nor disagreeably prominent
characteristics of his own; if he have the power, which must be born with
him, to bring his mind into such affinity with his patient’s, that this last
shall unawares have spoken what he imagines himself only to have
thought; if such revelations be received without tumult, and acknowledged
not so often by an uttered sympathy, as by silence, an inarticulate breath,
and here and there a word, to indicate that all is understood; if, to these
qualifications of a confidant be joined the advantages afforded by his recognized character as a physician; — then, at some inevitable moment, will
the soul of the sufferer be dissolved, and flow forth in a dark, but transparent stream, bringing all its mysteries into the daylight.
Roger Chillingworth possessed all, or most, of the attributes above
enumerated. Nevertheless, time went on; a kind of intimacy, as we have
said, grew up between these two cultivated minds, which had as wide a
field as the whole sphere of human thought and study, to meet upon; they
discussed every topic of ethics and religion, of public affairs, and private
character; they talked much, on both sides, of matters that seemed personal to themselves; and yet no secret, such as the physician fancied must
exist there, ever stole out of the minister’s consciousness into his companion’s ear. The latter had his suspicions, indeed, that even the nature of
Mr. Dimmesdale’s bodily disease had never fairly been revealed to him. It
was a strange reserve!
After a time, at a hint from Roger Chillingworth, the friends of Mr.
Dimmesdale effected an arrangement by which the two were lodged in the
same house; so that every ebb and flow of the minister’s life-tide might
pass under the eye of his anxious and attached physician. There was much
joy throughout the town, when this greatly desirable object was attained.
It was held to be the best possible measure for the young clergyman’s welfare; unless, indeed, as often urged by such as felt authorized to do so, he
had selected some one of the many blooming damsels, spiritually devoted
to him, to become his devoted wife. This latter step, however, there was no
present prospect that Arthur Dimmesdale would be prevailed upon to take;
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he rejected all suggestions of the kind, as if priestly celibacy were one of
his articles of church-discipline. Doomed by his own choice, therefore, as
Mr. Dimmesdale so evidently was, to eat his unsavory morsel always at
another’s board, and endure the life-long chill which must be his lot who
seeks to warm himself only at another’s fireside, it truly seemed that this
sagacious, experienced, benevolent, old physician, with his concord of
paternal and reverential love for the young pastor, was the very man, of all
mankind, to be constantly within reach of his voice.
The new abode of the two friends was with a pious widow, of
good social rank, who dwelt in a house covering pretty nearly the site on
which the venerable structure of King’s Chapel has since been built. It had
the grave-yard, originally Isaac Johnson’s home-field, on one side, and so
was well adapted to call up serious reflections, suited to their respective
employments, in both minister and man of physic. The motherly care of the
good widow assigned to Mr. Dimmesdale a front apartment, with a sunny
exposure, and heavy window-curtains to create a noontide shadow, when
desirable. The walls were hung round with tapestry, said to be from the
Gobelin looms, and, at all events, representing the Scriptural story of
David and Bathsheba, and Nathan the Prophet,66 in colors still unfaded, but
which made the fair woman of the scene almost as grimly picturesque as
the woe-denouncing seer. Here, the pale clergyman piled up his library, rich
with parchment-bound folios of the Fathers, and the lore of Rabbis, and
monkish erudition, of which the Protestant divines, even while they vilified
and decried that class of writers, were yet constrained often to avail themselves. On the other side of the house, old Roger Chillingworth arranged
his study and laboratory; not such as a modern man of science would
reckon even tolerably complete, but provided with a distilling apparatus,
and the means of compounding drugs and chemicals, which the practised
alchemist knew well how to turn to purpose. With such commodiousness
of situation, these two learned persons sat themselves down, each in his
own domain, yet familiarly passing from one apartment to the other,
and bestowing a mutual and not incurious inspection into one another’s
And the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale’s best discerning friends, as we
have intimated, very reasonably imagined that the hand of Providence had
66. In II Samuel 11–12, King David sees a naked woman, seduces her, and then has her husband murdered. The prophet Nathan eventually forces David to an acknowledgment of his
own guilt. In this section, the presence of the tapestry — made by the famous French manufacturer Gobelin — seems to repeatedly call Dimmesdale’s attention to his sin of adultery.
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done all this, for the purpose — besought in so many public, and domestic,
and secret prayers — of restoring the young minister to health. But — it
must now be said — another portion of the community had latterly begun to
take its own view of the relation betwixt Mr. Dimmesdale and the mysterious old physician. When an uninstructed multitude attempts to see with its
eyes, it is exceedingly apt to be deceived. When, however, it forms its judgment, as it usually does, on the intuitions of its great and warm heart, the
conclusions thus attained are often so profound and so unerring, as to possess the character of truths supernaturally revealed. The people, in the case
of which we speak, could justify its prejudice against Roger Chillingworth
by no fact or argument worthy of serious refutation. There was an aged
handicraftsman, it is true, who had been a citizen of London at the period of
Sir Thomas Overbury’s murder,67 now some thirty years agone; he testified
to having seen the physician, under some other name, which the narrator of
the story had now forgotten, in company with Doctor Forman, the famous
old conjurer, who was implicated in the affair of Overbury. Two or three
individuals hinted, that the man of skill, during his Indian captivity, had
enlarged his medical attainments by joining in the incantations of the savage priests; who were universally acknowledged to be powerful enchanters,
often performing seemingly miraculous cures by their skill in the black art.
A large number — and many of these were persons of such sober sense and
practical observation, that their opinions would have been valuable, in
other matters — affirmed that Roger Chillingworth’s aspect had undergone
a remarkable change while he had dwelt in town, and especially since his
abode with Mr. Dimmesdale. At first, his expression had been calm, meditative, scholar-like. Now, there was something ugly and evil in his face,
which they had not previously noticed, and which grew still the more obvious to sight, the oftener they looked upon him. According to the vulgar idea,
the fire in his laboratory had been brought from the lower regions, and was
fed with infernal fuel; and so, as might be expected, his visage was getting
sooty with the smoke.
To sum up the matter, it grew to be a widely diffused opinion, that the
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, like many other personages of especial
sanctity, in all ages of the Christian world, was haunted either by Satan
67. An English author and courtier, Sir Thomas Overbury was involved in an adultery scandal
in 1615. Overbury disapproved of his friend Robert Carr’s marriage to Frances Howard, the
divorced wife of the earl of Essex. Her friends had him imprisoned in the Tower of London
and slowly poisoned him.
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himself, or Satan’s emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth. This
diabolical agent had the Divine permission, for a season, to burrow into
the clergyman’s intimacy, and plot against his soul. No sensible man, it
was confessed, could doubt on which side the victory would turn. The people looked, with an unshaken hope, to see the minister come forth out of
the conflict, transfigured with the glory which he would unquestionably
win. Meanwhile, nevertheless, it was sad to think of the perchance mortal
agony through which he must struggle towards his triumph.
Alas, to judge from the gloom and terror in the depths of the poor minister’s eyes, the battle was a sore one, and the victory any thing but secure!
Chapter X. The Leech and His Patient
Old Roger Chillingworth, throughout life, had been calm in temperament, kindly, though not of warm affections, but ever, and in all his relations
with the world, a pure and upright man. He had begun an investigation, as he
imagined, with the severe and equal integrity of a judge, desirous only of
truth, even as if the question involved no more than the air-drawn lines and
figures of a geometrical problem, instead of human passions, and wrongs
inflicted on himself. But, as he proceeded, a terrible fascination, a kind of
fierce, though still calm, necessity seized the old man within its gripe, and
never set him free again, until he had done all its bidding. He now dug into
the poor clergyman’s heart, like a miner searching for gold; or, rather, like a
sexton delving into a grave, possibly in quest of a jewel that had been buried
on the dead man’s bosom, but likely to find nothing save mortality and corruption. Alas for his own soul, if these were what he sought!
Sometimes, a light glimmered out of the physician’s eyes, burning
blue and ominous, like the reflection of a furnace, or, let us say, like one of
those gleams of ghastly fire that darted from Bunyan’s awful door-way in
the hill-side,68 and quivered on the pilgrim’s face. The soil where this dark
miner was working had perchance shown indications that encouraged him.
“This man,” said he, at one such moment, to himself, “pure as they
deem him, — all spiritual as he seems, — hath inherited a strong animal
68. A Pilgrim’s Progress, published by John Bunyan in 1678, is an allegorical tale of a man’s
journey through life. The central character, Christian, overcomes various obstacles and learns
many virtues on the way to the Celestial City. This doorway represents the gates of hell.
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nature from his father or his mother. Let us dig a little farther in the direction of this vein!”
Then, after long search into the minister’s dim interior, and turning
over many precious materials, in the shape of high aspirations for the welfare
of his race, warm love of souls, pure sentiments, natural piety, strengthened by thought and study, and illuminated by revelation, — all of which
invaluable gold was perhaps no better than rubbish to the seeker, — he
would turn back, discouraged, and begin his quest towards another point.
He groped along as stealthily, with as cautious a tread, and as wary an outlook, as a thief entering a chamber where a man lies only half asleep, — or, it
may be, broad awake, — with purpose to steal the very treasure which this
man guards as the apple of his eye. In spite of his premeditated carefulness,
the floor would now and then creak; his garments would rustle; the shadow
of his presence, in a forbidden proximity, would be thrown across his victim. In other words, Mr. Dimmesdale, whose sensibility of nerve often produced the effect of spiritual intuition, would become vaguely aware that
something inimical to his peace had thrust itself into relation with him.
But old Roger Chillingworth, too, had perceptions that were almost
intuitive; and when the minister threw his startled eyes towards him, there
the physician sat; his kind, watchful, sympathizing, but never intrusive
Yet Mr. Dimmesdale would perhaps have seen this individual’s character more perfectly, if a certain morbidness, to which sick hearts are
liable, had not rendered him suspicious of all mankind. Trusting no man
as his friend, he could not recognize his enemy when the latter actually
appeared. He therefore still kept up a familiar intercourse with him, daily
receiving the old physician in his study; or visiting the laboratory, and, for
recreation’s sake, watching the processes by which weeds were converted
into drugs of potency.
One day, leaning his forehead on his hand, and his elbow on the sill of
the open window, that looked towards the grave-yard, he talked with Roger
Chillingworth, while the old man was examining a bundle of unsightly plants.
“Where,” asked he, with a look askance at them, — for it was the clergyman’s peculiarity that he seldom, now-a-days, looked straightforth at
any object, whether human or inanimate, — “where, my kind doctor, did
you gather those herbs, with such a dark, flabby leaf?”
“Even in the grave-yard, here at hand,” answered the physician, continuing his employment. “They are new to me. I found them growing on a
grave, which bore no tombstone, no other memorial of the dead man, save
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these ugly weeds that have taken upon themselves to keep him in remembrance. They grew out of his heart, and typify, it may be, some hideous
secret that was buried with him, and which he had done better to confess
during his lifetime.”
“Perchance,” said Mr. Dimmesdale, “he earnestly desired it, but
could not.”
“And wherefore?” rejoined the physician. “Wherefore not; since all
the powers of nature call so earnestly for the confession of sin, that these
black weeds have sprung up out of a buried heart, to make manifest an outspoken crime?”
“That, good Sir, is but a fantasy of yours,” replied the minister. “There
can be, if I forbode aright, no power, short of the Divine mercy, to disclose,
whether by uttered words, or by type or emblem, the secrets that may be
buried with a human heart. The heart, making itself guilty of such secrets,
must perforce hold them, until the day when all hidden things shall be
revealed. Nor have I so read or interpreted Holy Writ, as to understand that
the disclosure of human thoughts and deeds, then to be made, is intended as
a part of the retribution. That, surely, were a shallow view of it. No; these revelations, unless I greatly err, are meant merely to promote the intellectual
satisfaction of all intelligent beings, who will stand waiting, on that day, to
see the dark problem of this life made plain. A knowledge of men’s hearts will
be needful to the completest solution of that problem. And I conceive, moreover, that the hearts holding such miserable secrets as you speak of will yield
them up, at that last day, not with reluctance, but with a joy unutterable.”
“Then why not reveal them here?” asked Roger Chillingworth, glancing quietly aside at the minister. “Why should not the guilty ones sooner
avail themselves of this unutterable solace?”
“They mostly do,” said the clergyman, griping hard at his breast, as if
afflicted with an importunate throb of pain. “Many, many a poor soul hath
given its confidence to me, not only on the death-bed, but while strong in
life, and fair in reputation. And ever, after such an outpouring, O, what a
relief have I witnessed in those sinful brethren! even as in one who at last
draws free air, after long stifling with his own polluted breath. How can it
be otherwise? Why should a wretched man, guilty, we will say, of murder,
prefer to keep the dead corpse buried in his own heart, rather than fling it
forth at once, and let the universe take care of it!”
“Yet some men bury their secrets thus,” observed the calm physician.
“True; there are such men,” answered Mr. Dimmesdale. “But, not to
suggest more obvious reasons, it may be that they are kept silent by the
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very constitution of their nature. Or, — can we not suppose it? — guilty as
they may be, retaining, nevertheless, a zeal for God’s glory and man’s welfare, they shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in the view
of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be achieved by them; no evil
of the past be redeemed by better service. So, to their own unutterable torment, they go about among their fellow-creatures, looking pure as newfallen snow; while their hearts are all speckled and spotted with iniquity of
which they cannot rid themselves.”
“These men deceive themselves,” said Roger Chillingworth, with somewhat more emphasis than usual, and making a slight gesture with his forefinger. “They fear to take up the shame that rightfully belongs to them. Their
love for man, their zeal for God’s service, — these holy impulses may or may
not coexist in their hearts with the evil inmates to which their guilt has
unbarred the door, and which must needs propagate a hellish breed within
them. But, if they seek to glorify God, let them not lift heavenward their
unclean hands! If they would serve their fellow-men, let them do it by making
manifest the power and reality of conscience, in constraining them to penitential self-abasement! Wouldst thou have me to believe, O wise and pious
friend, that a false show can be better — can be more for God’s glory, or man’s
welfare — than God’s own truth? Trust me, such men deceive themselves!”
“It may be so,” said the young clergyman indifferently, as waiving a
discussion that he considered irrelevant or unseasonable. He had a ready
faculty, indeed, of escaping from any topic that agitated his too sensitive
and nervous temperament. — “But, now, I would ask of my well-skilled
physician, whether, in good sooth, he deems me to have profited by his
kindly care of this weak frame of mine?”
Before Roger Chillingworth could answer, they heard the clear, wild
laughter of a young child’s voice, proceeding from the adjacent burialground. Looking instinctively from the open window, — for it was summertime, — the minister beheld Hester Prynne and little Pearl passing along
the footpath that traversed the inclosure. Pearl looked as beautiful as
the day, but was in one of those moods of perverse merriment which, whenever they occurred, seemed to remove her entirely out of the sphere of sympathy or human contact. She now skipped irreverently from one grave to
another; until, coming to the broad, flat, armorial tombstone of a departed
worthy, — perhaps of Isaac Johnson69 himself, — she began to dance upon it.
69. Isaac Johnson: A member of the original Massachusetts Bay Colony expedition and one
of its largest shareholders.
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In reply to her mother’s command and entreaty that she would behave more
decorously, little Pearl paused to gather the prickly burrs from a tall burdock, which grew beside the tomb. Taking a handful of these, she arranged
them along the lines of the scarlet letter that decorated the maternal
bosom, to which the burrs, as their nature was, tenaciously adhered. Hester
did not pluck them off.
Roger Chillingworth had by this time approached the window, and
smiled grimly down.
“There is no law, nor reverence for authority, no regard for human
ordinances or opinions, right or wrong, mixed up with that child’s composition,” remarked he, as much to himself as to his companion. “I saw her, the
other day, bespatter the Governor himself with water, at the cattle-trough in
Spring Lane. What, in Heaven’s name, is she? Is the imp altogether evil?
Hath she affections? Hath she any discoverable principle of being?”
“None, — save the freedom of a broken law,” answered Mr. Dimmesdale,
in a quiet way, as if he had been discussing the point within himself.
“Whether capable of good, I know not.”
The child probably overheard their voices; for, looking up to the
window, with a bright, but naughty smile of mirth and intelligence, she
threw one of the prickly burrs at the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. The
sensitive clergyman shrank, with nervous dread, from the light missile.
Detecting his emotion, Pearl clapped her little hands in the most extravagant ecstasy. Hester Prynne, likewise, had involuntarily looked up; and all
these four persons, old and young, regarded one another in silence, till the
child laughed aloud, and shouted, — “Come away, mother! Come away, or
yonder old Black Man will catch you! He hath got hold of the minister
already. Come away, mother, or he will catch you! But he cannot catch little
So she drew her mother away, skipping, dancing, and frisking fantastically among the hillocks of the dead people, like a creature that had nothing in common with a bygone and buried generation, nor owned herself
akin to it. It was as if she had been made afresh, out of new elements, and
must perforce be permitted to live her own life, and be a law unto herself,
without her eccentricities being reckoned to her for a crime.
“There goes a woman,” resumed Roger Chillingworth, after a pause,
“who, be her demerits what they may, hath none of that mystery of hidden
sinfulness which you deem so grievous to be borne. Is Hester Prynne the
less miserable, think you, for that scarlet letter on her breast?”
“I do verily believe it,” answered the clergyman. “Nevertheless, I cannot answer for her. There was a look of pain in her face, which I would
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gladly have been spared the sight of. But still, methinks, it must needs be
better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman
Hester is, than to cover it all up in his heart.”
There was another pause; and the physician began anew to examine
and arrange the plants which he had gathered.
“You inquired of me, a little time agone,” said he, at length, “my judgment as touching your health.”
“I did,” answered the clergyman, “and would gladly learn it. Speak
frankly, I pray you, be it for life or death.”
“Freely, then, and plainly,” said the physician, still busy with his plants,
but keeping a wary eye on Mr. Dimmesdale, “the disorder is a strange one;
not so much in itself, nor as outwardly manifested, — in so far, at least, as the
symptoms have been laid open to my observation. Looking daily at you, my
good Sir, and watching the tokens of your aspect, now for months gone by, I
should deem you a man sore sick, it may be, yet not so sick but that an
instructed and watchful physician might well hope to cure you. But — I know
not what to say — the disease is what I seem to know, yet know it not.”
“You speak in riddles, learned Sir,” said the pale minister, glancing
aside out of the window.
“Then, to speak more plainly,” continued the physician, “and I crave
pardon, Sir, — should it seem to require pardon, — for this needful plainness of my speech. Let me ask, — as your friend, — as one having charge,
under Providence, of your life and physical well-being, — hath all the operations of this disorder been fairly laid open and recounted to me?”
“How can you question it?” asked the minister. “Surely, it were child’s
play to call in a physician, and then hide the sore!”
“You would tell me, then, that I know all?” said Roger Chillingworth,
deliberately, and fixing an eye, bright with intense and concentrated intelligence, on the minister’s face. “Be it so! But, again! He to whom only the
outward and physical evil is laid open knoweth, oftentimes, but half the
evil which he is called upon to cure. A bodily disease, which we look upon
as whole and entire within itself, may, after all, be but a symptom of some
ailment in the spiritual part. Your pardon, once again, good Sir, if my
speech give the shadow of offence. You, Sir, of all men whom I have known,
are he whose body is the closest conjoined, and imbued, and identified, so
to speak, with the spirit whereof it is the instrument.”
“Then I need ask no further,” said the clergyman, somewhat hastily
rising from his chair. “You deal not, I take it, in medicine for the soul!”
“Thus, a sickness,” continued Roger Chillingworth, going on, in an
unaltered tone, without heeding the interruption, — but standing up, and
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confronting the emaciated and white-cheeked minister with his low, dark,
and misshapen figure, — “a sickness, a sore place, if we may so call it, in your
spirit, hath immediately its appropriate manifestation in your bodily frame.
Would you, therefore, that your physician heal the bodily evil? How may this
be, unless you first lay open to him the wound or trouble in your soul?”
“No! — not to thee! — not to an earthly physician!” cried Mr. Dimmesdale,
passionately, and turning his eyes, full and bright, and with a kind of fierceness, on old Roger Chillingworth. “Not to thee! But, if it be the soul’s disease,
then do I commit myself to the one Physician of the soul! He, if it stand with
his good pleasure, can cure; or he can kill! Let him do with me as, in his justice
and wisdom, he shall see good. But who art thou, that meddlest in this
matter? — that dares thrust himself between the sufferer and his God?”
With a frantic gesture, he rushed out of the room.
“It is as well to have made this step,” said Roger Chillingworth to
himself, looking after the minister with a grave smile. “There is nothing
lost. We shall be friends again anon. But see, now, how passion takes hold
upon this man, and hurrieth him out of himself! As with one passion, so
with another! He hath done a wild thing ere now, this pious Master
Dimmesdale, in the hot passion of his heart!”
It proved not difficult to reëstablish the intimacy of the two companions, on the same footing and in the same degree as heretofore. The young
clergyman, after a few hours of privacy, was sensible that the disorder of
his nerves had hurried him into an unseemly outbreak of temper, which
there had been nothing in the physician’s words to excuse or palliate. He
marvelled, indeed, at the violence with which he had thrust back the kind
old man, when merely proffering the advice which it was his duty to
bestow, and which the minister himself had expressly sought. With these
remorseful feelings, he lost no time in making the amplest apologies,
and besought his friend still to continue the care, which, if not successful
in restoring him to health, had, in all probability, been the means of prolonging his feeble existence to that hour. Roger Chillingworth readily
assented, and went on with his medical supervision of the minister;
doing his best for him, in all good faith, but always quitting the patient’s
apartment, at the close of the professional interview, with a mysterious
and puzzled smile upon his lips. This expression was invisible in
Mr. Dimmesdale’s presence, but grew strongly evident as the physician
crossed the threshold.
“A rare case!” he muttered. “I must needs look deeper into it. A
strange sympathy betwixt soul and body! Were it only for the art’s sake, I
must search this matter to the bottom!”
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It came to pass, not long after the scene above recorded, that the
Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, at noonday, and entirely unawares, fell into a
deep, deep slumber, sitting in his chair, with a large black-letter volume
open before him on the table. It must have been a work of vast ability in the
somniferous school of literature. The profound depth of the minister’s
repose was the more remarkable; inasmuch as he was one of those persons
whose sleep, ordinarily, is as light, as fitful, and as easily scared away, as a
small bird hopping on a twig. To such an unwonted remoteness, however,
had his spirit now withdrawn into itself, that he stirred not in his chair,
when old Roger Chillingworth, without any extraordinary precaution,
came into the room. The physician advanced directly in front of his
patient, laid his hand upon his bosom, and thrust aside the vestment, that,
hitherto, had always covered it even from the professional eye.
Then, indeed, Mr. Dimmesdale shuddered, and slightly stirred.
After a brief pause, the physician turned away.
But with what a wild look of wonder, joy, and horror! With what a
ghastly rapture, as it were, too mighty to be expressed only by the eye and
features, and therefore bursting forth through the whole ugliness of his
figure, and making itself even riotously manifest by the extravagant gestures with which he threw up his arms towards the ceiling, and stamped
his foot upon the floor! Had a man seen old Roger Chillingworth, at that
moment of his ecstasy, he would have had no need to ask how Satan comports himself, when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won into
his kingdom.
But what distinguished the physician’s ecstasy from Satan’s was the
trait of wonder in it!
Chapter XI. The Interior of a Heart
After the incident last described, the intercourse between the clergyman and the physician, though externally the same, was really of another
character than it had previously been. The intellect of Roger Chillingworth
had now a sufficiently plain path before it. It was not, indeed, precisely that
which he had laid out for himself to tread. Calm, gentle, passionless, as he
appeared, there was yet, we fear, a quiet depth of malice, hitherto latent, but
active now, in this unfortunate old man, which led him to imagine a more
intimate revenge than any mortal had ever wreaked upon an enemy. To
make himself the one trusted friend, to whom should be confided all the
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fear, the remorse, the agony, the ineffectual repentance, the backward rush
of sinful thoughts, expelled in vain! All that guilty sorrow, hidden from the
world, whose great heart would have pitied and forgiven, to be revealed to
him, the Pitiless, to him, the Unforgiving! All that dark treasure to be lavished on the very man, to whom nothing else could so adequately pay the
debt of vengeance!
The clergyman’s shy and sensitive reserve had balked this scheme.
Roger Chillingworth, however, was inclined to be hardly, if at all, less satisfied with the aspect of affairs, which Providence — using the avenger and his
victim for its own purposes, and, perchance, pardoning, where it seemed
most to punish — had substituted for his black devices. A revelation, he could
almost say, had been granted to him. It mattered little, for his object, whether
celestial, or from what other region. By its aid, in all the subsequent relations betwixt him and Mr. Dimmesdale, not merely the external presence,
but the very inmost soul of the latter seemed to be brought out before his
eyes, so that he could see and comprehend its every movement. He became,
thenceforth, not a spectator only, but a chief actor, in the poor minister’s
interior world. He could play upon him as he chose. Would he arouse him
with a throb of agony? The victim was for ever on the rack; it needed only to
know the spring that controlled the engine; — and the physician knew it well!
Would he startle him with sudden fear? As at the waving of a magician’s
wand, uprose a grisly phantom, — uprose a thousand phantoms, — in many
shapes, of death, or more awful shame, all flocking round about the clergyman, and pointing with their fingers at his breast!
All this was accomplished with a subtlety so perfect, that the minister,
though he had constantly a dim perception of some evil influence watching
over him, could never gain a knowledge of its actual nature. True, he looked
doubtfully, fearfully, — even, at times, with horror and the bitterness of
hatred, — at the deformed figure of the old physician. His gestures, his gait,
his grizzled beard, his slightest and most indifferent acts, the very fashion
of his garments, were odious in the clergyman’s sight; a token, implicitly to
be relied on, of a deeper antipathy in the breast of the latter than he was willing to acknowledge to himself. For, as it was impossible to assign a reason
for such distrust and abhorrence, so Mr. Dimmesdale, conscious that the
poison of one morbid spot was infecting his heart’s entire substance, attributed all his presentiments to no other cause. He took himself to task for his
bad sympathies in reference to Roger Chillingworth, disregarded the lesson
that he should have drawn from them, and did his best to root them out.
Unable to accomplish this, he nevertheless, as a matter of principle, continued his habits of social familiarity with the old man, and thus gave him
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constant opportunities for perfecting the purpose to which — poor, forlorn
creature that he was, and more wretched than his victim — the avenger had
devoted himself.
While thus suffering under bodily disease, and gnawed and tortured by
some black trouble of the soul, and given over to the machinations of his
deadliest enemy, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale had achieved a brilliant popularity in his sacred office. He won it, indeed, in great part, by his sorrows.
His intellectual gifts, his moral perceptions, his power of experiencing and
communicating emotion, were kept in a state of preternatural activity by the
prick and anguish of his daily life. His fame, though still on its upward slope,
already overshadowed the soberer reputations of his fellow-clergymen, eminent as several of them were. There are scholars among them, who had spent
more years in acquiring abstruse lore, connected with the divine profession,
than Mr. Dimmesdale had lived; and who might well, therefore, be more profoundly versed in such solid and valuable attainments than their youthful
brother. There were men, too, of a sturdier texture of mind than his, and
endowed with a far greater share of shrewd, hard, iron, or granite understanding; which, duly mingled with a fair proportion of doctrinal ingredient,
constitutes a highly respectable, efficacious, and unamiable variety of the
clerical species. There were others, again, true saintly fathers, whose faculties had been elaborated by weary toil among their books, and by patient
thought, and etherealized, moreover, by spiritual communications with the
better world, into which their purity of life had almost introduced these holy
personages, with their garments of mortality still clinging to them. All
that they lacked was the gift that descended upon the chosen disciples, at
Pentecost, in tongues of flame;70 symbolizing, it would seem, not the power
of speech in foreign and unknown languages, but that of addressing the
whole human brotherhood in the heart’s native language. These fathers,
otherwise so apostolic, lacked Heaven’s last and rarest attestation of their
office, the Tongue of Flame. They would have vainly sought — had they ever
dreamed of seeking — to express the highest truths through the humblest
medium of familiar words and images. Their voices came down, afar and
indistinctly, from the upper heights where they habitually dwelt.
Not improbably, it was to this latter class of men that Mr. Dimmesdale,
by many of his traits of character, naturally belonged. To their high
mountain-peaks of faith and sanctity he would have climbed, had not the
70. After the death of Jesus, his followers gathered and became filled with the Holy Spirit,
marked by tongues of flame over their heads. This is seen as the beginning of the Church.
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tendency been thwarted by the burden, whatever it might be, of crime or
anguish, beneath which it was his doom to totter. It kept him down, on a level
with the lowest; him, the man of ethereal attributes, whose voice the angels
might else have listened to and answered! But this very burden it was, that
gave him sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind; so
that his heart vibrated in unison with theirs, and received their pain into
itself, and sent its own throb of pain through a thousand other hearts, in
gushes of sad, persuasive eloquence. Oftenest persuasive, but sometimes
terrible! The people knew not the power that moved them thus. They deemed
the young clergyman a miracle of holiness. They fancied him the mouthpiece of Heaven’s messages of wisdom, and rebuke, and love. In their eyes,
the very ground on which he trod was sanctified. The virgins of his church
grew pale around him, victims of a passion so imbued with religious sentiment that they imagined it to be all religion, and brought it openly, in their
white bosoms, as their most acceptable sacrifice before the altar. The aged
members of his flock, beholding Mr. Dimmesdale’s frame so feeble, while they
were themselves so rugged in their infirmity, believed that he would go heavenward before them, and enjoined it upon their children, that their old bones
should be buried close to their young pastor’s holy grave. And, all this time,
perchance, when poor Mr. Dimmesdale was thinking of his grave, he questioned with himself whether the grass would ever grow on it, because an
accursed thing must there be buried!
It is inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration tortured
him! It was his genuine impulse to adore the truth, and to reckon all things
shadow-like, and utterly devoid of weight or value, that had not its divine
essence as the life within their life. Then, what was he? — a substance? — or the
dimmest of all shadows? He longed to speak out, from his own pulpit, at the
full height of his voice, and tell the people what he was. “I, whom you behold
in these black garments of the priesthood, — I, who ascend the sacred desk,
and turn my pale face heavenward, taking upon myself to hold communion, in
your behalf, with the Most High Omniscience, — I, in whose daily life you discern the sanctity of Enoch,71— I, whose footsteps, as you suppose, leave a
gleam along my earthly track, whereby the pilgrims that shall come after me
may be guided to the regions of the blest, — I, who have laid the hand of baptism upon your children, — I, who have breathed the parting prayer over your
dying friends, to whom the Amen sounded faintly from a world which they
71. sanctity of Enoch: A very early biblical figure mentioned in a genealogy. Genesis 5 says,
“Enoch walked with God,” and he was taken up to heaven without undergoing physical death.
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had quitted, — I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a
pollution and a lie!”
More than once, Mr. Dimmesdale had gone into the pulpit, with a purpose never to come down its steps, until he should have spoken words like
the above. More than once, he had cleared his throat, and drawn in the
long, deep, and tremulous breath, which, when sent forth again, would
come burdened with the black secret of his soul. More than once — nay,
more than a hundred times — he had actually spoken! Spoken! But how? He
had told his hearers that he was altogether vile, a viler companion of the
vilest, the worst of sinners, an abomination, a thing of unimaginable iniquity; and that the only wonder was, that they did not see his wretched body
shrivelled up before their eyes, by the burning wrath of the Almighty!
Could there be plainer speech than this? Would not the people start up in
their seats, by a simultaneous impulse, and tear him down out of the pulpit which he defiled? Not so, indeed! They heard it all, and did but reverence him the more. They little guessed what deadly purport lurked in those
self-condemning words. “The godly youth!” said they among themselves.
“The saint on earth! Alas, if he discern such sinfulness in his own white
soul, what horrid spectacle would he behold in thine or mine!” The minister well knew — subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that he was! — the light in
which his vague confession would be viewed. He had striven to put a cheat
upon himself by making the avowal of a guilty conscience, but had gained
only one other sin, and a self-acknowledged shame, without the momentary relief of being self-deceived. He had spoken the very truth, and transformed it into the veriest falsehood. And yet, by the constitution of his
nature, he loved the truth, and loathed the lie, as few men ever did. Therefore,
above all things else, he loathed his miserable self!
His inward trouble drove him to practices, more in accordance with
the old, corrupted faith of Rome, than with the better light of the church in
which he had been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under
lock and key, there was a bloody scourge.72 Oftentimes, this Protestant and
Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly, because of that bitter laugh. It was his custom, too, as it has been that of many other pious
Puritans, to fast, — not, however, like them, in order to purify the body and
render it the fitter medium of celestial illumination, — but rigorously, and
72. Dimmesdale seemed to have practiced a kind of self-flagellation or whipping.
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until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance. He kept vigils,
likewise, night after night, sometimes in utter darkness; sometimes with a
glimmering lamp; and sometimes, viewing his own face in a looking-glass,
by the most powerful light which he could throw upon it. He thus typified
the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify,
himself. In these lengthened vigils, his brain often reeled, and visions
seemed to flit before him; perhaps seen doubtfully, and by a faint light of
their own, in the remote dimness of the chamber, or more vividly, and close
beside him, within the looking-glass. Now it was a herd of diabolic shapes,
that grinned and mocked at the pale minister, and beckoned him away with
them; now a group of shining angels, who flew upward heavily, as sorrowladen, but grew more ethereal as they rose. Now came the dead friends of
his youth, and his white-bearded father, with a saint-like frown, and his
mother, turning her face away as she passed by. Ghost of a mother, — thinnest
fantasy of a mother, — methinks she might yet have thrown a pitying glance
towards her son! And now, through the chamber which these spectral
thoughts had made so ghastly, glided Hester Prynne, leading along little
Pearl, in her scarlet garb, and pointing her forefinger, first, at the scarlet
letter on her bosom, and then at the clergyman’s own breast.
None of these visions ever quite deluded him. At any moment, by an
effort of his will, he could discern substances through their misty lack of
substance, and convince himself that they were not solid in their nature,
like yonder table of carved oak, or that big, square, leathern-bound and
brazen-clasped volume of divinity. But, for all that, they were, in one sense,
the truest and most substantial things which the poor minister now dealt
with. It is the unspeakable misery of a life so false as his, that it steals the
pith and substance out of whatever realities there are around us, and which
were meant by Heaven to be the spirit’s joy and nutriment. To the untrue
man, the whole universe is false, — it is impalpable, — it shrinks to nothing
within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false
light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist. The only truth, that
continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth, was the
anguish in his inmost soul, and the undissembled expression of it in his
aspect. Had he once found power to smile, and wear a face of gayety, there
would have been no such man!
On one of those ugly nights, which we have faintly hinted at, but forborne to picture forth, the minister started from his chair. A new thought
had struck him. There might be a moment’s peace in it. Attiring himself with
as much care as if it had been for public worship, and precisely in the same
manner, he stole softly down the staircase, undid the door, and issued forth.
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Chapter XII. The Minister’s Vigil
Walking in the shadow of a dream, as it were, and perhaps actually under
the influence of a species of somnambulism,73 Mr. Dimmesdale reached the
spot, where, now so long since, Hester Prynne had lived through her first
hour of public ignominy. The same platform or scaffold, black and weatherstained with the storm or sunshine of seven long years, and foot-worn, too,
with the tread of many culprits who had since ascended it, remained standing
beneath the balcony of the meeting-house. The minister went up the steps.
It was an obscure night of early May. An unvaried pall of cloud muffled the whole expanse of sky from zenith to horizon. If the same multitude which had stood as eyewitnesses while Hester Prynne sustained her
punishment could now have been summoned forth, they would have discerned no face above the platform, nor hardly the outline of a human
shape, in the dark gray of the midnight. But the town was all asleep. There
was no peril of discovery. The minister might stand there, if it so pleased
him, until morning should redden in the east, without other risk than that
the dank and chill night-air would creep into his frame, and stiffen his
joints with rheumatism, and clog his throat with catarrh and cough;
thereby defrauding the expectant audience of to-morrow’s prayer and sermon. No eye could see him, save that ever-wakeful one which had seen him
in his closet, wielding the bloody scourge. Why, then, had he come hither?
Was it but the mockery of penitence? A mockery, indeed, but in which his
soul trifled with itself! A mockery at which angels blushed and wept, while
fiends rejoiced, with jeering laughter! He had been driven hither by the
impulse of that Remorse which dogged him everywhere, and whose own
sister and closely linked companion was that Cowardice which invariably
drew him back, with her tremulous gripe, just when the other impulse had
hurried him to the verge of a disclosure. Poor, miserable man! what right
had infirmity like his to burden itself with crime? Crime is for the ironnerved, who have their choice either to endure it, or, if it press too hard, to
exert their fierce and savage strength for a good purpose, and fling it off at
once! This feeble and most sensitive of spirits could do neither, yet continually did one thing or another, which intertwined, in the same inextricable
knot, the agony of heaven-defying guilt and vain repentance.
73. somnambulism: Sleepwalking.
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And thus, while standing on the scaffold, in this vain show of expiation, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as if the
universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his
heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the
gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain. Without any effort of his will,
or power to restrain himself, he shrieked aloud; an outcry that went pealing through the night, and was beaten back from one house to another,
and reverberated from the hills in the background; as if a company of devils, detecting so much misery and terror in it, had made a plaything of the
sound, and were bandying it to and fro.
“It is done!” muttered the minister, covering his face with his hands.
“The whole town will awake, and hurry forth, and find me here!”
But it was not so. The shriek had perhaps sounded with a far greater
power, to his own startled ears, than it actually possessed. The town did not
awake; or, if it did, the drowsy slumberers mistook the cry either for something frightful in a dream, or for the noise of witches; whose voices, at that
period, were often heard to pass over the settlements or lonely cottages, as
they rode with Satan through the air. The clergyman, therefore, hearing no
symptoms of disturbance, uncovered his eyes and looked about him. At one
of the chamber-windows of Governor Bellingham’s mansion, which stood at
some distance, on the line of another street, he beheld the appearance of
the old magistrate himself, with a lamp in his hand, a white night-cap on his
head, and a long white gown enveloping his figure. He looked like a ghost,
evoked unseasonably from the grave. The cry had evidently startled him. At
another window of the same house, moreover, appeared old Mistress Hibbins,
the Governor’s sister, also with a lamp, which, even thus far off, revealed the
expression of her sour and discontented face. She thrust forth her head
from the lattice, and looked anxiously upward. Beyond the shadow of a
doubt, this venerable witch-lady had heard Mr. Dimmesdale’s outcry, and
interpreted it, with its multitudinous echoes and reverberations, as the
clamor of the fiends and night-hags, with whom she was well known to make
excursions into the forest.
Detecting the gleam of Governor Bellingham’s lamp, the old lady
quickly extinguished her own, and vanished. Possibly, she went up among
the clouds. The minister saw nothing further of her motions. The magistrate, after a wary observation of the darkness — into which, nevertheless,
he could see but little farther than he might into a mill-stone — retired
from the window.
The minister grew comparatively calm. His eyes, however, were soon
greeted by a little, glimmering light, which, at first a long way off, was
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approaching up the street. It threw a gleam of recognition on here a post,
and there a garden-fence, and here a latticed window-pane, and there a
pump, with its full trough of water, and here, again, an arched door of oak,
with an iron knocker, and a rough log for the door-step. The Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale noted all these minute particulars, even while firmly convinced that the doom of his existence was stealing onward, in the footsteps
which he now heard; and that the gleam of the lantern would fall upon him,
in a few moments more, and reveal his long-hidden secret. As the light drew
nearer, he beheld, within its illuminated circle, his brother clergyman, — or,
to speak more accurately, his professional father, as well as highly valued
friend, — the Reverend Mr. Wilson; who, as Mr. Dimmesdale now conjectured, had been praying at the bedside of some dying man. And so he had.
The good old minister came freshly from the death-chamber of Governor
Winthrop,74 who had passed from earth to heaven within that very hour.
And now, surrounded, like the saint-like personages of olden times, with a
radiant halo, that glorified him amid this gloomy night of sin, — as if the
departed Governor had left him an inheritance of his glory, or as if he had
caught upon himself the distant shine of the celestial city, while looking
thitherward to see the triumphant pilgrim pass within its gates, — now, in
short, good Father Wilson was moving homeward, aiding his footsteps with
a lighted lantern! The glimmer of this luminary suggested the above conceits to Mr. Dimmesdale, who smiled, — nay, almost laughed at them, — and
then wondered if he were going mad.
As the Reverend Mr. Wilson passed beside the scaffold, closely muffling his Geneva cloak75 about him with one arm, and holding the lantern
before his breast with the other, the minister could hardly restrain himself
from speaking.
“A good evening to you, venerable Father Wilson! Come up hither, I
pray you, and pass a pleasant hour with me!”
Good Heavens! Had Mr. Dimmesdale actually spoken? For one instant,
he believed that these words had passed his lips. But they were uttered only
within his imagination. The venerable Father Wilson continued to step
slowly onward, looking carefully at the muddy pathway before his feet, and
74. Governor Winthrop: Historical figure, leader of the Puritan colony. He died on
March 26, 1649. He is often represented in historical novels as a key representative of the
Puritan movement.
75. Geneva cloak (cf. ch. 20): A long, black cloak, often made of wool. The name comes from
their resemblance to those worn by Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin.
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never once turning his head towards the guilty platform. When the light of
the glimmering lantern had faded quite away, the minister discovered, by
the faintness which came over him, that the last few moments had been a
crisis of terrible anxiety; although his mind had made an involuntary effort
to relieve itself by a kind of lurid playfulness.
Shortly afterwards, the like grisly sense of the humorous again stole in
among the solemn phantoms of his thought. He felt his limbs growing stiff
with the unaccustomed chilliness of the night, and doubted whether he
should be able to descend the steps of the scaffold. Morning would break,
and find him there. The neighbourhood would begin to rouse itself. The
earliest riser, coming forth in the dim twilight, would perceive a vaguely
defined figure aloft on the place of shame; and, half crazed betwixt alarm
and curiosity, would go, knocking from door to door, summoning all the people to behold the ghost — as he needs must think it — of some defunct transgressor. A dusky tumult would flap its wings from one house to another.
Then — the morning light still waxing stronger — old patriarchs would rise
up in great haste, each in his flannel gown, and matronly dames, without
pausing to put off their night-gear. The whole tribe of decorous personages,
who had never heretofore been seen with a single hair of their heads awry,
would start into public view, with the disorder of a nightmare in their aspects.
Old Governor Bellingham would come grimly forth, with his King James’s ruff
fastened askew; and Mistress Hibbins, with some twigs of the forest clinging
to her skirts, and looking sourer than ever, as having hardly got a wink of
sleep after her night ride; and good Father Wilson, too, after spending half
the night at a death-bed, and liking ill to be disturbed, thus early, out of his
dreams about the glorified saints. Hither, likewise, would come the elders and
deacons of Mr. Dimmesdale’s church, and the young virgins who so idolized
their minister, and had made a shrine for him in their white bosoms; which,
now, by the by, in their hurry and confusion, they would scantly have given
themselves time to cover with their kerchiefs. All people, in a word, would
come stumbling over their thresholds, and turning up their amazed and
horror-stricken visages around the scaffold. Whom would they discern there,
with the red eastern light upon his brow? Whom, but the Reverend Arthur
Dimmesdale, half frozen to death, overwhelmed with shame, and standing
where Hester Prynne had stood!
Carried away by the grotesque horror of this picture, the minister,
unawares, and to his own infinite alarm, burst into a great peal of laughter.
It was immediately responded to by a light, airy, childish laugh, in which,
with a thrill of the heart, — but he knew not whether of exquisite pain, or
pleasure as acute, — he recognized the tones of little Pearl.
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“Pearl! Little Pearl!” cried he, after a moment’s pause; then, suppressing his voice, — “Hester! Hester Prynne! Are you there?”
“Yes; it is Hester Prynne!” she replied, in a tone of surprise; and the
minister heard her footsteps approaching from the sidewalk, along which
she had been passing. — “It is I, and my little Pearl.”
“Whence come you, Hester?” asked the minister. “What sent you
“I have been watching at a death-bed,” answered Hester Prynne; — “at
Governor Winthrop’s death-bed, and have taken his measure for a robe,
and am now going homeward to my dwelling.”
“Come up hither, Hester, thou and little Pearl,” said the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale. “Ye have both been here before, but I was not with you.
Come up hither once again, and we will stand all three together!”
She silently ascended the steps, and stood on the platform, holding
little Pearl by the hand. The minister felt for the child’s other hand, and
took it. The moment that he did so, there came what seemed a tumultuous
rush of new life, other life than his own, pouring like a torrent into his
heart, and hurrying through all his veins, as if the mother and the child
were communicating their vital warmth to his half-torpid system. The
three formed an electric chain.
“Minister!” whispered little Pearl.
“What wouldst thou say, child?” asked Mr. Dimmesdale.
“Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, to-morrow noontide?”
inquired Pearl.
“Nay; not so, my little Pearl!” answered the minister; for, with the new
energy of the moment, all the dread of public exposure, that had so long
been the anguish of his life, had returned upon him; and he was already
trembling at the conjunction in which — with a strange joy, nevertheless —
he now found himself. “Not so, my child. I shall, indeed, stand with thy
mother and thee one other day, but not to-morrow!”
Pearl laughed, and attempted to pull away her hand. But the minister
held it fast.
“A moment longer, my child!” said he.
“But wilt thou promise,” asked Pearl, “to take my hand, and mother’s
hand, to-morrow noontide?”
“Not then, Pearl,” said the minister, “but another time!”
“And what other time?” persisted the child.
“At the great judgment day!” whispered the minister, — and, strangely
enough, the sense that he was a professional teacher of the truth impelled
him to answer the child so. “Then, and there, before the judgment-seat, thy
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mother, and thou, and I, must stand together. But the daylight of this
world shall not see our meeting!”
Pearl laughed again.
But, before Mr. Dimmesdale had done speaking, a light gleamed far
and wide over all the muffled sky. It was doubtless caused by one of those
meteors, which the night-watcher may so often observe burning out to
waste, in the vacant regions of the atmosphere. So powerful was its radiance, that it thoroughly illuminated the dense medium of cloud betwixt the
sky and earth. The great vault brightened, like the dome of an immense
lamp. It showed the familiar scene of the street, with the distinctness of
mid-day, but also with the awfulness that is always imparted to familiar
objects by an unaccustomed light. The wooden houses, with their jutting
stories and quaint gable-peaks; the doorsteps and thresholds, with the
early grass springing up about them; the garden-plots, black with freshly
turned earth; the wheel-track, little worn, and, even in the market-place,
margined with green on either side; — all were visible, but with a singularity
of aspect that seemed to give another moral interpretation to the things of
this world than they had ever borne before. And there stood the minister,
with his hand over his heart; and Hester Prynne, with the embroidered letter glimmering on her bosom; and little Pearl, herself a symbol, and the
connecting link between those two. They stood in the noon of that strange
and solemn splendor, as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets, and
the daybreak that shall unite all who belong to one another.
There was witchcraft in little Pearl’s eyes; and her face, as she glanced
upward at the minister, wore that naughty smile which made its expression
frequently so elvish. She withdrew her hand from Mr. Dimmesdale’s, and
pointed across the street. But he clasped both his hands over his breast, and
cast his eyes towards the zenith.
Nothing was more common, in those days, than to interpret all meteoric appearances, and other natural phenomena, that occurred with less
regularity than the rise and set of sun and moon, as so many revelations
from a supernatural source. Thus, a blazing spear, a sword of flame, a bow,
or a sheaf of arrows, seen in the midnight sky, prefigured Indian warfare.
Pestilence was known to have been foreboded by a shower of crimson
light. We doubt whether any marked event, for good or evil, ever befell New
England, from its settlement down to Revolutionary times, of which the
inhabitants had not been previously warned by some spectacle of this
nature. Not seldom, it had been seen by multitudes. Oftener, however, its
credibility rested on the faith of some lonely eyewitness, who beheld the
wonder through the colored, magnifying, and distorting medium of his
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imagination, and shaped it more distinctly in his after-thought. It was,
indeed, a majestic idea, that the destiny of nations should be revealed, in
these awful hieroglyphics, on the cope of heaven. A scroll so wide might
not be deemed too expansive for Providence to write a people’s doom upon.
The belief was a favorite one with our forefathers, as betokening that their
infant commonwealth was under a celestial guardianship of peculiar intimacy and strictness. But what shall we say, when an individual discovers
a revelation, addressed to himself alone, on the same vast sheet of record!
In such a case, it could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental
state, when a man, rendered morbidly self-contemplative by long, intense,
and secret pain, had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of
nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting
page for his soul’s history and fate.
We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own eye and heart,
that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter, — the letter A, — marked out in lines of dull red
light. Not but the meteor may have shown itself at that point, burning
duskily through a veil of cloud; but with no such shape as his guilty imagination gave it; or, at least, with so little definiteness, that another’s guilt
might have seen another symbol in it.
There was a singular circumstance that characterized Mr. Dimmesdale’s
psychological state, at this moment. All the time that he gazed upward to
the zenith, he was, nevertheless, perfectly aware that little Pearl was pointing her finger towards old Roger Chillingworth, who stood at no great
distance from the scaffold. The minister appeared to see him, with the
same glance that discerned the miraculous letter. To his features, as to all
other objects, the meteoric light imparted a new expression; or it might
well be that the physician was not careful then, as at all other times, to
hide the malevolence with which he looked upon his victim. Certainly,
if the meteor kindled up the sky, and disclosed the earth, with an awfulness that admonished Hester Prynne and the clergyman of the day of
judgment, then might Roger Chillingworth have passed with them for the
arch-fiend, standing there, with a smile and scowl, to claim his own. So
vivid was the expression, or so intense the minister’s perception of it,
that it seemed still to remain painted on the darkness, after the meteor
had vanished, with an effect as if the street and all things else were at once
“Who is that man, Hester?” gasped Mr. Dimmesdale, overcome with
terror. “I shiver at him! Dost thou know the man? I hate him, Hester!”
She remembered her oath, and was silent.
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“I tell thee, my soul shivers at him,” muttered the minister again.
“Who is he? Who is he? Canst thou do nothing for me? I have a nameless
horror of the man.”
“Minister,” said little Pearl, “I can tell thee who he is!”
“Quickly, then, child!” said the minister, bending his ear close to her
lips. “Quickly! — and as low as thou canst whisper.”
Pearl mumbled something into his ear, that sounded, indeed, like
human language, but was only such gibberish as children may be heard
amusing themselves with, by the hour together. At all events, if it involved
any secret information in regard to old Roger Chillingworth, it was in a
tongue unknown to the erudite clergyman, and did but increase the bewilderment of his mind. The elvish child then laughed aloud.
“Dost thou mock me now?” said the minister.
“Thou wast not bold! — thou wast not true!” answered the child. “Thou
wouldst not promise to take my hand, and mother’s hand, to-morrow
“Worthy Sir,” said the physician, who had now advanced to the foot of
the platform. “Pious Master Dimmesdale! can this be you? Well, well,
indeed! We men of study, whose heads are in our books, have need to be
straitly looked after! We dream in our waking moments, and walk in our
sleep. Come, good Sir, and my dear friend, I pray you, let me lead you
“How knewest thou that I was here?” asked the minister, fearfully.
“Verily, and in good faith,” answered Roger Chillingworth, “I knew
nothing of the matter. I had spent the better part of the night at the bedside of the worshipful Governor Winthrop, doing what my poor skill might
to give him ease. He going home to a better world, I, likewise, was on my
way homeward, when this strange light shone out. Come with me, I beseech
you, Reverend Sir; else you will be poorly able to do Sabbath duty to-morrow.
Aha! see now, how they trouble the brain, — these books! — these books!
You should study less, good Sir, and take a little pastime; or these nightwhimseys will grow upon you!”
“I will go home with you,” said Mr. Dimmesdale.
With a chill despondency, like one awaking, all nerveless, from an
ugly dream, he yielded himself to the physician, and was led away.
The next day, however, being the Sabbath, he preached a discourse
which was held to be the richest and most powerful, and the most replete
with heavenly influences, that had ever proceeded from his lips. Souls, it is
said, more souls than one, were brought to the truth by the efficacy of that
sermon, and vowed within themselves to cherish a holy gratitude towards
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Mr. Dimmesdale throughout the long hereafter. But, as he came down the
pulpit-steps, the gray-bearded sexton met him, holding up a black glove,
which the minister recognized as his own.
“It was found,” said the sexton, “this morning, on the scaffold, where
evil-doers are set up to public shame. Satan dropped it there, I take it,
intending a scurrilous jest against your reverence. But, indeed, he was
blind and foolish, as he ever and always is. A pure hand needs no glove to
cover it!”
“Thank you, my good friend,” said the minister gravely, but startled
at heart; for, so confused was his remembrance, that he had almost
brought himself to look at the events of the past night as visionary. “Yes, it
seems to be my glove, indeed!”
“And, since Satan saw fit to steal it, your reverence must needs handle
him without gloves, henceforward,” remarked the old sexton, grimly smiling. “But did your reverence hear of the portent that was seen last night? a
great red letter in the sky, — the letter A, — which we interpret to stand for
Angel. For, as our good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past
night, it was doubtless held fit that there should be some notice thereof!”
“No,” answered the minister; “I had not heard of it.”
Chapter XIII. Another View of Hester
In her late singular interview with Mr. Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne
was shocked at the condition to which she found the clergyman reduced.
His nerve seemed absolutely destroyed. His moral force was abased into
more than childish weakness. It grovelled helpless on the ground, even
while his intellectual faculties retained their pristine strength, or had perhaps acquired a morbid energy, which disease only could have given them.
With her knowledge of a train of circumstances hidden from all others,
she could readily infer, that, besides the legitimate action of his own conscience, a terrible machinery had been brought to bear, and was still operating, on Mr. Dimmesdale’s well-being and repose. Knowing what this
poor, fallen man had once been, her whole soul was moved by the shuddering terror with which he had appealed to her, — the outcast woman, — for
support against his instinctively discovered enemy. She decided, moreover, that he had a right to her utmost aid. Little accustomed, in her long
seclusion from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any
standard external to herself, Hester saw — or seemed to see — that there lay
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a responsibility upon her, in reference to the clergyman, which she owned
to no other, nor to the whole world besides. The links that united her to
the rest of humankind — links of flowers, or silk, or gold, or whatever the
material — had all been broken. Here was the iron link of mutual crime,
which neither he nor she could break. Like all other ties, it brought along
with it its obligations.
Hester Prynne did not now occupy precisely the same position in
which we beheld her during the earlier periods of her ignominy. Years had
come, and gone. Pearl was now seven years old. Her mother, with the scarlet letter on her breast, glittering in its fantastic embroidery, had long
been a familiar object to the townspeople. As is apt to be the case when a
person stands out in any prominence before the community, and, at the
same time, interferes neither with public nor individual interests and convenience, a species of general regard had ultimately grown up in reference
to Hester Prynne. It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its
selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred,
by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the
change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling
of hostility. In this matter of Hester Prynne, there was neither irritation
nor irksomeness. She never battled with the public, but submitted uncomplainingly to its worst usage; she made no claim upon it, in requital for
what she suffered; she did not weigh upon its sympathies. Then, also, the
blameless purity of her life, during all these years in which she had been
set apart to infamy, was reckoned largely in her favor. With nothing now to
lose, in the sight of mankind, and with no hope, and seemingly no wish, of
gaining any thing, it could only be a genuine regard for virtue that had
brought back the poor wanderer to its paths.
It was perceived, too, that, while Hester never put forward even the
humblest title to share in the world’s privileges, — farther than to breathe the
common air, and earn daily bread for little Pearl and herself by the faithful
labor of her hands, — she was quick to acknowledge her sisterhood with the
race of man, whenever benefits were to be conferred. None so ready as she to
give of her little substance to every demand of poverty; even though the bitterhearted pauper threw back a gibe in requital of the food brought regularly to
his door, or the garments wrought for him by the fingers that could have
embroidered a monarch’s robe. None so self-devoted as Hester, when pestilence stalked through the town. In all seasons of calamity, indeed, whether
general or of individuals, the outcast of society at once found her place. She
came, not as a guest, but as a rightful inmate, into the household that was
darkened by trouble; as if its gloomy twilight were a medium in which she
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was entitled to hold intercourse with her fellow-creatures. There glimmered
the embroidered letter, with comfort in its unearthly ray. Elsewhere the token
of sin, it was the taper of the sick-chamber. It had even thrown its gleam, in
the sufferer’s hard extremity, across the verge of time. It had shown him
where to set his foot, while the light of earth was fast becoming dim, and ere
the light of futurity could reach him. In such emergencies, Hester’s nature
showed itself warm and rich; a well-spring of human tenderness, unfailing
to every real demand, and inexhaustible by the largest. Her breast, with its
badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one. She
was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy; or, we may rather say, the world’s heavy
hand had so ordained her, when neither the world nor she looked forward to
this result. The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was
found in her, — so much power to do, and power to sympathize, — that many
people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They
said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s
It was only the darkened house that could contain her. When sunshine
came again, she was not there. Her shadow had faded across the threshold.
The helpful inmate had departed, without one backward glance to gather
up the meed of gratitude, if any were in the hearts of those whom she had
served so zealously. Meeting them in the street, she never raised her head
to receive their greeting. If they were resolute to accost her, she laid her finger on the scarlet letter, and passed on. This might be pride, but was so like
humility, that it produced all the softening influence of the latter quality on
the public mind. The public is despotic in its temper; it is capable of denying common justice, when too strenuously demanded as a right; but quite
as frequently it awards more than justice, when the appeal is made, as
despots love to have it made, entirely to its generosity. Interpreting Hester
Prynne’s deportment as an appeal of this nature, society was inclined to
show its former victim a more benign countenance than she cared to be
favored with, or, perchance, than she deserved.
The rulers, and the wise and learned men of the community, were
longer in acknowledging the influence of Hester’s good qualities than the
people. The prejudices which they shared in common with the latter were
fortified in themselves by an iron framework of reasoning, that made it a
far tougher labor to expel them. Day by day, nevertheless, their sour and
rigid wrinkles were relaxing into something which, in the due course of
years, might grow to be an expression of almost benevolence. Thus it was
with the men of rank, on whom their eminent position imposed the
guardianship of the public morals. Individuals in private life, meanwhile,
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had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay, more, they had begun
to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin, for which she
had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since.
“Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge?” they would say to
strangers. “It is our Hester, — the town’s own Hester, — who is so kind to the
poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted!” Then, it is true,
the propensity of human nature to tell the very worst of itself, when embodied in the person of another, would constrain them to whisper the black
scandal of bygone years. It was none the less a fact, however, that, in the
eyes of the very men who spoke thus, the scarlet letter had the effect of the
cross on a nun’s bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness,
which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril. Had she fallen among
thieves, it would have kept her safe. It was reported, and believed by many,
that an Indian had drawn his arrow against the badge, but that the missile
struck it, and fell harmless to the ground.
The effect of the symbol — or rather, of the position in respect to society that was indicated by it — on the mind of Hester Prynne herself, was
powerful and peculiar. All the light and graceful foliage of her character
had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and had long ago fallen away,
leaving a bare and harsh outline, which might have been repulsive, had she
possessed friends or companions to be repelled by it. Even the attractiveness of her person had undergone a similar change. It might be partly
owing to the studied austerity of her dress, and partly to the lack of demonstration in her manners. It was a sad transformation, too, that her rich and
luxuriant hair had either been cut off, or was so completely hidden by a cap,
that not a shining lock of it ever once gushed into the sunshine. It was due
in part to all these causes, but still more to something else, that there
seemed to be no longer any thing in Hester’s face for Love to dwell upon;
nothing in Hester’s form, though majestic and statue-like, that Passion
would ever dream of clasping in its embrace; nothing in Hester’s bosom, to
make it ever again the pillow of Affection. Some attribute had departed
from her, the permanence of which had been essential to keep her a woman.
Such is frequently the fate, and such the stern development, of the feminine
character and person, when the woman has encountered, and lived
through, an experience of peculiar severity. If she be all tenderness, she will
die. If she survive, the tenderness will either be crushed out of her, or — and
the outward semblance is the same — crushed so deeply into her heart that
it can never show itself more. The latter is perhaps the truest theory. She
who has once been woman, and ceased to be so, might at any moment
become a woman again, if there were only the magic touch to effect the
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transformation. We shall see whether Hester Prynne were ever afterwards
so touched, and so transfigured.
Much of the marble coldness of Hester’s impression was to be attributed
to the circumstance that her life had turned, in a great measure, from passion
and feeling, to thought. Standing alone in the world, — alone, as to any
dependence on society, and with little Pearl to be guided and protected, —
alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even had she not scorned to
consider it desirable, — she cast away the fragments of a broken chain. The
world’s law was no law for her mind. It was an age in which the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a more active and a wider range than for
many centuries before. Men of the sword had overthrown nobles and kings.
Men bolder than these had overthrown and rearranged — not actually, but
within the sphere of theory, which was their most real abode — the whole system of ancient prejudice, wherewith was linked much of ancient principle.
Hester Prynne imbibed this spirit. She assumed a freedom of speculation,
then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that
stigmatized by the scarlet letter. In her lonesome cottage, by the sea-shore,
thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England;
shadowy guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door.
It is remarkable, that persons who speculate the most boldly often
conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society. The thought suffices them, without investing itself in the flesh and
blood of action. So it seemed to be with Hester. Yet, had little Pearl never
come to her from the spiritual world, it might have been far otherwise.
Then, she might have come down to us in history, hand in hand with Ann
Hutchinson, as the foundress of a religious sect. She might, in one of her
phases, have been a prophetess. She might, and not improbably would, have
suffered death from the stern tribunals of the period, for attempting to
undermine the foundations of the Puritan establishment. But, in the education of her child, the mother’s enthusiasm of thought had something to
wreak itself upon. Providence, in the person of this little girl, had assigned
to Hester’s charge the germ and blossom of womanhood, to be cherished
and developed amid a host of difficulties. Every thing was against her. The
world was hostile. The child’s own nature had something wrong in it, which
continually betokened that she had been born amiss, — the effluence of her
mother’s lawless passion, — and often impelled Hester to ask, in bitterness
of heart, whether it were for ill or good that the poor little creature had been
born at all.
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Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind, with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth eccepting, even
to the happiest among them? As concerned her own individual existence,
she had long ago decided in the negative, and dismissed the point as settled. A tendency to speculation, though it may keep woman quiet, as it does
man, yet makes her sad. She discerns, it may be, such a hopeless task before
her. As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built
up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary
habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before
woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position.
Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage
of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still
mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has
her truest life, will be found to have evaporated. A woman never overcomes
these problems by any exercise of thought. They are not to be solved, or only
in one way. If her heart chance to come uppermost, they vanish. Thus, Hester
Prynne, whose heart had lost its regular and healthy throb, wandered without a clew in the dark labyrinth of mind; now turned aside by an insurmountable precipice; now starting back from a deep chasm. There was wild
and ghastly scenery all around her, and a home and comfort nowhere. At
times, a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better
to send Pearl at once to heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal
Justice should provide.
The scarlet letter had not done its office.76
Now, however, her interview with the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, on the
night of his vigil, had given her a new theme of reflection, and held up to her
an object that appeared worthy of any exertion and sacrifice for its attainment. She had witnessed the intense misery beneath which the minister
struggled, or, to speak more accurately, had ceased to struggle. She saw that
he stood on the verge of lunacy, if he had not already stepped across it. It was
impossible to doubt, that, whatever painful efficacy there might be in the
secret sting of remorse, a deadlier venom had been infused into it by the
hand that proffered relief. A secret enemy had been continually by his side,
under the semblance of a friend and helper, and had availed himself of the
opportunities thus afforded for tampering with the delicate springs of
Mr. Dimmesdale’s nature. Hester could not but ask herself, whether there
76. The punishment had not yet had its desired effect.
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had not originally been a defect of truth, courage, and loyalty, on her own
part, in allowing the minister to be thrown into a position where so much evil
was to be foreboded, and nothing auspicious to be hoped. Her only justification lay in the fact, that she had been able to discern no method of rescuing
him from a blacker ruin than had overwhelmed herself, except by acquiescing in Roger Chillingworth’s scheme of disguise. Under that impulse, she
had made her choice, and had chosen, as it now appeared, the more wretched
alternative of the two. She determined to redeem her error, so far as it might
yet be possible. Strengthened by years of hard and solemn trial, she felt herself no longer so inadequate to cope with Roger Chillingworth as on that
night, abased by sin, and half maddened by the ignominy that was still new,
when they had talked together in the prison-chamber. She had climbed her
way, since then, to a higher point. The old man, on the other hand, had
brought himself nearer to her level or perhaps, below it, by the revenge which
he had stooped for.
In fine, Hester Prynne resolved to meet her former husband, and do
what might be in her power for the rescue of the victim on whom he had so
evidently set his gripe. The occasion was not long to seek. One afternoon,
walking with Pearl in a retired part of the peninsula, she beheld the old
physician, with a basket on one arm, and a staff in the other hand, stooping
along the ground, in quest of roots and herbs to concoct his medicine withal.
Chapter XIV. Hester and the Physician
Hester bade little Pearl run down to the margin of the water, and play
with the shells and tangled sea-weed, until she should have talked awhile
with yonder gatherer of herbs. So the child flew away like a bird, and, making bare her small white feet, went pattering along the moist margin of the
sea. Here and there, she came to a full stop, and peeped curiously into a
pool,77 left by the retiring tide as a mirror for Pearl to see her face in. Forth
peeped at her, out of the pool, with dark, glistening curls around her head,
77. An allusion to Narcissus, and perhaps also to Eve in the Garden of Eden (in chapter 6,
Pearl is described as “worthy to have been brought forth in Eden”). In book 4 of Paradise Lost,
John Milton describes Eve as being fascinated by her “shape within the wat’ry gleam.” Critics
have debated whether Eve in the garden is self-absorbed (“narcissistic”) or presenting a model
of strong feminine identity.
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and an elf-smile in her eyes, the image of a little maid, whom Pearl, having
no other playmate, invited to take her hand and run a race with her. But
the visionary little maid, on her part, beckoned likewise, as if to say, —
“This is a better place! Come thou into the pool!” And Pearl, stepping in,
mid-leg deep, beheld her own white feet at the bottom; while, out of a still
lower depth, came the gleam of a kind of fragmentary smile, floating to
and fro in the agitated water.
Meanwhile, her mother had accosted the physician.
“I would speak a word with you,” said she, — “a word that concerns us
“Aha! And is it Mistress Hester that has a word for old Roger
Chillingworth?” answered he, raising himself from his stooping posture.
“With all my heart! Why, Mistress, I hear good tidings of you on all hands!
No longer ago than yester-eve, a magistrate, a wise and godly man, was discoursing of your affairs, Mistress Hester, and whispered me that there had
been question concerning you in the council. It was debated whether or no,
with safety to the commonweal, yonder scarlet letter might be taken off
your bosom. On my life, Hester, I made my entreaty to the worshipful magistrate that it might be done forthwith!”
“It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take off this badge,”
calmly replied Hester. “Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of
its own nature, or be transformed into something that should speak a different purport.”
“Nay, then, wear it, if it suit you better,” rejoined he. “A woman must
needs follow her own fancy, touching the adornment of her person. The letter is gayly embroidered, and shows right bravely on your bosom!”
All this while, Hester had been looking steadily at the old man, and
was shocked, as well as wonder-smitten, to discern what a change had been
wrought upon him within the past seven years. It was not so much that he
had grown older; for though the traces of advancing life were visible, he
bore his age well, and seemed to retain a wiry vigor and alertness. But the
former aspect of an intellectual and studious man, calm and quiet, which
was what she best remembered in him, had altogether vanished, and been
succeeded by an eager, searching, almost fierce, yet carefully guarded look.
It seemed to be his wish and purpose to mask this expression with a smile;
but the latter played him false, and flickered over his visage so derisively,
that the spectator could see his blackness all the better for it. Ever and
anon, too, there came a glare of red light out of his eyes; as if the old man’s
soul were on fire, and kept on smouldering duskily within his breast, until,
by some casual puff of passion, it was blown into a momentary flame. This
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he repressed as speedily as possible, and strove to look as if nothing of the
kind had happened.
In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of man’s
faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable
space of time, undertake a devil’s office. This unhappy person had effected
such a transformation by devoting himself, for seven years, to the constant
analysis of a heart full of torture, and deriving his enjoyment thence, and
adding fuel to those fiery tortures which he analyzed and gloated over.
The scarlet letter burned on Hester Prynne’s bosom. Here was another
ruin, the responsibility of which came partly home to her.
“What see you in my face,” asked the physician, “that you look at it so
“Something that would make me weep, if there were any tears bitter
enough for it,” answered she. “But let it pass! It is of yonder miserable man
that I would speak.”
“And what of him?” cried Roger Chillingworth eagerly, as if he loved
the topic, and were glad of an opportunity to discuss it with the only person of whom he could make a confidant. “Not to hide the truth, Mistress
Hester, my thoughts happen just now to be busy with the gentleman. So
speak freely; and I will make answer.”
“When we last spake together,” said Hester, “now seven years ago, it
was your pleasure to extort a promise of secrecy, as touching the former
relation betwixt yourself and me. As the life and good fame of yonder man
were in your hands, there seemed no choice to me, save to be silent, in
accordance with your behest. Yet it was not without heavy misgivings that
I thus bound myself; for, having cast off all duty towards other human
beings, there remained a duty towards him; and something whispered me
that I was betraying it, in pledging myself to keep your counsel. Since that
day, no man is so near to him as you. You tread behind his every footstep.
You are beside him, sleeping and waking. You search his thoughts. You
burrow and rankle in his heart! Your clutch is on his life, and you cause
him to die daily a living death; and still he knows you not. In permitting
this, I have surely acted a false part by the only man to whom the power
was left me to be true!”
“What choice had you?” asked Roger Chillingworth. “My finger,
pointed at this man, would have hurled him from his pulpit into a dungeon, —
thence, peradventure, to the gallows!”
“It had been better so!” said Hester Prynne.
“What evil have I done the man?” asked Roger Chillingworth again. “I
tell thee, Hester Prynne, the richest fee that ever physician earned from
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monarch could not have bought such care as I have wasted on this miserable priest! But for my aid, his life would have burned away in torments,
within the first two years after the perpetration of his crime and thine. For,
Hester, his spirit lacked the strength that could have borne up, as thine
has, beneath a burden like thy scarlet letter. O, I could reveal a goodly
secret! But enough! What art can do, I have exhausted on him. That he now
breathes, and creeps about on earth, is owing all to me!”
“Better he had died at once!” said Hester Prynne.
“Yea, woman, thou sayest truly!” cried old Roger Chillingworth, letting
the lurid fire of his heart blaze out before her eyes. “Better had he died at
once! Never did mortal suffer what this man has suffered. And all, all, in the
sight of his worst enemy! He has been conscious of me. He has felt an influence dwelling always upon him like a curse. He knew, by some spiritual
sense, — for the Creator never made another being so sensitive as this, — he
knew that no friendly hand was pulling at his heart-strings, and that an eye
was looking curiously into him, which sought only evil, and found it. But he
knew not that the eye and hand were mine! With the superstition common
to his brotherhood, he fancied himself given over to a fiend, to be tortured
with frightful dreams, and desperate thoughts, the sting of remorse, and
despair of pardon; as a foretaste of what awaits him beyond the grave. But
it was the constant shadow of my presence! — the closest propinquity of the
man whom he had most vilely wronged! — and who had grown to exist only
by this perpetual poison of the direst revenge! Yea, indeed! — he did not
err! — there was a fiend at his elbow! A mortal man, with once a human
heart, has become a fiend for his especial torment!”
The unfortunate physician, while uttering these words, lifted his
hands with a look of horror, as if he had beheld some frightful shape, which
he could not recognize, usurping the place of his own image in a glass. It
was one of those moments — which sometimes occur only at the interval of
years — when a man’s moral aspect is faithfully revealed to his mind’s eye.
Not improbably, he had never before viewed himself as he did now.
“Hast thou not tortured him enough?” said Hester, noticing the old
man’s look. “Has he not paid thee all?”
“No! — no! — He has but increased the debt!” answered the physician;
and, as he proceeded, his manner lost its fiercer characteristics, and subsided
into gloom. “Dost thou remember me, Hester, as I was nine years agone? Even
then, I was in the autumn of my days, nor was it the early autumn. But all my
life had been made up of earnest, studious, thoughtful, quiet years, bestowed
faithfully for the increase of mine own knowledge, and faithfully, too, though
this latter object was but casual to the other, — faithfully for the advancement
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of human welfare. No life had been more peaceful and innocent than mine;
few lives so rich with benefits conferred. Dost thou remember me? Was I not,
though you might deem me cold, nevertheless a man thoughtful for others,
craving little for himself, — kind, true, just, and of constant, if not warm affections? Was I not all this?”
“All this, and more,” said Hester.
“And what am I now?” demanded he, looking into her face, and permitting the whole evil within him to be written on his features. “I have
already told thee what I am! A fiend! Who made me so?”
“It was myself!” cried Hester, shuddering. “It was I, not less than he.
Why hast thou not avenged thyself on me?”
“I have left thee to the scarlet letter,” replied Roger Chillingworth. “If
that have not avenged me, I can do no more!”
He laid his finger on it, with a smile.
“It has avenged thee!” answered Hester Prynne.
“I judged no less,” said the physician. “And now, what wouldst thou
with me touching this man?”
“I must reveal the secret,” answered Hester, firmly. “He must discern
thee in thy true character. What may be the result, I know not. But this
long debt of confidence, due from me to him, whose bane and ruin I have
been, shall at length be paid. So far as concerns the overthrow or preservation of his fair fame and his earthly state, and perchance his life, he is in
thy hands. Nor do I, — whom the scarlet letter has disciplined to truth,
though it be the truth of red-hot iron, entering into the soul, — nor do I perceive such advantage in his living any longer a life of ghastly emptiness,
that I shall stoop to implore thy mercy. Do with him as thou wilt! There is
no good for him, — no good for me, — no good for thee! There is no good for
little Pearl! There is no path to guide us out of this dismal maze!”
“Woman, I could wellnigh pity thee!” said Roger Chillingworth, unable
to restrain a thrill of admiration too; for there was a quality almost majestic
in the despair which she expressed. “Thou hadst great elements. Peradventure,
hadst thou met earlier with a better love than mine, this evil had not been.
I pity thee, for the good that has been wasted in thy nature!”
“And I thee,” answered Hester Prynne, “for the hatred that has transformed a wise and just man to a fiend! Wilt thou yet purge it out of thee,
and be once more human? If not for his sake, then doubly for thine own!
Forgive, and leave his further retribution to the Power that claims it! I
said, but now, that there could be no good event for him, or thee, or me, who
are here wandering together in this gloomy maze of evil, and stumbling, at
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every step, over the guilt wherewith we have strewn our path. It is not so!
There might be good for thee, and thee alone, since thou hast been deeply
wronged, and hast it at thy will to pardon. Wilt thou give up that only privilege? Wilt thou reject that priceless benefit?”
“Peace, Hester, peace!” replied the old man, with gloomy sternness.
“It is not granted me to pardon. I have no such power as thou tellest me of.
My old faith, long forgotten, comes back to me, and explains all that we do,
and all we suffer. By thy first step awry, thou didst plant the germ of evil;
but, since that moment, it has all been a dark necessity. Ye that have
wronged me are not sinful, save in a kind of typical illusion; neither am I
fiend-like, who have snatched a fiend’s office from his hands. It is our fate.
Let the black flower blossom as it may! Now go thy ways, and deal as thou
wilt with yonder man.”
He waved his hand, and betook himself again to his employment of
gathering herbs.
Chapter XV. Hester and Pearl
So Roger Chillingworth — a deformed old figure, with a face that haunted
men’s memories longer than they liked — took leave of Hester Prynne, and
went stooping away along the earth. He gathered here and there an herb, or
grubbed up a root, and put it into the basket on his arm. His gray beard almost
touched the ground, as he crept onward. Hester gazed after him a little while,
looking with a half-fantastic curiosity to see whether the tender grass of early
spring would not be blighted beneath him, and show the wavering track of his
footsteps, sere and brown, across its cheerful verdure. She wondered what
sort of herbs they were, which the old man was so sedulous to gather. Would
not the earth, quickened to an evil purpose by the sympathy of his eye, greet
him with poisonous shrubs, of species hitherto unknown, that would start up
under his fingers? Or might it suffice him, that every wholesome growth
should be converted into something deleterious and malignant at his touch?
Did the sun, which shone so brightly everywhere else, really fall upon him? Or
was there, as it rather seemed, a circle of ominous shadow moving along with
his deformity, whichever way he turned himself? And whither was he now
going? Would he not suddenly sink into the earth, leaving a barren and
blasted spot, where, in due course of time, would be seen deadly nightshade,
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dogwood, henbane,78 and whatever else of vegetable wickedness the climate
could produce, all flourishing with hideous luxuriance? Or would he spread
bat’s wings and flee away, looking so much the uglier, the higher he rose
towards heaven?
“Be it sin or no,” said Hester Prynne bitterly, as she still gazed after
him, “I hate the man!”
She upbraided herself for the sentiment, but could not overcome or
lessen it. Attempting to do so, she thought of those long-past days, in a distant land, when he used to emerge at eventide from the seclusion of his
study, and sit down in the fire-light of their home, and in the light of her nuptial smile. He needed to bask himself in that smile, he said, in order that the
chill of so many lonely hours among his books might be taken off the
scholar’s heart. Such scenes had once appeared not otherwise than happy,
but now, as viewed through the dismal medium of her subsequent life, they
classed themselves among her ugliest remembrances. She marvelled how
such scenes could have been! She marvelled how she could ever have been
wrought upon to marry him! She deemed it her crime most to be repented of,
that she had ever endured, and reciprocated, the lukewarm grasp of his
hand, and had suffered the smile of her lips and eyes to mingle and melt into
his own. And it seemed a fouler offence committed by Roger Chillingworth,
than any which had since been done him, that, in the time when her heart
knew no better, he had persuaded her to fancy herself happy by his side.
“Yes, I hate him!” repeated Hester, more bitterly than before. “He
betrayed me! He has done me worse wrong than I did him!”
Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along
with it the utmost passion of her heart! Else it may be their miserable fortune, as it was Roger Chillingworth’s, when some mightier touch than
their own may have awakened all her sensibilities, to be reproached even
for the calm content, the marble image of happiness, which they will have
imposed upon her as the warm reality. But Hester ought long ago to have
done with this injustice. What did it betoken? Had seven long years, under
the torture of the scarlet letter, inflicted so much of misery, and wrought
out no repentance?
The emotions of that brief space, while she stood gazing after the
crooked figure of old Roger Chillingworth, threw a dark light on Hester’s
state of mind, revealing much that she might not otherwise have acknowledged to herself.
78. Poisonous herbs thought to be used in witchcraft.
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He being gone, she summoned back her child.
“Pearl! Little Pearl! Where are you?”
Pearl, whose activity of spirit never flagged, had been at no loss for
amusement while her mother talked with the old gatherer of herbs. At
first, as already told, she had flirted fancifully with her own image in a
pool of water, beckoning the phantom forth, and — as it declined to venture —
seeking a passage for herself into its sphere of impalpable earth and unattainable sky. Soon finding, however, that either she or the image was
unreal, she turned elsewhere for better pastime. She made little boats out
of birch-bark, and freighted them with snail-shells, and sent out more ventures on the mighty deep than any merchant in New England; but the
larger part of them foundered near the shore. She seized a live horseshoe
by the tail, and made prize of several five-fingers,79 and laid out a jelly-fish
to melt in the warm sun. Then she took up the white foam, that streaked
the line of the advancing tide, and threw it upon the breeze, scampering
after it with winged footsteps, to catch the great snow-flakes ere they fell.
Perceiving a flock of beach-birds, that fed and fluttered along the shore,
the naughty child picked up her apron full of pebbles, and, creeping from
rock to rock after these small sea-fowl, displayed remarkable dexterity in
pelting them. One little gray bird, with a white breast, Pearl was almost
sure, had been hit by a pebble, and fluttered away with a broken wing. But
then the elf-child sighed, and gave up her sport; because it grieved her to
have done harm to a little being that was as wild as the sea-breeze, or as
wild as Pearl herself.
Her final employment was to gather sea-weed, of various kinds, and
make herself a scarf, or mantle, and a head-dress, and thus assume the aspect
of a little mermaid. She inherited her mother’s gift for devising drapery and
costume. As the last touch to her mermaid’s garb, Pearl took some eel-grass,
and imitated, as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which
she was so familiar on her mother’s. A letter, — the letter A, — but freshly
green, instead of scarlet! The child bent her chin upon her breast, and contemplated this device with strange interest; even as if the one only thing for
which she had been sent into the world was to make out its hidden import.
“I wonder if mother will ask me what it means!” thought Pearl.
Just then, she heard her mother’s voice, and, flitting along as lightly
as one of the little sea-birds, appeared before Hester Prynne, dancing,
laughing, and pointing her finger to the ornament upon her bosom.
79. live horseshoe . . . and . . . five-fingers: A horseshoe crab and a starfish.
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“My little Pearl,” said Hester, after a moment’s silence, “the green letter, and on thy childish bosom, has no purport. But dost thou know, my
child, what this letter means which thy mother is doomed to wear?”
“Yes, mother,” said the child. “It is the great letter A. Thou hast
taught it me in the horn-book.”80
Hester looked steadily into her little face; but, though there was that
singular expression which she had so often remarked in her black eyes,
she could not satisfy herself whether Pearl really attached any meaning to
the symbol. She felt a morbid desire to ascertain the point.
“Dost thou know, child, wherefore thy mother wears this letter?”
“Truly do I!” answered Pearl, looking brightly into her mother’s
face. “It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his
“And what reason is that?” asked Hester, half smiling at the absurd
incongruity of the child’s observation; but, on second thoughts, turning
pale. “What has the letter to do with any heart, save mine?”
“Nay, mother, I have told all I know,” said Pearl, more seriously than
she was wont to speak. “Ask yonder old man whom thou hast been talking
with! It may be he can tell. But in good earnest now, mother dear, what
does this scarlet letter mean? — and why dost thou wear it on thy bosom? —
and why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?”
She took her mother’s hand in both her own, and gazed into her eyes
with an earnestness that was seldom seen in her wild and capricious character. The thought occurred to Hester, that the child might really be seeking
to approach her with childlike confidence, and doing what she could, and as
intelligently as she knew how, to establish a meeting-point of sympathy. It
showed Pearl in an unwonted aspect. Heretofore, the mother, while loving
her child with the intensity of a sole affection, had schooled herself to hope
for little other return than the waywardness of an April breeze; which
spends its time in airy sport, and has its gusts of inexplicable passion, and
is petulant in its best of moods, and chills oftener than caresses you, when
you take it to your bosom; in requital of which misdemeanours, it will sometimes, of its own vague purpose, kiss your cheek with a kind of doubtful tenderness, and play gently with your hair, and then be gone about its other
idle business, leaving a dreamy pleasure at your heart. And this, moreover,
80. horn-book: A piece of paper mounted on a small, wooden paddle and covered with a thin
sheet of cow’s horn. The books were used to teach young children and usually had the alphabet, some pairs of letters, and some religious verse.
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was a mother’s estimate of the child’s disposition. Any other observer
might have seen few but unamiable traits, and have given them a far darker
coloring. But now the idea came strongly into Hester’s mind, that Pearl,
with her remarkable precocity and acuteness, might already have
approached the age when she could have been made a friend, and intrusted
with as much of her mother’s sorrows as could be imparted, without irreverence either to the parent or the child. In the little chaos of Pearl’s character, there might be seen emerging — and could have been from the very
first — the steadfast principles of an unflinching courage, — an uncontrollable will, — a sturdy pride, which might be disciplined into self-respect, —
and a bitter scorn of many things, which, when examined, might be found
to have the taint of falsehood in them. She possessed affections, too,
though hitherto acrid and disagreeable, as are the richest flavors of unripe
fruit. With all these sterling attributes, thought Hester, the evil which she
inherited from her mother must be great indeed, if a noble woman do not
grow out of this elfish child.
Pearl’s inevitable tendency to hover about the enigma of the scarlet
letter seemed an innate quality of her being. From the earliest epoch of her
conscious life, she had entered upon this as her appointed mission. Hester
had often fancied that Providence had a design of justice and retribution,
in endowing the child with this marked propensity; but never, until now,
had she bethought herself to ask, whether, linked with that design, there
might not likewise be a purpose of mercy and beneficence. If little Pearl
were entertained with faith and trust, as a spirit-messenger no less than
an earthly child, might it not be her errand to soothe away the sorrow that
lay cold in her mother’s heart, and converted it into a tomb? — and to help
her to overcome the passion, once so wild, and even yet neither dead nor
asleep, but only imprisoned within the same tomb-like heart?
Such were some of the thoughts that now stirred in Hester’s mind,
with as much vivacity of impression as if they had actually been whispered
into her ear. And there was little Pearl, all this while, holding her mother’s
hand in both her own, and turning her face upward, while she put these
searching questions, once, and again, and still a third time.
“What does the letter mean, mother? — and why dost thou wear it? —
and why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?”
“What shall I say?” thought Hester to herself. — “No! If this be the
price of the child’s sympathy, I cannot pay it!”
Then she spoke aloud.
“Silly Pearl,” said she, “what questions are these? There are many
things in this world that a child must not ask about. What know I of the
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minister’s heart? And as for the scarlet letter, I wear it for the sake of its
gold thread!”
In all the seven bygone years, Hester Prynne had never before been
false to the symbol on her bosom. It may be that it was the talisman of a
stern and severe, but yet a guardian spirit, who now forsook her; as recognizing that, in spite of his strict watch over her heart, some new evil had
crept into it, or some old one had never been expelled. As for little Pearl,
the earnestness soon passed out of her face.
But the child did not see fit to let the matter drop. Two or three times,
as her mother and she went homeward, and as often at supper-time, and
while Hester was putting her to bed, and once after she seemed to be fairly
asleep, Pearl looked up, with mischief gleaming in her black eyes.
“Mother,” said she, “what does the scarlet letter mean?”
And the next morning, the first indication the child gave of being
awake was by popping up her head from the pillow, and making that other
inquiry, which she had so unaccountably connected with her investigations about the scarlet letter: —
“Mother! — Mother! — Why does the minister keep his hand over his
“Hold thy tongue, naughty child!” answered her mother, with an
asperity that she had never permitted to herself before. “Do not tease me;
else I shall shut thee into the dark closet!”
Chapter XVI. A Forest Walk
Hester Prynne remained constant in her resolve to make known to Mr.
Dimmesdale, at whatever risk of present pain or ulterior consequences,
the true character of the man who had crept into his intimacy. For several
days, however, she vainly sought an opportunity of addressing him in
some of the meditative walks which she knew him to be in the habit of taking, along the shores of the peninsula, or on the wooded hills of the neighbouring country. There would have been no scandal, indeed, nor peril to
the holy whiteness of the clergyman’s good fame, had she visited him in
his own study; where many a penitent, ere now, had confessed sins of perhaps as deep a die as the one betokened by the scarlet letter. But, partly
that she dreaded the secret or undisguised interference of old Roger
Chillingworth, and partly that her conscious heart imparted suspicion
where none could have been felt, and partly that both the minister and
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she would need the whole wide world to breathe in, while they talked
together, — for all these reasons, Hester never thought of meeting him in
any narrower privacy than beneath the open sky.
At last, while attending in a sick-chamber, whither the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale had been summoned to make a prayer, she learnt that he
had gone, the day before, to visit the Apostle Eliot,81 among his Indian
converts. He would probably return, by a certain hour, in the afternoon of
the morrow. Betimes, therefore, the next day, Hester took little Pearl, —
who was necessarily the companion of all her mother’s expeditions, however inconvenient her presence, — and set forth.
The road, after the two wayfarers had crossed from the peninsula to
the mainland, was no other than a footpath. It straggled onward into the
mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood
so black and dense on either side, and disclosed such imperfect glimpses
of the sky above, that, to Hester’s mind, it imaged not amiss the moral
wilderness in which she had so long been wandering. The day was chill and
sombre. Overhead was a gray expanse of cloud, slightly stirred, however,
by a breeze; so that a gleam of flickering sunshine might now and then be
seen at its solitary play along the path. This flitting cheerfulness was
always at the farther extremity of some long vista through the forest. The
sportive sunlight — feebly sportive, at best, in the predominant pensiveness of the day and scene — withdrew itself as they came nigh, and left the
spots where it had danced the drearier, because they had hoped to find
them bright.
“Mother,” said little Pearl, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs
away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom.
Now, see! There it is, playing, a good way off. Stand you here, and let me
run and catch it. I am but a child. It will not flee from me; for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”
“Nor ever will, my child, I hope,” said Hester.
“And why not, mother?” asked Pearl, stopping short, just at the beginning
of her race. “Will not it come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?”
81. Reverend John Eliot (1604–1690) was a Puritan missionary and minister. He came to
Boston in 1631 and became minister at the First Church in Roxbury, where he founded a religious school. With Thomas Weld and Richard Mather he edited the Bay Psalm Book, the first
book published in the American colonies. He was involved in the banishment of Anne
Hutchinson and is best known for attempting to establish towns in which “praying Indians”
could practice the Puritan religion while maintaining some aspects of their native culture.
He also translated the Bible into the Natick language.
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“Run away, child,” answered her mother, “and catch the sunshine! It
will soon be gone.”
Pearl set forth, at a great pace, and, as Hester smiled to perceive, did
actually catch the sunshine, and stood laughing in the midst of it, all
brightened by its splendor, and scintillating with the vivacity excited by
rapid motion. The light lingered about the lonely child, as if glad of such a
playmate, until her mother had drawn almost nigh enough to step into the
magic circle too.
“It will go now!” said Pearl, shaking her head.
“See!” answered Hester, smiling. “Now I can stretch out my hand, and
grasp some of it.”
As she attempted to do so, the sunshine vanished; or, to judge from the
bright expression that was dancing on Pearl’s features, her mother could
have fancied that the child had absorbed it into herself, and would give it
forth again, with a gleam about her path, as they should plunge into some
gloomier shade. There was no other attribute that so much impressed her
with a sense of new and untransmitted vigor in Pearl’s nature, as this neverfailing vivacity of spirits; she had not the disease of sadness, which almost
all children, in these latter days, inherit, with the scrofula,82 from the troubles of their ancestors. Perhaps this too was a disease, and but the reflex
of the wild energy with which Hester had fought against her sorrows,
before Pearl’s birth. It was certainly a doubtful charm, imparting a hard,
metallic lustre to the child’s character. She wanted — what some people
want throughout life — a grief that should deeply touch her, and thus
humanize and make her capable of sympathy. But there was time enough
yet for little Pearl!
“Come, my child!” said Hester, looking about her, from the spot where
Pearl had stood still in the sunshine. “We will sit down a little way within
the wood, and rest ourselves.”
“I am not aweary, mother,” replied the little girl. “But you may sit
down, if you will tell me a story meanwhile.”
“A story, child!” said Hester. “And about what?”
“O, a story about the Black Man!” answered Pearl, taking hold of her
mother’s gown, and looking up, half earnestly, half mischievously, into her
82. scrofula: The word refers to several skin diseases, one of which is a kind of tuberculosis
that affects the lymph nodes. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that the touch of a
monarch could cure this disease, then called “The King’s Evil.”
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face. “How he haunts this forest, and carries a book with him, — a big,
heavy book, with iron clasps; and how this ugly Black Man offers his book
and an iron pen to every body that meets him here among the trees; and
they are to write their names with their own blood. And then he sets his
mark on their bosoms! Didst thou ever meet the Black Man, mother?”
“And who told you this story, Pearl?” asked her mother, recognizing a
common superstition of the period.
“It was the old dame in the chimney-corner, at the house where you
watched last night,” said the child. “But she fancied me asleep while she was
talking of it. She said that a thousand and a thousand people had met him
here, and had written in his book, and have his mark on them. And that uglytempered lady, old Mistress Hibbins, was one. And, mother, the old dame
said that this scarlet letter was the Black Man’s mark on thee, and that it
glows like a red flame when thou meetest him at midnight, here in the dark
wood. Is it true, mother? And dost thou go to meet him in the night-time?”
“Didst thou ever awake, and find thy mother gone?” asked Hester.
“Not that I remember,” said the child. “If thou fearest to leave me in
our cottage, thou mightest take me along with thee. I would very gladly go!
But, mother, tell me now! Is there such a Black Man? And didst thou ever
meet him? And is this his mark?”
“Wilt thou let me be at peace, if I once tell thee?” asked her mother.
“Yes, if thou tellest me all,” answered Pearl.
“Once in my life I met the Black Man!” said her mother. “This scarlet
letter is his mark!”
Thus conversing, they entered sufficiently deep into the wood to
secure themselves from the observation of any casual passenger along the
forest-track. Here they sat down on a luxuriant heap of moss; which, at
some epoch of the preceding century, had been a gigantic pine, with its
roots and trunk in the darksome shade, and its head aloft in the upper
atmosphere. It was a little dell where they had seated themselves, with a
leaf-strewn bank rising gently on either side, and a brook flowing through
the midst, over a bed of fallen and drowned leaves. The trees impending
over it had flung down great branches, from time to time, which choked up
the current, and compelled it to form eddies and black depths at some
points; while, in its swifter and livelier passages, there appeared a channelway of pebbles, and brown, sparkling sand. Letting the eyes follow along the
course of the stream, they could catch the reflected light from its water, at
some short distance within the forest, but soon lost all traces of it amid the
bewilderment of tree-trunks and underbrush, and here and there a huge
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rock, covered over with gray lichens. All these giant trees and boulders of
granite seemed intent on making a mystery of the course of this small
brook; fearing, perhaps, that, with its never-ceasing loquacity, it should
whisper tales out of the heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or mirror
its revelations on the smooth surface of a pool. Continually, indeed, as it
stole onward, the streamlet kept up a babble, kind, quiet, soothing, but
melancholy, like the voice of a young child that was spending its infancy
without playfulness, and knew not how to be merry among sad acquaintance and events of sombre hue.
“O brook! O foolish and tiresome little brook!” cried Pearl, after listening awhile to its talk. “Why art thou so sad? Pluck up a spirit, and do not
be all the time sighing and murmuring!”
But the brook, in the course of its little lifetime among the foresttrees, had gone through so solemn an experience that it could not help
talking about it, and seemed to have nothing else to say. Pearl resembled
the brook, inasmuch as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as
mysterious, and had flowed through scenes shadowed as heavily with
gloom. But, unlike the little stream, she danced and sparkled, and prattled
airily along her course.
“What does this sad little brook say, mother?” inquired she.
“If thou hadst a sorrow of thine own, the brook might tell thee of it,”
answered her mother, “even as it is telling me of mine! But now, Pearl, I
hear a footstep along the path, and the noise of one putting aside the
branches. I would have thee betake thyself to play, and leave me to speak
with him that comes yonder.”
“Is it the Black Man?” asked Pearl.
“Wilt thou go and play, child?” repeated her mother. “But do not stray
far into the wood. And take heed that thou come at my first call.”
“Yes, mother,” answered Pearl, “But, if it be the Black Man, wilt thou
not let me stay a moment, and look at him, with his big book under
his arm?”
“Go, silly child!” said her mother, impatiently. “It is no Black Man!
Thou canst see him now through the trees. It is the minister!”
“And so it is!” said the child. “And, mother, he has his hand over his
heart! Is it because, when the minister wrote his name in the book, the
Black Man set his mark in that place? But why does he not wear it outside
his bosom, as thou dost, mother?”
“Go now, child, and thou shalt tease me as thou wilt another time,”
cried Hester Prynne. “But do not stray far. Keep where thou canst hear the
babble of the brook.”
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Chapter XVII. The Pastor and His Parishioner 169
The child went singing away, following up the current of the brook,
and striving to mingle a more lightsome cadence with its melancholy
voice. But the little stream would not be comforted, and still kept telling
its unintelligible secret of some very mournful mystery that had happened —
or making a prophetic lamentation about something that was yet to
happen — within the verge of the dismal forest. So Pearl, who had enough
of shadow in her own little life, chose to break off all acquaintance with
this repining brook. She set herself, therefore, to gathering violets and
wood-anemones, and some scarlet columbines that she found growing in
the crevices of a high rock.
When her elf-child had departed, Hester Prynne made a step or two
towards the track that led through the forest, but still remained under the
deep shadow of the trees. She beheld the minister advancing along the path,
entirely alone, and leaning on a staff which he had cut by the way-side. He
looked haggard and feeble, and betrayed a nerveless despondency in his air,
which had never so remarkably characterized him in his walks about the settlement, nor in any other situation where he deemed himself liable to notice.
Here it was wofully visible, in this intense seclusion of the forest, which of
itself would have been a heavy trial to the spirits. There was a listlessness in
his gait; as if he saw no reason for taking one step farther, nor felt any desire
to do so, but would have been glad, could he be glad of any thing, to fling himself down at the root of the nearest tree, and lie there passive for evermore.
The leaves might bestrew him, and the soil gradually accumulate and form a
little hillock over his frame, no matter whether there were life in it or no.
Death was too definite an object to be wished for, or avoided.
To Hester’s eye, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale exhibited no symptom
of positive and vivacious suffering, except that, as little Pearl had remarked,
he kept his hand over his heart.
Chapter XVII. The Pastor and His
Slowly as the minister walked, he had almost gone by, before Hester
Prynne could gather voice enough to attract his observation. At length, she
“Arthur Dimmesdale!” she said, faintly at first; then louder, but
hoarsely. “Arthur Dimmesdale!”
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“Who speaks?” answered the minister.
Gathering himself quickly up, he stood more erect, like a man taken by
surprise in a mood to which he was reluctant to have witnesses. Throwing
his eyes anxiously in the direction of the voice, he indistinctly beheld a
form under the trees, clad in garments so sombre, and so little relieved from
the gray twilight into which the clouded sky and the heavy foliage had
darkened the noontide, that he knew not whether it were a woman or a
shadow. It may be, that his pathway through life was haunted thus, by a
spectre that had stolen out from among his thoughts.
He made a step nigher, and discovered the scarlet letter.
“Hester! Hester Prynne!” said he. “Is it thou? Art thou in life?”
“Even so!” she answered. “In such life as has been mine these seven
years past! And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live?”
It was no wonder that they thus questioned one another’s actual and
bodily existence, and even doubted of their own. So strangely did they meet,
in the dim wood, that it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the
grave, of two spirits who had been intimately connected in their former life,
but now stood coldly shuddering, in mutual dread; as not yet familiar with
their state, nor wonted to the companionship of disembodied beings. Each
a ghost, and awe-stricken at the other ghost! They were awe-stricken likewise at themselves; because the crisis flung back to them their consciousness, and revealed to each heart its history and experience, as life never
does, except at such breathless epochs. The soul beheld its features in the
mirror of the passing moment. It was with fear, and tremulously, and, as it
were, by a slow, reluctant necessity, that Arthur Dimmesdale put forth his
hand, chill as death, and touched the chill hand of Hester Prynne. The
grasp, cold as it was, took away what was dreariest in the interview. They
now felt themselves, at least, inhabitants of the same sphere.
Without a word more spoken, — neither he nor she assuming the guidance, but with an unexpressed consent, — they glided back into the shadow
of the woods, whence Hester had emerged, and sat down on the heap of
moss where she and Pearl had before been sitting. When they found voice to
speak, it was, at first, only to utter remarks and inquiries such as any two
acquaintance might have made, about the gloomy sky, the threatening
storm, and, next, the health of each. Thus they went onward, not boldly, but
step by step, into the themes that were brooding deepest in their hearts. So
long estranged by fate and circumstances, they needed something slight
and casual to run before, and throw open the doors of intercourse, so that
their real thoughts might be led across the threshold.
After a while, the minister fixed his eyes on Hester Prynne’s.
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“Hester,” said he, “hast thou found peace?”
She smiled drearily, looking down upon her bosom.
“Hast thou?” she asked.
“None! — nothing but despair!” he answered. “What else could I look
for, being what I am, and leading such a life as mine? Were I an atheist, — a
man devoid of conscience, — a wretch with coarse and brutal instincts, — I
might have found peace, long ere now. Nay, I never should have lost it! But,
as matters stand with my soul, whatever of good capacity there originally
was in me, all of God’s gifts that were the choicest have become the ministers of spiritual torment. Hester, I am most miserable!”
“The people reverence thee,” said Hester. “And surely thou workest
good among them! Doth this bring thee no comfort?”
“More misery, Hester! — only the more misery!” answered the clergyman, with a bitter smile. “As concerns the good which I may appear to do, I
have no faith in it. It must needs be a delusion. What can a ruined soul, like
mine, effect towards the redemption of other souls? — or a polluted soul,
towards their purification? And as for the people’s reverence, would that it
were turned to scorn and hatred! Canst thou deem it, Hester, a consolation,
that I must stand up in my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to
my face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from it! — must see my flock
hungry for the truth, and listening to my words as if a tongue of Pentecost
were speaking! — and then look inward, and discern the black reality of
what they idolize? I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the
contrast between what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at it!”
“You wrong yourself in this,” said Hester gently. “You have deeply and
sorely repented. Your sin is left behind you, in the days long past. Your
present life is not less holy, in very truth, than it seems in people’s eyes. Is
there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and witnessed by good works?
And wherefore should it not bring you peace?”
“No, Hester, no!” replied the clergyman. “There is no substance in it!
It is cold and dead, and can do nothing for me! Of penance I have had
enough! Of penitence there has been none! Else, I should long ago have
thrown off these garments of mock holiness, and have shown myself to
mankind as they will see me at the judgment-seat. Happy are you, Hester,
that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret!
Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years’
cheat, to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am! Had I one
friend, — or were it my worst enemy! — to whom, when sickened with the
praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself, and be known as the
vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby.
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Even thus much of truth would save me! But now, it is all falsehood! — all
emptiness! — all death!”
Hester Prynne looked into his face, but hesitated to speak. Yet, uttering his long-restrained emotions so vehemently as he did, his words here
offered her the very point of circumstances in which to interpose what she
came to say. She conquered her fears, and spoke.
“Such a friend as thou hast even now wished for,” said she, “with
whom to weep over thy sin, thou hast in me, the partner of it!” — Again she
hesitated, but brought out the words with an effort. — “Thou hast long had
such an enemy, and dwellest with him under the same roof!”
The minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and clutching at
his heart as if he would have torn it out of his bosom.
“Ha! What sayest thou?” cried he. “An enemy! And under mine own
roof! What mean you?”
Hester Prynne was now fully sensible of the deep injury for which she
was responsible to this unhappy man, in permitting him to lie for so many
years, or, indeed, for a single moment, at the mercy of one, whose purposes
could not be other than malevolent. The very contiguity of his enemy,
beneath whatever mask the latter might conceal himself, was enough to
disturb the magnetic sphere of a being so sensitive as Arthur Dimmesdale.
There had been a period when Hester was less alive to this consideration;
or, perhaps, in the misanthropy of her own trouble, she left the minister to
bear what she might picture to herself as a more tolerable doom. But of
late, since the night of his vigil, all her sympathies towards him had been
both softened and invigorated. She now read his heart more accurately.
She doubted not, that the continual presence of Roger Chillingworth, — the
secret poison of his malignity, infecting all the air about him, — and his
authorized interference, as a physician, with the minister’s physical and
spiritual infirmities, — that these bad opportunities had been turned to a
cruel purpose. By means of them, the sufferer’s conscience had been kept
in an irritated state, the tendency of which was, not to cure by wholesome
pain, but to disorganize and corrupt his spiritual being. Its result,
on earth, could hardly fail to be insanity, and hereafter, that eternal
alienation from the Good and True, of which madness is perhaps the
earthly type.
Such was the ruin to which she had brought the man, once, — nay, why
should we not speak it? — still so passionately loved! Hester felt that the sacrifice of the clergyman’s good name, and death itself, as she had already
told Roger Chillingworth, would have been infinitely preferable to the alternative which she had taken upon herself to choose. And now, rather than
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have had this grievous wrong to confess, she would gladly have laid down
on the forest-leaves, and died there, at Arthur Dimmesdale’s feet.
“O Arthur,” cried she, “forgive me! In all things else, I have striven to
be true! Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast, and did hold
fast through all extremity; save when thy good, — thy life, — thy fame, —
were put in question! Then I consented to a deception. But a lie is never
good, even though death threaten on the other side! Dost thou not see what
I would say? That old man! — the physician! — he whom they call Roger
Chillingworth! — he was my husband!”
The minister looked at her, for an instant, with all that violence of
passion, which — intermixed, in more shapes than one, with his higher,
purer, softer qualities — was, in fact, the portion of him which the Devil
claimed, and through which he sought to win the rest. Never was there a
blacker or a fiercer frown, than Hester now encountered. For the brief
space that it lasted, it was a dark transfiguration. But his character had
been so much enfeebled by suffering, that even its lower energies were
incapable of more than a temporary struggle. He sank down on the ground,
and buried his face in his hands.
“I might have known it!” murmured he. “I did know it! Was not the
secret told me in the natural recoil of my heart, at the first sight of him,
and as often as I have seen him since? Why did I not understand? O Hester
Prynne, thou little, little knowest all the horror of this thing! And the
shame! — the indelicacy! — the horrible ugliness of this exposure of a sick
and guilty heart to the very eye that would gloat over it! Woman, woman,
thou art accountable for this! I cannot forgive thee!”
“Thou shalt forgive me!” cried Hester, flinging herself on the fallen
leaves beside him. “Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!”
With sudden and desperate tenderness, she threw her arms around
him, and pressed his head against her bosom; little caring though his
cheek rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but
strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should look
her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her, — for seven long
years had it frowned upon this lonely woman, — and still she bore it all, nor
ever once turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven, likewise, had frowned
upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of this pale, weak, sinful,
and sorrow-stricken man was what Hester could not bear, and live!
“Wilt thou yet forgive me?” she repeated, over and over again. “Wilt
thou not frown? Wilt thou forgive?”
“I do forgive you, Hester,” replied the minister, at length, with a deep
utterance out of an abyss of sadness, but no anger. “I freely forgive you
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now. May God forgive us both! We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the
world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man’s
revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the
sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!”
“Never, never!” whispered she. “What we did had a consecration of its
own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou forgotten it?”
“Hush, Hester!” said Arthur Dimmesdale, rising from the ground.
“No; I have not forgotten!”
They sat down again, side by side, and hand clasped in hand, on the
mossy trunk of the fallen tree. Life had never brought them a gloomier
hour; it was the point whither their pathway had so long been tending, and
darkening ever, as it stole along; — and yet it inclosed a charm that made
them linger upon it, and claim another, and another, and, after all, another
moment. The forest was obscure around them, and creaked with a blast that
was passing through it. The boughs were tossing heavily above their heads;
while one solemn old tree groaned dolefully to another, as if telling the sad
story of the pair that sat beneath, or constrained to forbode evil to come.
And yet they lingered. How dreary looked the forest-track that led
backward to the settlement, where Hester Prynne must take up again the
burden of her ignominy, and the minister the hollow mockery of his good
name! So they lingered an instant longer. No golden light had ever been so
precious as the gloom of this dark forest. Here, seen only by his eyes, the
scarlet letter need not burn into the bosom of the fallen woman! Here, seen
only by her eyes, Arthur Dimmesdale, false to God and man, might be, for
one moment, true!
He started at a thought that suddenly occurred to him.
“Hester,” cried he, “here is a new horror! Roger Chillingworth knows
your purpose to reveal his true character. Will he continue, then, to keep
our secret? What will now be the course of his revenge?”
“There is a strange secrecy in his nature,” replied Hester, thoughtfully; “and it has grown upon him by the hidden practices of his revenge. I
deem it not likely that he will betray the secret. He will doubtless seek
other means of satiating his dark passion.”
“And I! — how am I to live longer, breathing the same air with this
deadly enemy?” exclaimed Arthur Dimmesdale, shrinking within himself,
and pressing his hand nervously against his heart, — a gesture that had
grown involuntary with him. “Think for me, Hester! Thou art strong.
Resolve for me!”
“Thou must dwell no longer with this man,” said Hester, slowly and
firmly. “Thy heart must be no longer under his evil eye!”
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“It were far worse than death!” replied the minister. “But how to avoid
it? What choice remains to me? Shall I lie down again on these withered
leaves, where I cast myself when thou didst tell me what he was? Must I
sink down there, and die at once?”
“Alas, what a ruin has befallen thee!” said Hester, with the tears gushing into her eyes. “Wilt thou die for very weakness? There is no other cause!”
“The judgment of God is on me,” answered the conscience-stricken
priest. “It is too mighty for me to struggle with!”
“Heaven would show mercy,” rejoined Hester, “hadst thou but the
strength to take advantage of it.”
“Be thou strong for me!” answered he. “Advise me what to do.”
“Is the world then so narrow?” exclaimed Hester Prynne, fixing her
deep eyes on the minister’s, and instinctively exercising a magnetic power
over a spirit so shattered and subdued, that it could hardly hold itself
erect. “Doth the universe lie within the compass of yonder town, which
only a little time ago was but a leaf-strewn desert, as lonely as this around
us? Whither leads yonder forest-track? Backward to the settlement, thou
sayest! Yes; but onward, too! Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step; until, some few miles hence, the
yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man’s tread. There thou art
free! So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast
been most wretched, to one where thou mayest still be happy! Is there not
shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze
of Roger Chillingworth?”
“Yes, Hester; but only under the fallen leaves!” replied the minister,
with a sad smile.
“Then there is the broad pathway of the sea!” continued Hester. “It
brought thee hither. If thou so choose, it will bear thee back again. In our
native land, whether in some remote rural village or in vast London, — or,
surely, in Germany, in France, in pleasant Italy, — thou wouldst be beyond
his power and knowledge! And what hast thou to do with all these iron
men, and their opinions? They have kept thy better part in bondage too
long already!”
“It cannot be!” answered the minister, listening as if he were called
upon to realize a dream. “I am powerless to go. Wretched and sinful as I
am, I have had no other thought than to drag on my earthly existence in
the sphere where Providence hath placed me. Lost as my own soul is, I
would still do what I may for other human souls! I dare not quit my post,
though an unfaithful sentinel, whose sure reward is death and dishonor,
when his dreary watch shall come to an end!”
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“Thou art crushed under this seven years’ weight of misery,” replied
Hester, fervently resolved to buoy him up with her own energy. “But thou
shalt leave it all behind thee! It shall not cumber thy steps, as thou treadest along the forest-path; neither shalt thou freight the ship with it, if thou
prefer to cross the sea. Leave this wreck and ruin here where it hath happened! Meddle no more with it! Begin all anew! Hast thou exhausted possibility in the failure of this one trial? Not so! The future is yet full of trial
and success. There is happiness to be enjoyed! There is good to be done!
Exchange this false life of thine for a true one. Be, if thy spirit summon
thee to such a mission, the teacher and apostle of the red men. Or, — as is
more thy nature, — be a scholar and a sage among the wisest and the most
renowned of the cultivated world. Preach! Write! Act! Do any thing, save to
lie down and die! Give up this name of Arthur Dimmesdale, and make thyself another, and a high one, such as thou canst wear without fear or
shame. Why shouldst thou tarry so much as one other day in the torments
that have so gnawed into thy life! — that have made thee feeble to will and
to do! — that will leave thee powerless even to repent! Up, and away!”
“O Hester!” cried Arthur Dimmesdale, in whose eyes a fitful light, kindled by her enthusiasm, flashed up and died away, “thou tellest of running
a race to a man whose knees are tottering beneath him! I must die here.
There is not the strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange,
difficult world, alone!”
It was the last expression of the despondency of a broken spirit. He
lacked energy to grasp the better fortune that seemed within his reach.
He repeated the word.
“Alone, Hester!”
“Thou shall not go alone!” answered she, in a deep whisper.
Then, all was spoken!
Chapter XVIII. A Flood of Sunshine
Arthur Dimmesdale gazed into Hester’s face with a look in which hope
and joy shone out, indeed, but with fear betwixt them, and a kind of horror
at her boldness, who had spoken what he vaguely hinted at, but dared
not speak.
But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and
for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society,
had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether
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foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a
moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest,
amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to
decide their fate. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in
desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods.
For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human
institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the
church. The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The
scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not
tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers, — stern and
wild ones, — and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.
The minister, on the other hand, had never gone through an experience calculated to lead him beyond the scope of generally received laws;
although, in a single instance, he had so fearfully transgressed one of the
most sacred of them. But this had been a sin of passion, not of principle,
nor even purpose. Since that wretched epoch, he had watched, with morbid
zeal and minuteness, not his acts, — for those it was easy to arrange, — but
each breath of emotion, and his every thought. At the head of the social
system, as the clergymen of that day stood, he was only the more trammelled by its regulations, its principles, and even its prejudices. As a
priest, the framework of his order inevitably hemmed him in. As a man
who had once sinned, but who kept his conscience all alive and painfully
sensitive by the fretting of an unhealed wound, he might have been supposed safer within the line of virtue, than if he had never sinned at all.
Thus, we seem to see that, as regarded Hester Prynne, the whole
seven years of outlaw and ignominy had been little other than a preparation for this very hour. But Arthur Dimmesdale! Were such a man once
more to fall, what plea could be urged in extenuation of his crime? None;
unless it avail him somewhat, that he was broken down by long and exquisite suffering; that his mind was darkened and confused by the very
remorse which harrowed it; that, between fleeing as an avowed criminal,
and remaining as a hypocrite, conscience might find it hard to strike the
balance; that it was human to avoid the peril of death and infamy, and the
inscrutable machinations of an enemy; that, finally, to this poor pilgrim,
on his dreary and desert path, faint, sick, miserable, there appeared a
glimpse of human affection and sympathy, a new life, and a true one, in
exchange for the heavy doom which he was now expiating. And be the
stern and sad truth spoken, that the breach which guilt has once made
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into the human soul is never, in this mortal state, repaired. It may be
watched and guarded; so that the enemy shall not force his way again into
the citadel, and might even, in his subsequent assaults, select some other
avenue, in preference to that where he had formerly succeeded. But there
is still the ruined wall, and, near it, the stealthy tread of the foe that would
win over again his unforgotten triumph.
The struggle, if there were one, need not be described. Let it suffice,
that the clergyman resolved to flee, and not alone.
“If, in all these past seven years,” thought he, “I could recall one
instant of peace or hope, I would yet endure, for the sake of that earnest of
Heaven’s mercy. But now, — since I am irrevocably doomed, — wherefore
should I not snatch the solace allowed to the condemned culprit before his
execution? Or, if this be the path to a better life, as Hester would persuade
me, I surely give up no fairer prospect by pursuing it! Neither can I any
longer live without her companionship; so powerful is she to sustain, — so
tender to soothe! O Thou to whom I dare not lift mine eyes, wilt Thou yet
pardon me!”
“Thou wilt go!” said Hester calmly, as he met her glance.
The decision once made, a glow of strange enjoyment threw its flickering brightness over the trouble of his breast. It was the exhilarating
effect — upon a prisoner just escaped from the dungeon of his own heart —
of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of an unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region. His spirit rose, as it were, with a bound, and attained
a nearer prospect of the sky, than throughout all the misery which had
kept him grovelling on the earth. Of a deeply religious temperament, there
was inevitably a tinge of the devotional in his mood.
“Do I feel joy again?” cried he, wondering at himself. “Methought the
germ of it was dead in me! O Hester, thou art my better angel! I seem to
have flung myself — sick, sin-stained, and sorrow-blackened — down upon
these forest-leaves, and to have risen up all made anew, and with new powers to glorify Him that hath been merciful! This is already the better life!
Why did we not find it sooner?”
“Let us not look back,” answered Hester Prynne. “The past is gone!
Wherefore should we linger upon it now? See! With this symbol, I undo it
all, and make it as if it had never been!”
So speaking, she undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and,
taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves.
The mystic token alighted on the hither verge of the stream. With a hand’s
breadth farther flight it would have fallen into the water, and have given the
little brook another woe to carry onward, besides the unintelligible tale
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which it still kept murmuring about. But there lay the embroidered letter,
glittering like a lost jewel, which some ill-fated wanderer might pick up,
and thenceforth be haunted by strange phantoms of guilt, sinkings of the
heart, and unaccountable misfortune.
The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She
had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom! By another impulse,
she took off the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon
her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her features. There played
around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile,
that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush
was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale. Her sex, her youth,
and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the
irrevocable past, and clustered themselves, with her maiden hope, and a
happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour. And, as if
the gloom of the earth and sky had been but the effluence of these two
mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden
smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the
obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen
ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees. The
objects that had made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now.
The course of the little brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into
the wood’s heart of mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.
Such was the sympathy of Nature — that wild, heathen Nature of the
forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth —
with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused
from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart
so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and
bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!
Hester looked at him with the thrill of another joy.
“Thou must know Pearl!” said she. “Our little Pearl! Thou hast seen
her, — yes, I know it! — but thou wilt see her now with other eyes. She is a
strange child! I hardly comprehend her! But thou wilt love her dearly, as I
do, and wilt advise me how to deal with her.”
“Dost thou think the child will be glad to know me?” asked the minister, somewhat uneasily. “I have long shrunk from children, because they
often show a distrust, — a backwardness to be familiar with me. I have even
been afraid of little Pearl!”
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“Ah, that was sad!” answered the mother. “But she will love thee
dearly, and thou her. She is not far off. I will call her! Pearl! Pearl!”
“I see the child,” observed the minister. “Yonder she is, standing in a
streak of sunshine, a good way off, on the other side of the brook. So thou
thinkest the child will love me?”
Hester smiled, and again called to Pearl, who was visible, at some distance, as the minister had described her, like a bright-apparelled vision, in
a sunbeam, which fell down upon her through an arch of boughs. The ray
quivered to and fro, making her figure dim or distinct, — now like a real
child, now like a child’s spirit, — as the splendor went and came again. She
heard her mother’s voice, and approached slowly through the forest.
Pearl had not found the hour pass wearisomely, while her mother sat
talking with the clergyman. The great black forest — stern as it showed
itself to those who brought the guilt and troubles of the world into its
bosom — became the playmate of the lonely infant, as well as it knew how.
Sombre as it was, it put on the kindest of its moods to welcome her. It
offered her the partridge-berries, the growth of the preceding autumn, but
ripening only in the spring, and now red as drops of blood upon the withered leaves. These Pearl gathered, and was pleased with their wild flavor.
The small denizens of the wilderness hardly took pains to move out of her
path. A partridge, indeed, with a brood of ten behind her, ran forward
threateningly, but soon repented of her fierceness, and clucked to her
young ones not to be afraid. A pigeon, alone on a low branch, allowed Pearl
to come beneath, and uttered a sound as much of greeting as alarm. A
squirrel, from the lofty depths of his domestic tree, chattered either in
anger or merriment, — for a squirrel is such a choleric and humorous little
personage that it is hard to distinguish between his moods, — so he chattered at the child, and flung down a nut upon her head. It was a last year’s
nut, and already gnawed by his sharp tooth. A fox, startled from his sleep
by her light footstep on the leaves, looked inquisitively at Pearl, as doubting whether it were better to steal off, or renew his nap on the same spot.
A wolf, it is said, — but here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable, — came up, and smelt of Pearl’s robe, and offered his savage head to be
patted by her hand. The truth seems to be, however, that the mother-forest,
and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child.
And she was gentler here than in the grassy-margined streets of the
settlement, or in her mother’s cottage. The flowers appeared to know it;
and one and another whispered, as she passed, “Adorn thyself with me,
thou beautiful child, adorn thyself with me!” — and, to please them, Pearl
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gathered the violets, and anemones, and columbines, and some twigs of
the freshest green, which the old trees held down before her eyes. With
these she decorated her hair, and her young waist, and became a nymphchild, or an infant dryad,83 or whatever else was in closest sympathy with
the antique wood. In such guise had Pearl adorned herself, when she heard
her mother’s voice, and came slowly back.
Slowly; for she saw the clergyman!
Chapter XIX. The Child at the Brook-Side
“Thou wilt love her dearly,” repeated Hester Prynne, as she and the minister sat watching little Pearl. “Dost thou not think her beautiful? And see
with what natural skill she has made those simple flowers adorn her! Had
she gathered pearls, and diamonds, and rubies, in the wood, they could not
have become her better. She is a splendid child! But I know whose brow
she has!”
“Dost thou know, Hester,” said Arthur Dimmesdale, with an unquiet
smile, “that this dear child, tripping about always at thy side, hath caused
me many an alarm? Methought — O Hester, what a thought is that, and how
terrible to dread it! — that my own features were partly repeated in her
face, and so strikingly that the world might see them! But she is mostly
“No, no! Not mostly!” answered the mother with a tender smile. “A little longer, and thou needest not to be afraid to trace whose child she is. But
how strangely beautiful she looks, with those wild flowers in her hair! It is
as if one of the fairies, whom we left in dear old England, had decked her
out to meet us.”
It was with a feeling which neither of them had ever before experienced, that they sat and watched Pearl’s slow advance. In her was visible
the tie that united them. She had been offered to the world, these seven
past years, as the living hieroglyphic, in which was revealed the secret
they so darkly sought to hide, — all written in this symbol, — all plainly
manifest, — had there been a prophet or magician skilled to read the character of flame! And Pearl was the oneness of their being. Be the foregone
83. infant dryad: In Greek mythology, a spirit of the forest.
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evil what it might, how could they doubt that their earthly lives and future
destinies were conjoined, when they beheld at once the material union,
and the spiritual idea, in whom they met, and were to dwell immortally
together? Thoughts like these — and perhaps other thoughts, which they
did not acknowledge or define — threw an awe about the child, as she came
“Let her see nothing strange — no passion or eagerness — in thy way
of accosting her,” whispered Hester. “Our Pearl is a fitful and fantastic little elf, sometimes. Especially, she is seldom tolerant of emotion, when she
does not fully comprehend the why and wherefore. But the child hath
strong affections! She loves me, and will love thee!”
“Thou canst not think,” said the minister, glancing aside at Hester
Prynne, “how my heart dreads this interview, and yearns for it! But, in
truth, as I already told thee, children are not readily won to be familiar
with me. They will not climb my knee, nor prattle in my ear, nor answer to
my smile; but stand apart, and eye me strangely. Even little babes, when I
take them in my arms, weep bitterly. Yet Pearl, twice in her little lifetime,
hath been kind to me! The first time, — thou knowest it well! The last was
when thou ledst her with thee to the house of yonder stern old Governor.”
“And thou didst plead so bravely in her behalf and mine!” answered
the mother. “I remember it; and so shall little Pearl. Fear nothing! She may
be strange and shy at first, but will soon learn to love thee!”
By this time Pearl had reached the margin of the brook, and stood on
the farther side, gazing silently at Hester and the clergyman, who still sat
together on the mossy tree-trunk, waiting to receive her. Just where she
had paused the brook chanced to form a pool, so smooth and quiet that it
reflected a perfect image of her little figure, with all the brilliant picturesqueness of her beauty, in its adornment of flowers and wreathed
foliage, but more refined and spiritualized than the reality. This image, so
nearly identical with the living Pearl, seemed to communicate somewhat
of its own shadowy and intangible quality to the child herself. It was
strange, the way in which Pearl stood, looking so steadfastly at them
through the dim medium of the forest-gloom; herself, meanwhile, all glorified with a ray of sunshine, that was attracted thitherward as by a certain
sympathy. In the brook beneath stood another child, — another and the
same, — with likewise its ray of golden light. Hester felt herself, in some
indistinct and tantalizing manner, estranged from Pearl; as if the child, in
her lonely ramble through the forest, had strayed out of the sphere in
which she and her mother dwelt together, and was now vainly seeking to
return to it.
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There were both truth and error in the impression; the child and
mother were estranged, but through Hester’s fault, not Pearl’s. Since the
latter rambled from her side, another inmate had been admitted within the
circle of the mother’s feelings, and so modified the aspect of them all, that
Pearl, the returning wanderer, could not find her wonted place, and hardly
knew where she was.
“I have a strange fancy,” observed the sensitive minister, “that this
brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet
thy Pearl again. Or is she an elfish spirit, who, as the legends of our childhood taught us, is forbidden to cross a running stream? Pray hasten her;
for this delay has already imparted a tremor to my nerves.”
“Come, dearest child!” said Hester encouragingly, and stretching out
both her arms. “How slow thou art! When hast thou been so sluggish before
now? Here is a friend of mine, who must be thy friend also. Thou wilt have
twice as much love, henceforward, as thy mother alone could give thee! Leap
across the brook and come to us. Thou canst leap like a young deer!”
Pearl, without responding in any manner to these honey-sweet expressions, remained on the other side of the brook. Now she fixed her bright,
wild eyes on her mother, now on the minister, and now included them both
in the same glance; as if to detect and explain to herself the relation which
they bore to one another. For some unaccountable reason, as Arthur
Dimmesdale felt the child’s eyes upon himself, his hand — with that gesture
so habitual as to have become involuntary — stole over his heart. At length,
assuming a singular air of authority, Pearl stretched out her hand, with the
small forefinger extended, and pointing evidently towards her mother’s
breast. And beneath, in the mirror of the brook, there was the flower-girdled
and sunny image of little Pearl, pointing her small forefinger too.
“Thou strange child, why dost thou not come to me?” exclaimed Hester.
Pearl still pointed with her forefinger; and a frown gathered on her
brow; the more impressive from the childish, the almost baby-like aspect
of the features that conveyed it. As her mother still kept beckoning to her,
and arraying her face in a holiday suit of unaccustomed smiles, the child
stamped her foot with a yet more imperious look and gesture. In the brook,
again, was the fantastic beauty of the image, with its reflected frown, its
pointed finger, and imperious gesture, giving emphasis to the aspect of little Pearl.
“Hasten, Pearl; or I shall be angry with thee!” cried Hester Prynne,
who, however inured to such behaviour on the elf-child’s part at other seasons, was naturally anxious for a more seemly deportment now. “Leap
across the brook, naughty child, and run hither! Else I must come to thee!”
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But Pearl, not a whit startled at her mother’s threats, any more than
mollified by her entreaties, now suddenly burst into a fit of passion, gesticulating violently, and throwing her small figure into the most extravagant
contortions. She accompanied this wild outbreak with piercing shrieks,
which the woods reverberated on all sides; so that, alone as she was in her
childish and unreasonable wrath, it seemed as if a hidden multitude were
lending her their sympathy and encouragement. Seen in the brook, once
more, was the shadowy wrath of Pearl’s image, crowned and girdled with
flowers, but stamping its foot, wildly gesticulating, and, in the midst of all,
still pointing its small forefinger at Hester’s bosom!
“I see what ails the child,” whispered Hester to the clergyman, and
turning pale in spite of a strong effort to conceal her trouble and annoyance. “Children will not abide any, the slightest, change in the accustomed
aspect of things that are daily before their eyes. Pearl misses something
which she has always seen me wear!”
“I pray you,” answered the minister, “if thou hast any means of pacifying the child, do it forthwith! Save it were the cankered wrath of an old
witch, like Mistress Hibbins,” added he, attempting to smile, “I know nothing that I would not sooner encounter than this passion in a child. In
Pearl’s young beauty, as in the wrinkled witch, it has a preternatural
effect. Pacify her, if thou lovest me!”
Hester turned again towards Pearl, with a crimson blush upon her
cheek, a conscious glance aside at the clergyman, and then a heavy sigh;
while, even before she had time to speak, the blush yielded to a deadly pallor.
“Pearl,” said she, sadly, “look down at thy feet! There! — before thee! —
on the hither side of the brook!”
The child turned her eyes to the point indicated; and there lay the
scarlet letter, so close upon the margin of the stream, that the gold embroidery was reflected in it.
“Bring it hither!” said Hester.
“Come thou and take it up!” answered Pearl.
“Was ever such a child!” observed Hester aside to the minister. “O, I
have much to tell thee about her. But, in very truth, she is right as regards
this hateful token. I must bear its torture yet a little longer, — only a few
days longer, — until we shall have left this region, and look back hither as
to a land which we have dreamed of. The forest cannot hide it! The midocean shall take it from my hand, and swallow it up for ever!”
With these words, she advanced to the margin of the brook, took up
the scarlet letter, and fastened it again into her bosom. Hopefully, but a
moment ago, as Hester had spoken of drowning it in the deep sea, there
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was a sense of inevitable doom upon her, as she thus received back
this deadly symbol from the hand of fate. She had flung it into infinite
space! — she had drawn an hour’s free breath! — and here again was the
scarlet misery, glittering on the old spot! So it ever is, whether thus typified or no, that an evil deed invests itself with the character of doom.
Hester next gathered up the heavy tresses of her hair, and confined them
beneath her cap. As if there were a withering spell in the sad letter, her
beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed, like fading
sunshine; and a gray shadow seemed to fall across her.
When the dreary change was wrought, she extended her hand to Pearl.
“Dost thou know thy mother now, child?” asked she, reproachfully,
but with a subdued tone. “Wilt thou come across the brook, and own thy
mother, now that she has her shame upon her, — now that she is sad?”
“Yes; now I will!” answered the child, bounding across the brook, and
clasping Hester in her arms. “Now thou art my mother indeed! And I am
thy little Pearl!”
In a mood of tenderness that was not usual with her, she drew down
her mother’s head, and kissed her brow and both her cheeks. But then — by
a kind of necessity that always impelled this child to alloy whatever comfort she might chance to give with a throb of anguish — Pearl put up her
mouth, and kissed the scarlet letter, too!
“That was not kind!” said Hester. “When thou hast shown me a little
love, thou mockest me!”
“Why doth the minister sit yonder?” asked Pearl.
“He waits to welcome thee,” replied her mother. “Come thou, and
entreat his blessing! He loves thee, my little Pearl, and loves thy mother
too. Wilt thou not love him? Come! he longs to greet thee!”
“Doth he love us?” said Pearl, looking up with acute intelligence into
her mother’s face. “Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three
together, into the town?”
“Not now, dear child,” answered Hester. “But in days to come he will
walk hand in hand with us. We will have a home and fireside of our own;
and thou shalt sit upon his knee; and he will teach thee many things, and
love thee dearly. Thou wilt love him; wilt thou not?”
“And will he always keep his hand over his heart?” inquired Pearl.
“Foolish child, what a question is that!” exclaimed her mother. “Come
and ask his blessing!”
But, whether influenced by the jealousy that seems instinctive with
every petted child towards a dangerous rival, or from whatever caprice of
her freakish nature, Pearl would show no favor to the clergyman. It was
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only by an exertion of force that her mother brought her up to him, hanging
back, and manifesting her reluctance by odd grimaces; of which, ever since
her babyhood, she had possessed a singular variety, and could transform
her mobile physiognomy into a series of different aspects, with a new mischief in them, each and all. The minister — painfully embarrassed, but hoping that a kiss might prove a talisman to admit him into the child’s kindlier
regards — bent forward, and impressed one on her brow. Hereupon, Pearl
broke away from her mother, and, running to the brook, stooped over it, and
bathed her forehead, until the unwelcome kiss was quite washed off, and
diffused through a long lapse of the gliding water. She then remained
apart, silently watching Hester and the clergyman; while they talked
together, and made such arrangements as were suggested by their new
position, and the purposes soon to be fulfilled.
And now this fateful interview had come to a close. The dell was to be
left in solitude among its dark, old trees, which, with their multitudinous
tongues, would whisper long of what had passed there, and no mortal be
the wiser. And the melancholy brook would add this other tale to the mystery with which its little heart was already overburdened, and whereof it
still kept up a murmuring babble, with not a whit more cheerfulness of
tone than for ages heretofore.
Chapter XX. The Minister in a Maze
As the minister departed, in advance of Hester Prynne and little Pearl,
he threw a backward glance; half expecting that he should discover only
some faintly traced features or outline of the mother and the child, slowly
fading into the twilight of the woods. So great a vicissitude in his life could
not at once be received as real. But there was Hester, clad in her gray robe,
still standing beside the tree-trunk, which some blast had overthrown a
long antiquity ago, and which time had ever since been covering with
moss, so that these two fated ones, with earth’s heaviest burden on them,
might there sit down together, and find a single hour’s rest and solace. And
there was Pearl, too, lightly dancing from the margin of the brook, — now
that the intrusive third person was gone, — and taking her old place by her
mother’s side. So the minister had not fallen asleep, and dreamed!
In order to free his mind from this indistinctness and duplicity of
impression, which vexed it with a strange disquietude, he recalled and more
thoroughly defined the plans which Hester and himself had sketched for
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their departure. It had been determined between them, that the Old World,
with its crowds and cities, offered them a more eligible shelter and concealment than the wilds of New England, or all America, with its alternatives of
an Indian wigwam, or the few settlements of Europeans, scattered thinly
along the sea-board. Not to speak of the clergyman’s health, so inadequate to
sustain the hardships of a forest life, his native gifts, his culture, and his
entire development would secure him a home only in the midst of civilization and refinement; the higher the state, the more delicately adapted to it
the man. In furtherance of this choice, it so happened that a ship lay in the
harbour; one of those questionable cruisers, frequent at that day, which,
without being absolutely outlaws of the deep, yet roamed over its surface
with a remarkable irresponsibility of character. This vessel had recently
arrived from the Spanish Main, and, within three days’ time, would sail for
Bristol. Hester Prynne — whose vocation, as a self-enlisted Sister of Charity,
had brought her acquainted with the captain and crew — could take upon
herself to secure the passage of two individuals and a child, with all the
secrecy which circumstances rendered more than desirable.
The minister had inquired of Hester, with no little interest, the precise
time at which the vessel might be expected to depart. It would probably be
on the fourth day from the present. “This is most fortunate!” he had then
said to himself. Now, why the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale considered it so
very fortunate, we hesitate to reveal. Nevertheless, — to hold nothing back
from the reader, — it was because, on the third day from the present, he was
to preach the Election Sermon;84 and, as such an occasion formed an honorable epoch in the life of a New England clergyman, he could not have
chanced upon a more suitable mode and time of terminating his professional career. “At least, they shall say of me,” thought this exemplary man,
“that I leave no public duty unperformed, nor ill performed!” Sad, indeed,
that an introspection so profound and acute as this poor minister’s should
be so miserably deceived! We have had, and may still have, worse things to
tell of him; but none, we apprehend, so pitiably weak; no evidence, at once
so slight and irrefragable, of a subtle disease, that had long since begun to
eat into the real substance of his character. No man, for any considerable
period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without
finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.
84. Election Sermon: A special sermon given by a leading Puritan minister on the occasion of
the inauguration of a newly elected governor. Here, Hawthorne refers to the sermon preached
at the inauguration of John Endicott in 1649.
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The excitement of Mr. Dimmesdale’s feelings, as he returned from his
interview with Hester, lent him unaccustomed physical energy, and hurried
him townward at a rapid pace. The pathway among the woods seemed wilder,
more uncouth with its rude natural obstacles, and less trodden by the foot of
man, than he remembered it on his outward journey. But he leaped across
the plashy places, thrust himself through the clinging underbrush, climbed
the ascent, plunged into the hollow, and overcame, in short, all the difficulties of the track, with an unweariable activity that astonished him. He could
not but recall how feebly, and with what frequent pauses for breath, he had
toiled over the same ground only two days before. As he drew near the town,
he took an impression of change from the series of familiar objects that presented themselves. It seemed not yesterday, not one, nor two, but many days,
or even years ago, since he had quitted them. There, indeed, was each former trace of the street, as he remembered it, and all the peculiarities of the
houses, with the due multitude of gable-peaks, and a weathercock at every
point where his memory suggested one. Not the less, however, came this
importunately obtrusive sense of change. The same was true as regarded the
acquaintances whom he met, and all the well-known shapes of human life,
about the little town. They looked neither older nor younger, now; the beards
of the aged were no whiter, nor could the creeping babe of yesterday walk on
his feet to-day; it was impossible to describe in what respect they differed
from the individuals on whom he had so recently bestowed a parting glance;
and yet the minister’s deepest sense seemed to inform him of their mutability. A similar impression struck him most remarkably, as he passed under
the walls of his own church. The edifice had so very strange, and yet so familiar, an aspect, that Mr. Dimmesdale’s mind vibrated between two ideas;
either that he had seen it only in a dream hitherto, or that he was merely
dreaming about it now.
This phenomenon, in the various shapes which it assumed, indicated
no external change, but so sudden and important a change in the spectator
of the familiar scene, that the intervening space of a single day had operated on his consciousness like the lapse of years. The minister’s own will,
and Hester’s will, and the fate that grew between them, had wrought this
transformation. It was the same town as heretofore; but the same minister
returned not from the forest. He might have said to the friends who greeted
him, — “I am not the man for whom you take me! I left him yonder in the
forest, withdrawn into a secret dell, by a mossy tree-trunk, and near a
melancholy brook! Go, seek your minister, and see if his emaciated figure,
his thin cheek, his white, heavy, pain-wrinkled brow, be not flung down
there like a cast-off garment!” His friends, no doubt, would still have
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insisted with him, — “Thou art thyself the man!” — but the error would have
been their own, not his.
Before Mr. Dimmesdale reached home, his inner man gave him other
evidences of a revolution in the sphere of thought and feeling. In truth,
nothing short of a total change of dynasty and moral code, in that interior
kingdom, was adequate to account for the impulses now communicated to
the unfortunate and startled minister. At every step he was incited to do
some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at
once involuntary and intentional; in spite of himself, yet growing out of a
profounder self than that which opposed the impulse. For instance, he met
one of his own deacons. The good old man addressed him with the paternal
affection and patriarchal privilege, which his venerable age, his upright
and holy character, and his station in the Church, entitled him to use; and,
conjoined with this, the deep, almost worshipping respect, which the minister’s professional and private claims alike demanded. Never was there a
more beautiful example of how the majesty of age and wisdom may comport with the obeisance and respect enjoined upon it, as from a lower
social rank and inferior order of endowment, towards a higher. Now, during a conversation of some two or three moments between the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale and this excellent and hoary-bearded deacon, it was only
by the most careful self-control that the former could refrain from uttering certain blasphemous suggestions that rose into his mind, respecting
the communion-supper. He absolutely trembled and turned pale as ashes,
lest his tongue should wag itself, in utterance of these horrible matters,
and plead his own consent for so doing, without his having fairly given it.
And, even with this terror in his heart, he could hardly avoid laughing to
imagine how the sanctified old patriarchal deacon would have been petrified by his minister’s impiety!
Again, another incident of the same nature. Hurrying along the
street, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale encountered the eldest female member of his church; a most pious and exemplary old dame; poor, widowed,
lonely, and with a heart as full of reminiscences about her dead husband
and children, and her dead friends of long ago, as a burial-ground is full of
storied gravestones. Yet all this, which would else have been such heavy
sorrow, was made almost a solemn joy to her devout old soul by religious
consolations and the truths of Scripture, wherewith she had fed herself
continually for more than thirty years. And, since Mr. Dimmesdale had
taken her in charge, the good grandam’s chief earthly comfort — which,
unless it had been likewise a heavenly comfort, could have been none at
all — was to meet her pastor, whether casually, or of set purpose, and be
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refreshed with a word of warm, fragrant, heaven-breathing Gospel truth
from his beloved lips into her dulled, but rapturously attentive ear. But, on
this occasion, up to the moment of putting his lips to the old woman’s ear,
Mr. Dimmesdale, as the great enemy of souls would have it, could recall
no text of Scripture, nor aught else, except a brief, pithy, and, as it then
appeared to him, unanswerable argument against the immortality of the
human soul. The instilment thereof into her mind would probably have
caused this aged sister to drop down dead, at once, as by the effect of an
intensely poisonous infusion. What he really did whisper, the minister
could never afterwards recollect. There was, perhaps, a fortunate disorder
in his utterance, which failed to impart any distinct idea to the good
widow’s comprehension, or which Providence interpreted after a method
of its own. Assuredly, as the minister looked back, he beheld an expression
of divine gratitude and ecstasy that seemed like the shine of the celestial
city on her face, so wrinkled and ashy pale.
Again, a third instance. After parting from the old church-member, he
met the youngest sister of them all. It was a maiden newly won — and won by
the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale’s own sermon, on the Sabbath after his vigil —
to barter the transitory pleasures of the world for the heavenly hope, that
was to assume brighter substance as life grew dark around her, and which
would gild the utter gloom with final glory. She was fair and pure as a lily
that had bloomed in Paradise. The minister knew well that he was himself
enshrined within the stainless sanctity of her heart, which hung its snowy
curtains about his image, imparting to religion the warmth of love, and to
love a religious purity. Satan, that afternoon, had surely led the poor young
girl away from her mother’s side, and thrown her into the pathway of this
sorely tempted, or — shall we not rather say? — this lost and desperate man.
As she drew nigh, the arch-fiend whispered him to condense into small compass and drop into her tender bosom a germ of evil that would be sure to blossom darkly soon, and bear black fruit betimes. Such was his sense of power
over this virgin soul, trusting him as she did, that the minister felt potent to
blight all the field of innocence with but one wicked look, and develop all its
opposite with but a word. So — with a mightier struggle than he had yet
sustained — he held his Geneva cloak before his face, and hurried onward,
making no sign of recognition, and leaving the young sister to digest his
rudeness as she might. She ransacked her conscience, — which was full of
harmless little matters, like her pocket or her work-bag, — and took herself to
task, poor thing, for a thousand imaginary faults; and went about her household duties with swollen eyelids the next morning.
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Before the minister had time to celebrate his victory over this last
temptation, he was conscious of another impulse, more ludicrous, and
almost as horrible. It was, — we blush to tell it, — it was to stop short in the
road, and teach some very wicked words to a knot of little Puritan children
who were playing there, and had but just begun to talk. Denying himself this
freak, as unworthy of his cloth, he met a drunken seaman, one of the ship’s
crew from the Spanish Main. And, here, since he had so valiantly forborne
all other wickedness, poor Mr. Dimmesdale longed, at least, to shake hands
with the tarry blackguard, and recreate himself with a few improper jests,
such as dissolute sailors so abound with, and a volley of good, round, solid,
satisfactory, and heaven-defying oaths! It was not so much a better principle,
as partly his natural good taste, and still more his buckramed habit of clerical decorum, that carried him safely through the latter crisis.
“What is it that haunts and tempts me thus?” cried the minister to
himself, at length, pausing in the street, and striking his hand against his
forehead. “Am I mad? or am I given over utterly to the fiend? Did I make a
contract with him in the forest, and sign it with my blood? And does he now
summon me to its fulfilment, by suggesting the performance of every
wickedness which his most foul imagination can conceive?”
At the moment when the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale thus communed
with himself, and struck his forehead with his hand, old Mistress Hibbins,
the reputed witch-lady, is said to have been passing by. She made a very
grand appearance; having on a high head-dress, a rich gown of velvet, and a
ruff done up with the famous yellow starch, of which Anne Turner,85 her
especial friend, had taught her the secret, before this last good lady had been
hanged for Sir Thomas Overbury’s murder. Whether the witch had read the
minister’s thoughts, or no, she came to a full stop, looked shrewdly into his
face, smiled craftily, and — though little given to converse with clergymen —
began a conversation.
“So, reverend Sir, you have made a visit into the forest,” observed the
witch-lady, nodding her high head-dress at him. “The next time, I pray you
to allow me only a fair warning, and I shall be proud to bear you company.
Without taking overmuch upon myself, my good word will go far towards
gaining any strange gentleman a fair reception from yonder potentate you
wot of!”
85. Anne Turner: A supposed witch who was executed for allegedly helping to poison Sir
Thomas Overbury.
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“I profess, madam,” answered the clergyman, with a grave obeisance,
such as the lady’s rank demanded, and his own good-breeding made
imperative, — “I profess, on my conscience and character, that I am utterly
bewildered as touching the purport of your words! I went not into the forest
to seek a potentate; neither do I, at any future time, design a visit thither,
with a view to gaining the favor of such personage. My one sufficient object
was to greet that pious friend of mine, the Apostle Eliot, and rejoice with
him over the many precious souls he hath won from heathendom!”
“Ha, ha, ha!” cackled the old witch-lady, still nodding her high headdress at the minister. “Well, well, we must needs talk thus in the daytime!
You carry it off like an old hand! But at midnight, and in the forest, we
shall have other talk together!”
She passed on with her aged stateliness, but often turning back her
head and smiling at him, like one willing to recognize a secret intimacy of
“Have I then sold myself,” thought the minister, “to the fiend whom,
if men say true, this yellow-starched and velveted old hag has chosen for
her prince and master!”
The wretched minister! He had made a bargain very like it! Tempted
by a dream of happiness, he had yielded himself with deliberate choice, as
he had never done before, to what he knew was deadly sin. And the infectious poison of that sin had been thus rapidly diffused throughout his
moral system. It had stupefied all blessed impulses, and awakened into
vivid life the whole brotherhood of bad ones. Scorn, bitterness, unprovoked malignity, gratuitous desire of ill, ridicule of whatever was good and
holy, all awoke, to tempt, even while they frightened him. And his encounter
with old Mistress Hibbins, if it were a real incident, did but show its
sympathy and fellowship with wicked mortals and the world of perverted
He had by this time reached his dwelling, on the edge of the burialground, and, hastening up the stairs, took refuge in his study. The minister was glad to have reached this shelter, without first betraying himself to
the world by any of those strange and wicked eccentricities to which he
had been continually impelled while passing through the streets. He
entered the accustomed room, and looked around him on its books, its
windows, its fireplace, and the tapestried comfort of the walls, with the
same perception of strangeness that had haunted him throughout his
walk from the forest-dell into the town, and thitherward. Here he had studied and written; here, gone through fast and vigil, and come forth half
alive; here, striven to pray; here, borne a hundred thousand agonies! There
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was the Bible, in its rich old Hebrew, with Moses and the Prophets speaking to him, and God’s voice through all! There, on the table, with the inky
pen beside it, was an unfinished sermon, with a sentence broken in the
midst, where his thoughts had ceased to gush out upon the page two days
before. He knew that it was himself, the thin and white-cheeked minister,
who had done and suffered these things, and written thus far into the
Election Sermon! But he seemed to stand apart, and eye this former self
with scornful pitying, but half-envious curiosity. That self was gone! Another
man had returned out of the forest; a wiser one; with a knowledge of hidden mysteries which the simplicity of the former never could have
reached. A bitter kind of knowledge that!
While occupied with these reflections, a knock came at the door of the
study, and the minister said, “Come in!” — not wholly devoid of an idea that
he might behold an evil spirit. And so he did! It was old Roger Chillingworth
that entered. The minister stood, white and speechless, with one hand on
the Hebrew Scriptures, and the other spread upon his breast.
“Welcome home, reverend Sir!” said the physician. “And how found
you that godly man, the Apostle Eliot? But methinks, dear Sir, you look
pale; as if the travel through the wilderness had been too sore for you. Will
not my aid be requisite to put you in heart and strength to preach your
Election Sermon?”
“Nay, I think not so,” rejoined the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. “My
journey, and the sight of the holy Apostle yonder, and the free air which I
have breathed, have done me good, after so long confinement in my study.
I think to need no more of your drugs, my kind physician, good though
they be, and administered by a friendly hand.”
All this time, Roger Chillingworth was looking at the minister with
the grave and intent regard of a physician towards his patient. But, in spite
of this outward show, the latter was almost convinced of the old man’s
knowledge, or, at least, his confident suspicion, with respect to his own
interview with Hester Prynne. The physician knew, then, that, in the minister’s regard, he was no longer a trusted friend, but his bitterest enemy.
So much being known, it would appear natural that a part of it should be
expressed. It is singular, however, how long a time often passes before
words embody things; and with what security two persons, who choose to
avoid a certain subject, may approach its very verge, and retire without disturbing it. Thus, the minister felt no apprehension that Roger Chillingworth
would touch, in express words, upon the real position which they sustained towards one another. Yet did the physician, in his dark way, creep
frightfully near the secret.
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“Were it not better,” said he, “that you use my poor skill to-night?
Verily, dear Sir, we must take pains to make you strong and vigorous for
this occasion of the Election discourse. The people look for great things
from you; apprehending that another year may come about, and find their
pastor gone.”
“Yea, to another world,” replied the minister, with pious resignation.
“Heaven grant it be a better one; for, in good sooth, I hardly think to tarry
with my flock through the flitting seasons of another year! But, touching
your medicine, kind Sir, in my present frame of body I need it not.”
“I joy to hear it,” answered the physician. “It may be that my remedies, so long administered in vain, begin now to take due effect. Happy
man were I, and well deserving of New England’s gratitude, could I achieve
this cure!”
“I thank you from my heart, most watchful friend,” said the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale, with a solemn smile. “I thank you, and can but requite
your good deeds with my prayers.”
“A good man’s prayers are golden recompense!” rejoined old Roger
Chillingworth, as he took his leave. “Yea, they are the current gold coin of
the New Jerusalem, with the King’s own mint-mark on them!”
Left alone, the minister summoned a servant of the house, and
requested food, which, being set before him, he ate with ravenous appetite.
Then, flinging the already written pages of the Election Sermon into the
fire, he forthwith began another, which he wrote with such an impulsive
flow of thought and emotion, that he fancied himself inspired; and only
wondered that Heaven should see fit to transmit the grand and solemn
music of its oracles through so foul an organ-pipe as he. However, leaving
that mystery to solve itself, or go unsolved for ever, he drove his task
onward, with earnest haste and ecstasy. Thus the night fled away, as if it
were a winged steed, and he careering on it; morning came, and peeped
blushing through the curtains; and at last sunrise threw a golden beam
into the study, and laid it right across the minister’s bedazzled eyes. There
he was, with the pen still between his fingers, and a vast, immeasurable
tract of written space behind him!
Chapter XXI. The New England Holiday
Betimes in the morning of the day on which the new Governor was to
receive his office at the hands of the people, Hester Prynne and little Pearl
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came into the market-place. It was already thronged with the craftsmen and
other plebeian inhabitants of the town, in considerable numbers; among
whom, likewise, were many rough figures, whose attire of deer-skins
marked them as belonging to some of the forest settlements, which surrounded the little metropolis of the colony.
On this public holiday, as on all other occasions, for seven years past,
Hester was clad in a garment of coarse gray cloth. Not more by its hue than
by some indescribable peculiarity in its fashion, it had the effect of making her fade personally out of sight and outline; while, again, the scarlet
letter brought her back from this twilight indistinctness, and revealed her
under the moral aspect of its own illumination. Her face, so long familiar
to the townspeople, showed the marble quietude which they were accustomed to behold there. It was like a mask; or rather, like the frozen calmness of a dead woman’s features; owing this dreary resemblance to the fact
that Hester was actually dead, in respect to any claim of sympathy, and had
departed out of the world with which she still seemed to mingle.
It might be, on this one day, that there was an expression unseen
before, nor, indeed, vivid enough to be detected now; unless some preternaturally gifted observer should have first read the heart, and have afterwards sought a corresponding development in the countenance and mien.
Such a spiritual seer might have conceived, that, after sustaining the gaze
of the multitude through seven miserable years as a necessity, a penance,
and something which it was a stern religion to endure, she now, for one
last time more, encountered it freely and voluntarily, in order to convert
what had so long been agony into a kind of triumph. “Look your last on the
scarlet letter and its wearer!” — the people’s victim and life-long bondslave, as they fancied her, might say to them. “Yet a little while, and she
will be beyond your reach! A few hours longer, and the deep, mysterious
ocean will quench and hide for ever the symbol which ye have caused to
burn on her bosom!” Nor were it an inconsistency too improbable to be
assigned to human nature, should we suppose a feeling of regret in
Hester’s mind, at the moment when she was about to win her freedom from
the pain which had been thus deeply incorporated with her being. Might
there not be an irresistible desire to quaff a last, long, breathless draught
of the cup of wormwood and aloes, with which nearly all her years of womanhood had been perpetually flavored? The wine of life, henceforth to be
presented to her lips, must be indeed rich, delicious, and exhilarating, in
its chased and golden beaker; or else leave an inevitable and weary languor, after the lees of bitterness wherewith she had been drugged, as with
a cordial of intensest potency.
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Pearl was decked out with airy gayety. It would have been impossible
to guess that this bright and sunny apparition owed its existence to the
shape of gloomy gray; or that a fancy, at once so gorgeous and so delicate as
must have been requisite to contrive the child’s apparel, was the same that
had achieved a task perhaps more difficult, in imparting so distinct a peculiarity to Hester’s simple robe. The dress, so proper was it to little Pearl,
seemed an effluence, or inevitable development and outward manifestation
of her character, no more to be separated from her than the many-hued brilliancy from a butterfly’s wing, or the painted glory from the leaf of a bright
flower. As with these, so with the child; her garb was all of one idea with her
nature. On this eventful day, moreover, there was a certain singular inquietude and excitement in her mood, resembling nothing so much as the
shimmer of a diamond, that sparkles and flashes with the varied throbbings of the breast on which it is displayed. Children have always a sympathy in the agitations of those connected with them; always, especially, a
sense of any trouble or impending revolution, of whatever kind, in domestic circumstances; and therefore Pearl, who was the gem on her mother’s
unquiet bosom, betrayed, by the very dance of her spirits, the emotions
which none could detect in the marble passiveness of Hester’s brow.
This effervescence made her flit with a bird-like movement, rather than
walk by her mother’s side. She broke continually into shouts of a wild, inarticulate, and sometimes piercing music. When they reached the marketplace, she became still more restless, on perceiving the stir and bustle that
enlivened the spot; for it was usually more like the broad and lonesome green
before a village meeting-house, than the centre of a town’s business.
“Why, what is this, mother?” cried she. “Wherefore have all the people
left their work to-day? Is it a play-day for the whole world? See, there is the
blacksmith! He has washed his sooty face, and put on his Sabbath-day
clothes, and looks as if he would gladly be merry, if any kind body would
only teach him how! And there is Master Brackett, the old jailer, nodding
and smiling at me. Why does he do so, mother?”
“He remembers thee a little babe, my child,” answered Hester.
“He should not nod and smile at me, for all that, — the black, grim,
ugly-eyed old man!” said Pearl. “He may nod at thee if he will; for thou art
clad in gray, and wearest the scarlet letter. But, see, mother, how many
faces of strange people, and Indians among them, and sailors! What have
they all come to do here in the market-place?”
“They wait to see the procession pass,” said Hester. “For the Governor
and the magistrates are to go by, and the ministers, and all the great people
and good people, with the music, and the soldiers marching before them.”
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“And will the minister be there?” asked Pearl. “And will he hold out
both his hands to me, as when thou ledst me to him from the brook-side?”
“He will be there, child,” answered her mother. “But he will not greet
thee to-day; nor must thou greet him.”
“What a strange, sad man is he!” said the child, as if speaking partly
to herself. “In the dark night-time, he calls us to him, and holds thy hand
and mine, as when we stood with him on the scaffold yonder! And in the
deep forest, where only the old trees can hear, and the strip of sky see it, he
talks with thee, sitting on a heap of moss! And he kisses my forehead, too,
so that the little brook would hardly wash it off! But, here, in the sunny day,
and among all the people, he knows us not; nor must we know him! A
strange, sad man is he, with his hand always over his heart!”
“Be quiet, Pearl! Thou understandest not these things,” said her
mother. “Think not now of the minister, but look about thee, and see how
cheery is every body’s face to-day. The children have come from their
schools, and the grown people from their workshops and their fields, on
purpose to be happy. For, to-day, a new man is beginning to rule over them;
and so — as has been the custom of mankind ever since a nation was first
gathered — they make merry and rejoice; as if a good and golden year were
at length to pass over the poor old world!”
It was as Hester said, in regard to the unwonted jollity that brightened the faces of the people. Into this festal season of the year — as it
already was, and continued to be during the greater part of two centuries —
the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed
allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary
cloud, that, for the space of a single holiday, they appeared scarcely more
grave than most other communities at a period of general affliction.
But we perhaps exaggerate the gray or sable tinge, which undoubtedly
characterized the mood and manners of the age. The persons now in the
market-place of Boston had not been born to an inheritance of Puritanic
gloom. They were native Englishmen, whose fathers had lived in the sunny
richness of the Elizabethan epoch; a time when the life of England, viewed as
one great mass, would appear to have been as stately, magnificent, and joyous, as the world has ever witnessed. Had they followed their hereditary taste,
the New England settlers would have illustrated all events of public importance by bonfires, banquets, pageantries, and processions. Nor would it have
been impracticable, in the observance of majestic ceremonies, to combine
mirthful recreation with solemnity, and give, as it were, a grotesque and brilliant embroidery to the great robe of state, which a nation, at such festivals,
puts on. There was some shadow of an attempt of this kind in the mode of
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celebrating the day on which the political year of the colony commenced. The
dim reflection of a remembered splendor, a colorless and manifold diluted
repetition of what they had beheld in proud old London, — we will not say at a
royal coronation, but at a Lord Mayor’s show, — might be traced in the customs which our forefathers instituted, with reference to the annual installation of magistrates. The fathers and founders of the commonwealth — the
statesman, the priest, and the soldier — deemed it a duty then to assume the
outward state and majesty, which, in accordance with antique style, was
looked upon as the proper garb of public and social eminence. All came forth,
to move in procession before the people’s eye, and thus impart a needed dignity to the simple framework of a government so newly constructed.
Then, too, the people were countenanced, if not encouraged, in relaxing the severe and close application to their various modes of rugged industry, which, at all other times, seemed of the same piece and material with
their religion. Here, it is true, were none of the appliances which popular
merriment would so readily have found in the England of Elizabeth’s time,
or that of James; — no rude shows of a theatrical kind; no minstrel with his
harp and legendary ballad, nor gleeman, with an ape dancing to his music;
no juggler, with his tricks of mimic witchcraft; no Merry Andrew, to stir up
the multitude with jests, perhaps hundreds of years old, but still effective,
by their appeals to the very broadest sources of mirthful sympathy. All such
professors of the several branches of jocularity would have been sternly
repressed, not only by the rigid discipline of law, but by the general sentiment which gives law its vitality. Not the less, however, the great, honest
face of the people smiled, grimly, perhaps, but widely too. Nor were sports
wanting, such as the colonists had witnessed, and shared in, long ago, at
the country fairs and on the village-greens of England; and which it was
thought well to keep alive on this new soil, for the sake of the courage and
manliness that were essential in them. Wrestling-matches, in the different
fashions of Cornwall and Devonshire, were seen here and there about the
market-place; in one corner, there was a friendly bout at quarterstaff; and —
what attracted most interest of all — on the platform of the pillory, already
so noted in our pages, two masters of defence were commencing an exhibition with the buckler and broadsword. But, much to the disappointment of
the crowd, this latter business was broken off by the interposition of the
town beadle, who had no idea of permitting the majesty of the law to be violated by such an abuse of one of its consecrated places.
It may not be too much to affirm, on the whole, (the people being then
in the first stages of joyless deportment, and the offspring of sires who had
known how to be merry, in their day,) that they would compare favorably, in
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point of holiday keeping, with their descendants, even at so long an interval
as ourselves. Their immediate posterity, the generation next to the early
emigrants, wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the
national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to
clear it up. We have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gayety.
The picture of human life in the market-place, though its general tint
was the sad gray, brown, or black of the English emigrants, was yet
enlivened by some diversity of hue. A party of Indians — in their savage finery of curiously embroidered deer-skin robes, wampum-belts, red and yellow ochre, and feathers, and armed with the bow and arrow and stone-headed
spear — stood apart, with countenances of inflexible gravity, beyond what
even the Puritan aspect could attain. Nor, wild as were these painted barbarians, were they the wildest feature of the scene. This distinction could
more justly be claimed by some mariners, — a part of the crew of the vessel
from the Spanish Main, — who had come ashore to see the humors of Election
Day. They were rough-looking desperadoes, with sun-blackened faces, and
an immensity of beard; their wide, short trousers were confined about the
waist by belts, often clasped with a rough plate of gold, and sustaining
always a long knife, and, in some instances, a sword. From beneath their
broad-brimmed hats of palm-leaf, gleamed eyes which, even in good nature
and merriment, had a kind of animal ferocity. They transgressed, without
fear or scruple, the rules of behaviour that were binding on all others;
smoking tobacco under the beadle’s very nose, although each whiff would
have cost a townsman a shilling; and quaffing, at their pleasure, draughts
of wine or aqua-vitae from pocket-flasks, which they freely tendered to the
gaping crowd around them. It remarkably characterized the incomplete
morality of the age, rigid as we call it, that a license was allowed the seafaring class, not merely for their freaks on shore, but for far more desperate
deeds on their proper element. The sailor of that day would go near to be
arraigned as a pirate in our own. There could be little doubt, for instance,
that this very ship’s crew, though no unfavorable specimens of the nautical
brotherhood, had been guilty, as we should phrase it, of depredations on the
Spanish commerce, such as would have perilled all their necks in a modern
court of justice.
But the sea, in those old times, heaved, swelled, and foamed very much
at its own will, or subject only to the tempestuous wind, with hardly any
attempts at regulation by human law. The buccaneer on the wave might relinquish his calling, and become at once, if he chose, a man of probity and piety
on land; nor, even in the full career of his reckless life, was he regarded as a
personage with whom it was disreputable to traffic, or casually associate.
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Thus, the Puritan elders, in their black cloaks, starched bands, and steeplecrowned hats, smiled not unbenignantly at the clamor and rude deportment
of these jolly seafaring men; and it excited neither surprise nor animadversion when so reputable a citizen as old Roger Chillingworth, the physician,
was seen to enter the market-place, in close and familiar talk with the commander of the questionable vessel.
The latter was by far the most showy and gallant figure, so far as
apparel went, anywhere to be seen among the multitude. He wore a profusion
of ribbons on his garment, and gold lace on his hat, which was also encircled
by a gold chain, and surmounted with a feather. There was a sword at his
side, and a sword-cut on his forehead, which, by the arrangement of his hair,
he seemed anxious rather to display than hide. A landsman could hardly
have worn this garb and shown this face, and worn and shown them both
with such a galliard air, without undergoing stern question before a magistrate, and probably incurring a fine or imprisonment, or perhaps an exhibition in the stocks. As regarded the shipmaster, however, all was looked upon
as pertaining to the character, as to a fish his glistening scales.
After parting from the physician, the commander of the Bristol ship
strolled idly through the market-place; until, happening to approach the
spot where Hester Prynne was standing, he appeared to recognize, and did
not hesitate to address her. As was usually the case wherever Hester stood, a
small, vacant area — a sort of magic circle — had formed itself about her, into
which, though the people were elbowing one another at a little distance,
none ventured, or felt disposed to intrude. It was a forcible type of the moral
solitude in which the scarlet letter enveloped its fated wearer; partly by her
own reserve, and partly by the instinctive, though no longer so unkindly,
withdrawal of her fellow-creatures. Now, if never before, it answered a good
purpose, by enabling Hester and the seaman to speak together without risk
of being overheard; and so changed was Hester Prynne’s repute before the
public, that the matron in town most eminent for rigid morality could not
have held such intercourse with less result of scandal than herself.
“So, mistress,” said the mariner, “I must bid the steward make ready
one more berth than you bargained for! No fear of scurvy or ship-fever, this
voyage! What with the ship’s surgeon and this other doctor, our only danger will be from drug or pill; more by token, as there is a lot of apothecary’s
stuff aboard, which I traded for with a Spanish vessel.”
“What mean you?” inquired Hester, startled more than she permitted
to appear. “Have you another passenger?”
“Why, know you not,” cried the shipmaster, “that this physician here —
Chillingworth, he calls himself — is minded to try my cabin-fare with you?
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Ay, ay, you must have known it; for he tells me he is of your party, and a close
friend to the gentleman you spoke of, — he that is in peril from these sour
old Puritan rulers!”
“They know each other well, indeed,” replied Hester, with a mien of
calmness, though in the utmost consternation. “They have long dwelt
Nothing further passed between the mariner and Hester Prynne. But,
at that instant, she beheld old Roger Chillingworth himself, standing in
the remotest corner of the market-place, and smiling on her; a smile
which — across the wide and bustling square, and through all the talk and
laughter, and various thoughts, moods, and interests of the crowd — conveyed
secret and fearful meaning.
Chapter XXII. The Procession
Before Hester Prynne could call together her thoughts, and consider what
was practicable to be done in this new and startling aspect of affairs, the
sound of military music was heard approaching along a contiguous street.
It denoted the advance of the procession of magistrates and citizens, on its
way towards the meeting-house; where, in compliance with a custom thus
early established, and ever since observed, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale
was to deliver an Election Sermon.
Soon the head of the procession showed itself, with a slow and stately
march, turning a corner, and making its way across the market-place. First
came the music. It comprised a variety of instruments, perhaps imperfectly
adapted to one another, and played with no great skill, but yet attaining the
great object for which the harmony of drum and clarion addresses itself to
the multitude, — that of imparting a higher and more heroic air to the scene
of life that passes before the eye. Little Pearl at first clapped her hands, but
then lost, for an instant, the restless agitation that had kept her in a continual effervescence throughout the morning; she gazed silently, and seemed to
be borne upward, like a floating sea-bird, on the long heaves and swells of
sound. But she was brought back to her former mood by the shimmer of the
sunshine on the weapons and bright armour of the military company, which
followed after the music, and formed the honorary escort of the procession.
This body of soldiery — which still sustains a corporate existence, and
marches down from past ages with an ancient and honorable fame — was
composed of no mercenary materials. Its ranks were filled with gentlemen,
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who felt the stirrings of martial impulse, and sought to establish a kind of
College of Arms, where, as in an association of Knights Templars, they might
learn the science, and, so far as peaceful exercise would teach them, the
practices of war. The high estimation then placed upon the military character might be seen in the lofty port of each individual member of the company. Some of them, indeed, by their services in the Low Countries and on
other fields of European warfare, had fairly won their title to assume the
name and pomp of soldiership. The entire array, moreover, clad in burnished
steel, and with plumage nodding over their bright morions, had a brilliancy
of effect which no modern display can aspire to equal.
And yet the men of civil eminence, who came immediately behind the
military escort, were better worth a thoughtful observer’s eye. Even in outward demeanour they showed a stamp of majesty that made the warrior’s
haughty stride look vulgar, if not absurd. It was an age when what we call talent had far less consideration than now, but the massive materials which
produce stability and dignity of character a great deal more. The people possessed, by hereditary right, the quality of reverence; which, in their descendants, if it survive at all, exists in smaller proportion, and with a vastly
diminished force in the selection and estimate of public men. The change
may be for good or ill, and is partly, perhaps, for both. In that old day, the
English settler on these rude shores, — having left king, nobles, and all
degrees of awful rank behind, while still the faculty and necessity of reverence were strong in him, — bestowed it on the white hair and venerable brow
of age; on long-tried integrity; on solid wisdom and sad-colored experience;
on endowments of that grave and weighty order, which gives the idea of permanence, and comes under the general definition of respectability. These
primitive statesmen, therefore, — Bradstreet, Endicott, Dudley, Bellingham,86
and their compeers, — who were elevated to power by the early choice of the
people, seem to have been not often brilliant, but distinguished by a ponderous sobriety, rather than activity of intellect. They had fortitude and selfreliance, and, in time of difficulty or peril, stood up for the welfare of the
state like a line of cliffs against a tempestuous tide. The traits of character
here indicated were well represented in the square cast of countenance and
large physical development of the new colonial magistrates. So far as a
86. Simon Bradstreet (1603–1697), John Endicott (1588–1665), Thomas Dudley (1576–1653),
and Richard Bellingham (1592–1672) were governors of Massachusetts Bay Colony. All except
Bradstreet were governors between 1642 and 1649, the seven-year period in which The
Scarlet Letter is set.
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demeanour of natural authority was concerned, the mother country need
not have been ashamed to see these foremost men of an actual democracy
adopted into the House of Peers, or make the Privy Council of the sovereign.
Next in order to the magistrates came the young and eminently distinguished divine, from whose lips the religious discourse of the anniversary was expected. His was the profession, at that era, in which intellectual
ability displayed itself far more than in political life; for — leaving a higher
motive out of the question — it offered inducements powerful enough, in
the almost worshipping respect of the community, to win the most aspiring
ambition into its service. Even political power — as in the case of Increase
Mather87— was within the grasp of a successful priest.
It was the observation of those who beheld him now, that never, since
Mr. Dimmesdale first set his foot on the New England shore, had he exhibited such energy as was seen in the gait and air with which he kept his
pace in the procession. There was no feebleness of step, as at other times;
his frame was not bent; nor did his hand rest ominously upon his heart.
Yet, if the clergyman were rightly viewed, his strength seemed not of the
body. It might be spiritual, and imparted to him by angelic ministrations.
It might be the exhilaration of that potent cordial, which is distilled only
in the furnace-glow of earnest and long-continued thought. Or, perchance,
his sensitive temperament was invigorated by the loud and piercing
music, that swelled heavenward, and uplifted him on its ascending wave.
Nevertheless, so abstracted was his look, it might be questioned whether
Mr. Dimmesdale even heard the music. There was his body, moving onward,
and with an unaccustomed force. But where was his mind? Far and deep in
its own region, busying itself, with preternatural activity, to marshal a procession of stately thoughts that were soon to issue thence; and so he saw
nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing, of what was around him; but the spiritual element took up the feeble frame, and carried it along, unconscious
of the burden, and converting it to spirit like itself. Men of uncommon
intellect, who have grown morbid, possess this occasional power of mighty
effort, into which they throw the life of many days, and then are lifeless for
as many more.
Hester Prynne, gazing steadfastly at the clergyman, felt a dreary
influence come over her, but wherefore or whence she knew not; unless that
87. Increase Mather (1639–1723): A prominent Puritan minister and the first president of
Harvard College. He helped negotiate a charter that united the Massachusetts Bay Colony
with the Plymouth Colony in 1691. He also took part in the Salem witch trials of 1692.
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he seemed so remote from her own sphere, and utterly beyond her reach.
One glance of recognition, she had imagined, must needs pass between
them. She thought of the dim forest, with its little dell of solitude, and love,
and anguish, and the mossy tree-trunk, where, sitting hand in hand, they
had mingled their sad and passionate talk with the melancholy murmur of
the brook. How deeply had they known each other then! And was this the
man? She hardly knew him now! He, moving proudly past, enveloped, as it
were, in the rich music, with the procession of majestic and venerable
fathers; he, so unattainable in his worldly position, and still more so in that
far vista of his unsympathizing thoughts, through which she now beheld
him! Her spirit sank with the idea that all must have been a delusion, and
that, vividly as she had dreamed it, there could be no real bond betwixt the
clergyman and herself. And thus much of woman was there in Hester, that
she could scarcely forgive him, — least of all now, when the heavy footstep of
their approaching Fate might be heard, nearer, nearer, nearer! — for being
able so completely to withdraw himself from their mutual world; while she
groped darkly, and stretched forth her cold hands, and found him not.
Pearl either saw and responded to her mother’s feelings, or herself
felt the remoteness and intangibility that had fallen around the minister.
While the procession passed, the child was uneasy, fluttering up and
down, like a bird on the point of taking flight. When the whole had gone by,
she looked up into Hester’s face.
“Mother,” said she, “was that the same minister that kissed me by the
“Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!” whispered her mother. “We must
not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest.”
“I could not be sure that it was he; so strange he looked,” continued
the child. “Else I would have run to him, and bid him kiss me now, before
all the people; even as he did yonder among the dark old trees. What would
the minister have said, mother? Would he have clapped his hand over his
heart, and scowled on me, and bid me begone?”
“What should he say, Pearl,” answered Hester, “save that it was no
time to kiss, and that kisses are not to be given in the market-place? Well
for thee, foolish child, that thou didst not speak to him!”
Another shade of the same sentiment, in reference to Mr. Dimmesdale,
was expressed by a person whose eccentricities — or insanity, as we should
term it — led her to do what few of the townspeople would have ventured
on; to begin a conversation with the wearer of the scarlet letter, in public.
It was Mistress Hibbins, who, arrayed in great magnificence, with a triple
ruff, a broidered stomacher, a gown of rich velvet, and a gold-headed cane,
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had come forth to see the procession. As this ancient lady had the renown
(which subsequently cost her no less a price than her life) of being a principal actor in all the works of necromancy that were continually going forward, the crowd gave way before her, and seemed to fear the touch of her
garment, as if it carried the plague among its gorgeous folds. Seen in conjunction with Hester Prynne, — kindly as so many now felt towards the
latter, — the dread inspired by Mistress Hibbins had doubled, and caused a
general movement from that part of the market-place in which the two
women stood.
“Now, what mortal imagination could conceive it!” whispered the old
lady confidentially to Hester. “Yonder divine man! That saint on earth, as
the people uphold him to be, and as — I must needs say — he really looks!
Who, now, that saw him pass in the procession, would think how little while
it is since he went forth out of his study, — chewing a Hebrew text of
Scripture in his mouth, I warrant, — to take an airing in the forest! Aha! we
know what that means, Hester Prynne! But, truly, forsooth, I find it hard to
believe him the same man. Many a church-member saw I, walking behind
the music, that has danced in the same measure with me, when Somebody
was fiddler, and, it might be, an Indian powwow or a Lapland wizard changing hands with us! That is but a trifle, when a woman knows the world. But
this minister! Couldst thou surely tell, Hester, whether he was the same
man that encountered thee on the forest-path?”
“Madam, I know not of what you speak,” answered Hester Prynne,
feeling Mistress Hibbins to be of infirm mind; yet strangely startled and
awe-stricken by the confidence with which she affirmed a personal connection between so many persons (herself among them) and the Evil One.
“It is not for me to talk lightly of a learned and pious minister of the Word,
like the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale!”
“Fie, woman, fie!” cried the old lady, shaking her finger at Hester.
“Dost thou think I have been to the forest so many times, and have yet no
skill to judge who else has been there? Yea; though no leaf of the wild garlands, which they wore while they danced, be left in their hair! I know thee,
Hester; for I behold the token. We may all see it in the sunshine; and it
glows like a red flame in the dark. Thou wearest it openly; so there need be
no question about that. But this minister! Let me tell thee in thine ear!
When the Black Man sees one of his own servants, signed and sealed, so
shy of owning to the bond as is the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, he hath a
way of ordering matters so that the mark shall be disclosed in open daylight to the eyes of all the world! What is that the minister seeks to hide,
with his hand always over his heart? Ha, Hester Prynne!”
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“What is it, good Mistress Hibbins?” eagerly asked little Pearl. “Hast
thou seen it?”
“No matter, darling!” responded Mistress Hibbins, making Pearl a
profound reverence. “Thou thyself wilt see it, one time or another. They
say, child, thou art of the lineage of the Prince of the Air! Wilt thou ride with
me, some fine night, to see thy father? Then thou shalt know wherefore the
minister keeps his hand over his heart!”
Laughing so shrilly that all the market-place could hear her, the weird
old gentlewoman took her departure.
By this time the preliminary prayer had been offered in the meetinghouse, and the accents of the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale were heard commencing his discourse. An irresistible feeling kept Hester near the spot. As
the sacred edifice was too much thronged to admit another auditor, she took
up her position close beside the scaffold of the pillory. It was in sufficient
proximity to bring the whole sermon to her ears, in the shape of an indistinct, but varied, murmur and flow of the minister’s very peculiar voice.
This vocal organ was in itself a rich endowment; insomuch that a listener, comprehending nothing of the language in which the preacher spoke,
might still have been swayed to and fro by the mere tone and cadence. Like
all other music, it breathed passion and pathos, and emotions high or tender, in a tongue native to the human heart, wherever educated. Muffled
as the sound was by its passage through the church-walls, Hester Prynne
listened with such intentness, and sympathized so intimately, that the sermon had throughout a meaning for her, entirely apart from its indistinguishable words. These, perhaps, if more distinctly heard, might have been
only a grosser medium, and have clogged the spiritual sense. Now she
caught the low undertone, as of the wind sinking down to repose itself; then
ascended with it, as it rose through progressive gradations of sweetness
and power, until its volume seemed to envelop her with an atmosphere of
awe and solemn grandeur. And yet, majestic as the voice sometimes
became, there was for ever in it an essential character of plaintiveness. A
loud or low expression of anguish, — the whisper, or the shriek, as it might
be conceived, of suffering humanity, that touched a sensibility in every
bosom! At times this deep strain of pathos was all that could be heard, and
scarcely heard, sighing amid a desolate silence. But even when the minister’s voice grew high and commanding, — when it gushed irrepressibly
upward, — when it assumed its utmost breadth and power, so overfilling the
church as to burst its way through the solid walls, and diffuse itself in the
open air, — still, if the auditor listened intently, and for the purpose, he could
detect the same cry of pain. What was it? The complaint of a human heart,
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sorrow-laden, perchance guilty, telling its secret, whether of guilt or sorrow,
to the great heart of mankind; beseeching its sympathy or forgiveness, — at
every moment, — in each accent, — and never in vain! It was this profound
and continual undertone that gave the clergyman his most appropriate
During all this time Hester stood, statue-like, at the foot of the scaffold. If the minister’s voice had not kept her there, there would nevertheless have been an inevitable magnetism in that spot, whence she dated the
first hour of her life of ignominy. There was a sense within her, — too illdefined to be made a thought, but weighing heavily on her mind, — that her
whole orb of life, both before and after, was connected with this spot, as
with the one point that gave it unity.
Little Pearl, meanwhile, had quitted her mother’s side, and was playing at her own will about the market-place. She made the sombre crowd
cheerful by her erratic and glistening ray; even as a bird of bright plumage
illuminates a whole tree of dusky foliage by darting to and fro, half seen
and half concealed, amid the twilight of the clustering leaves. She had an
undulating, but, oftentimes, a sharp and irregular movement. It indicated
the restless vivacity of her spirit, which to-day was doubly indefatigable
in its tip-toe dance, because it was played upon and vibrated with her
mother’s disquietude. Whenever Pearl saw any thing to excite her ever
active and wandering curiosity, she flew thitherward, and, as we might say,
seized upon that man or thing as her own property, so far as she desired it;
but without yielding the minutest degree of control over her motions in
requital. The Puritans looked on, and, if they smiled, were none the less
inclined to pronounce the child a demon offspring, from the indescribable
charm of beauty and eccentricity that shone through her little figure, and
sparkled with its activity. She ran and looked the wild Indian in the face;
and he grew conscious of a nature wilder than his own. Thence, with native
audacity, but still with a reserve as characteristic, she flew into the midst
of a group of mariners, the swarthy-cheeked wild men of the ocean, as the
Indians were of the land; and they gazed wonderingly and admiringly at
Pearl, as if a flake of the sea-foam had taken the shape of a little maid, and
were gifted with a soul of the sea-fire, that flashes beneath the prow in the
One of these seafaring men — the shipmaster, indeed, who had spoken to Hester Prynne — was so smitten with Pearl’s aspect, that he
attempted to lay hands upon her, with purpose to snatch a kiss. Finding it
as impossible to touch her as to catch a humming-bird in the air, he took
from his hat the gold chain that was twisted about it, and threw it to the
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child. Pearl immediately twined it around her neck and waist, with such
happy skill, that, once seen there, it became a part of her, and it was difficult to imagine her without it.
“Thy mother is yonder woman with the scarlet letter,” said the seaman. “Wilt thou carry her a message from me?”
“If the message pleases me I will,” answered Pearl.
“Then tell her,” rejoined he, “that I spake again with the black-avisaged, hump-shouldered old doctor, and he engages to bring his
friend, the gentleman she wots of, aboard with him. So let thy mother
take no thought, save for herself and thee. Wilt thou tell her this, thou
“Mistress Hibbins says my father is the Prince of the Air!” cried Pearl,
with her naughty smile. “If thou callest me that ill-name, I shall tell him of
thee; and he will chase thy ship with a tempest!”
Pursuing a zigzag course across the market-place, the child returned
to her mother, and communicated what the mariner had said. Hester’s
strong, calm steadfastly enduring spirit almost sank, at last, on beholding
this dark and grim countenance of an inevitable doom, which — at the
moment when a passage seemed to open for the minister and herself out
of their labyrinth of misery — showed itself, with an unrelenting smile,
right in the midst of their path.
With her mind harassed by the terrible perplexity in which the shipmaster’s intelligence involved her, she was also subjected to another trial.
There were many people present, from the country roundabout, who had
often heard of the scarlet letter, and to whom it had been made terrific by a
hundred false or exaggerated rumors, but who had never beheld it with
their own bodily eyes. These, after exhausting other modes of amusement,
now thronged about Hester Prynne with rude and boorish intrusiveness.
Unscrupulous as it was, however, it could not bring them nearer than a circuit of several yards. At that distance they accordingly stood, fixed there by
the centrifugal force of the repugnance which the mystic symbol inspired.
The whole gang of sailors, likewise, observing the press of spectators, and
learning the purport of the scarlet letter, came and thrust their sunburnt
and desperado-looking faces into the ring. Even the Indians were affected
by a sort of cold shadow of the white man’s curiosity, and, gliding through
the crowd, fastened their snake-like black eyes on Hester’s bosom; conceiving, perhaps, that the wearer of this brilliantly embroidered badge must
needs be a personage of high dignity among her people. Lastly, the inhabitants of the town (their own interest in this worn-out subject languidly
reviving itself, by sympathy with what they saw others feel) lounged idly to
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the same quarter, and tormented Hester Prynne, perhaps more than all the
rest, with their cool, well-acquainted gaze at her familiar shame. Hester saw
and recognized the self same faces of that group of matrons, who had
awaited her forthcoming from the prison-door, seven years ago; all save
one, the youngest and only compassionate among them, whose burial-robe
she had since made. At the final hour, when she was so soon to fling aside
the burning letter, it had strangely become the centre of more remark and
excitement, and was thus made to sear her breast more painfully than at
any time since the first day she put it on.
While Hester stood in that magic circle of ignominy, where the cunning cruelty of her sentence seemed to have fixed her for ever, the
admirable preacher was looking down from the sacred pulpit upon an
audience, whose very inmost spirits had yielded to his control. The sainted
minister in the church! The woman of the scarlet letter in the marketplace! What imagination would have been irreverent enough to surmise
that the same scorching stigma was on them both!
Chapter XXIII. The Revelation of the
Scarlet Letter
The eloquent voice, on which the souls of the listening audience had been
borne aloft, as on the swelling waves of the sea, at length came to a pause.
There was a momentary silence, profound as what should follow the utterance of oracles. Then ensued a murmur and half-hushed tumult; as if the
auditors, released from the high spell that had transported them into the
region of another’s mind, were returning into themselves, with all their awe
and wonder still heavy on them. In a moment more, the crowd began to gush
forth from the doors of the church. Now that there was an end, they needed
other breath, more fit to support the gross and earthly life into which they
relapsed, than that atmosphere which the preacher had converted into
words of flame, and had burdened with the rich fragrance of his thought.
In the open air their rapture broke into speech. The street and the
market-place absolutely babbled, from side to side, with applauses of the
minister. His hearers could not rest until they had told one another of what
each knew better than he could tell or hear. According to their united testimony, never had man spoken in so wise, so high, and so holy a spirit, as he
that spake this day; nor had inspiration ever breathed through mortal lips
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more evidently than it did through his. Its influence could be seen, as it
were, descending upon him, and possessing him, and continually lifting
him out of the written discourse that lay before him, and filling him with
ideas that must have been as marvellous to himself as to his audience. His
subject, it appeared, had been the relation between the Deity and the communities of mankind, with a special reference to the New England which
they were here planting in the wilderness. And, as he drew towards the
close, a spirit as of prophecy had come upon him, constraining him to its
purpose as mightily as the old prophets of Israel were constrained; only
with this difference, that, whereas the Jewish seers had denounced judgments and ruin on their country, it was his mission to foretell a high and
glorious destiny for the newly gathered people of the Lord. But, throughout
it all, and through the whole discourse, there had been a certain deep, sad
undertone of pathos, which could not be interpreted otherwise than as the
natural regret of one soon to pass away. Yes; their minister whom they so
loved — and who so loved them all, that he could not depart heavenward
without a sigh — had the foreboding of untimely death upon him, and would
soon leave them in their tears! This idea of his transitory stay on earth gave
the last emphasis to the effect which the preacher had produced; it was as if
an angel, in his passage to the skies, had shaken his bright wings over the
people for an instant, — at once a shadow and a splendor, — and had shed
down a shower of golden truths upon them.
Thus, there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale — as to most
men, in their various spheres, though seldom recognized until they see it
far behind them — an epoch of life more brilliant and full of triumph than
any previous one, or than any which could hereafter be. He stood, at this
moment, on the very proudest eminence of superiority, to which the gifts
of intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of whitest
sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England’s earliest days, when the
professional character was of itself a lofty pedestal. Such was the position
which the minister occupied, as he bowed his head forward on the cushions of the pulpit, at the close of his Election Sermon. Meanwhile, Hester
Prynne was standing beside the scaffold of the pillory, with the scarlet letter still burning on her breast!
Now was heard again the clangor of the music, and the measured
tramp of the military escort, issuing from the church-door. The procession
was to be marshalled thence to the town-hall, where a solemn banquet
would complete the ceremonies of the day.
Once more, therefore, the train of venerable and majestic fathers
was seen moving through a broad pathway of the people, who drew back
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reverently, on either side, as the Governor and magistrates, the old and
wise men, the holy ministers, and all that were eminent and renowned,
advanced into the midst of them. When they were fairly in the marketplace, their presence was greeted by a shout. This — though doubtless it
might acquire additional force and volume from the child-like loyalty
which the age awarded to its rulers — was felt to be an irrepressible outburst of the enthusiasm kindled in the auditors by that high strain of eloquence which was yet reverberating in their ears. Each felt the impulse in
himself, and, in the same breath, caught it from his neighbour. Within the
church, it had hardly been kept down; beneath the sky, it pealed upward to
the zenith. There were human beings enough, and enough of highly
wrought and symphonious feeling, to produce that more impressive sound
than the organ-tones of the blast, or the thunder, or the roar of the sea;
even that mighty swell of many voices, blended into one great voice by the
universal impulse which makes likewise one vast heart out of the many.
Never, from the soil of New England, had gone up such a shout! Never, on
New England soil, had stood the man so honored by his mortal brethren as
the preacher!
How fared it with him then? Were there not the brilliant particles of a
halo in the air about his head? So etherealized by spirit as he was, and so
apotheosized by worshipping admirers, did his footsteps in the procession
really tread upon the dust of earth?
As the ranks of military men and civil fathers moved onward, all eyes
were turned towards the point where the minister was seen to approach
among them. The shout died into a murmur, as one portion of the crowd
after another obtained a glimpse of him. How feeble and pale he looked amid
all his triumph! The energy — or say, rather, the inspiration which had held
him up, until he should have delivered the sacred message that brought its
own strength along with it from heaven — was withdrawn, now that it had so
faithfully performed its office. The glow, which they had just before beheld
burning on his cheek, was extinguished, like a flame that sinks down hopelessly among the late-decaying embers. It seemed hardly the face of a man
alive, with such a deathlike hue; it was hardly a man with life in him, that tottered on his path so nervelessly, yet tottered, and did not fall!
One of his clerical brethren, — it was the venerable John Wilson, —
observing the state in which Mr. Dimmesdale was left by the retiring wave
of intellect and sensibility, stepped forward hastily to offer his support.
The minister tremulously, but decidedly, repelled the old man’s arm. He
still walked onward, if that movement could be so described, which rather
resembled the wavering effort of an infant, with its mother’s arms in view,
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outstretched to tempt him forward. And now, almost imperceptible as were
the latter steps of his progress, he had come opposite the well-remembered
and weather-darkened scaffold, where, long since, with all that dreary lapse
of time between, Hester Prynne had encountered the world’s ignominious
stare. There stood Hester, holding little Pearl by the hand! And there was
the scarlet letter on her breast! The minister here made a pause; although
the music still played the stately and rejoicing march to which the procession moved. It summoned him onward, — onward to the festival! — but here
he made a pause.
Bellingham, for the last few moments, had kept an anxious eye upon
him. He now left his own place in the procession, and advanced to give
assistance; judging from Mr. Dimmesdale’s aspect that he must otherwise
inevitably fall. But there was something in the latter’s expression that
warned back the magistrate, although a man not readily obeying the vague
intimations that pass from one spirit to another. The crowd, meanwhile,
looked on with awe and wonder. This earthly faintness was, in their view,
only another phase of the minister’s celestial strength; nor would it have
seemed a miracle too high to be wrought for one so holy, had he ascended
before their eyes, waxing dimmer and brighter, and fading at last into the
light of heaven!
He turned towards the scaffold, and stretched forth his arms.
“Hester,” said he, “come hither! Come, my little Pearl!”
It was a ghastly look with which he regarded them; but there was
something at once tender and strangely triumphant in it. The child, with
the bird-like motion which was one of her characteristics, flew to him, and
clasped her arms about his knees. Hester Prynne — slowly, as if impelled
by inevitable fate, and against her strongest will — likewise drew near, but
paused before she reached him. At this instant old Roger Chillingworth
thrust himself through the crowd, — or, perhaps, so dark, disturbed, and
evil was his look, he rose up out of some nether region, — to snatch back
his victim from what he sought to do! Be that as it might, the old man
rushed forward and caught the minister by the arm.
“Madman, hold! What is your purpose?” whispered he. “Wave back
that woman! Cast off this child! All shall be well! Do not blacken your fame,
and perish in dishonor! I can yet save you! Would you bring infamy on your
sacred profession?”
“Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late!” answered the minister,
encountering his eye, fearfully, but firmly. “Thy power is not what it was!
With God’s help, I shall escape thee now!”
He again extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter.
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“Hester Prynne,” cried he, with a piercing earnestness, “in the name
of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last
moment, to do what — for my own heavy sin and miserable agony — I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy
strength about me! Thy strength, Hester; but let it be guided by the will
which God hath granted me! This wretched and wronged old man is opposing it with all his might! — with all his own might and the fiend’s! Come,
Hester, come! Support me up yonder scaffold!”
The crowd was in a tumult. The men of rank and dignity, who stood
more immediately around the clergyman, were so taken by surprise, and
so perplexed as to the purport of what they saw, — unable to receive the
explanation which most readily presented itself, or to imagine any other, —
that they remained silent and inactive spectators of the judgment which
Providence seemed about to work. They beheld the minister, leaning on
Hester’s shoulder and supported by her arm around him, approach the
scaffold, and ascend its steps; while still the little hand of the sin-born
child was clasped in his. Old Roger Chillingworth followed, as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all
been actors, and well entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene.
“Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,” said he, looking darkly at
the clergyman, “there was no one place so secret, — no high place nor lowly
place, where thou couldst have escaped me, — save on this very scaffold!”
“Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!” answered the minister.
Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester with an expression of doubt
and anxiety in his eyes, not the less evidently betrayed, that there was a
feeble smile upon his lips.
“Is not this better,” murmured he, “than what we dreamed of in the
“I know not! I know not!” she hurriedly replied. “Better? Yea; so we
may both die, and little Pearl die with us!”
“For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,” said the minister; “and
God is merciful! Let me now do the will which he hath made plain before
my sight. For, Hester, I am a dying man. So let me make haste to take my
shame upon me.”
Partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one hand of little
Pearl’s, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to the dignified and venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, who were his brethren; to the people, whose
great heart was thoroughly appalled, yet overflowing with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep life-matter — which, if full of sin, was full of
anguish and repentance likewise — was now to be laid open to them. The
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sun, but little past its meridian, shone down upon the clergyman, and gave
a distinctness to his figure, as he stood out from all the earth to put in his
plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice.
“People of New England!” cried he, with a voice that rose over them,
high, solemn, and majestic, — yet had always a tremor through it, and sometimes a shriek, struggling up out of a fathomless depth of remorse and
woe, — “ye, that have loved me! — ye, that have deemed me holy! — behold me
here, the one sinner of the world! At last! — at last! — I stand upon the spot
where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman, whose
arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from grovelling down upon my face! Lo,
the scarlet letter which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever
her walk hath been, — wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have
hoped to find repose, — it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose
brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!”
It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave the remainder
of his secret undisclosed. But he fought back the bodily weakness, — and,
still more, the faintness of heart, — that was striving for the mastery with
him. He threw off all assistance, and stepped passionately forward a pace
before the woman and the child.
“It was on him!” he continued, with a kind of fierceness; so determined was he to speak out the whole. “God’s eye beheld it! The angels were
for ever pointing at it! The Devil knew it well, and fretted it continually
with the touch of his burning finger! But he hid it cunningly from men,
and walked among you with the mien of a spirit, mournful, because so
pure in a sinful world! — and sad, because he missed his heavenly kindred!
Now, at the death-hour, he stands up before you! He bids you look again at
Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is
but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his
own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost
heart! Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold!
Behold a dreadful witness of it!”
With a convulsive motion he tore away the ministerial band from before
his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation.
For an instant the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentrated on
the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood with a flush of triumph in his
face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory. Then, down
he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head
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against her bosom. Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a
blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed.
“Thou hast escaped me!” he repeated more than once. “Thou hast
escaped me!”
“May God forgive thee!” said the minister. “Thou, too, hast deeply
He withdrew his dying eyes from the old man, and fixed them on the
woman and the child.
“My little Pearl,” said he feebly, — and there was a sweet and gentle
smile over his face, as of a spirit sinking into deep repose; nay, now that
the burden was removed, it seemed almost as if he would be sportive with
the child, — “dear little Pearl, wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not yonder, in the forest! But now thou wilt?”
Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in
which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as
her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would
grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world,
but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.
“Hester,” said the clergyman, “farewell!”
“Shall we not meet again?” whispered she, bending her face down
close to his. “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely,
we have ransomed one another, with all this woe! Thou lookest far into
eternity, with those bright dying eyes! Then tell me what thou seest?”
“Hush, Hester, hush!” said he, with tremulous solemnity. “The law we
broke! — the sin here so awfully revealed! — let these alone be in thy thoughts!
I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God, — when we violated our
reverence each for the other’s soul, — it was thenceforth vain to hope that we
could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and He
is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving
me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and
terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me
hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had
either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be his
name! His will be done! Farewell!”
That final word came forth with the minister’s expiring breath. The
multitude, silent till then, broke out in a strange, deep voice of awe and
wonder, which could not as yet find utterance, save in this murmur that
rolled so heavily after the departed spirit.
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Chapter XXIV. Conclusion
After many days, when time sufficed for the people to arrange their
thoughts in reference to the foregoing scene, there was more than one
account of what had been witnessed on the scaffold.
Most of the spectators testified to having seen, on the breast of the
unhappy minister, a SCARLET LETTER — the very semblance of that worn
by Hester Prynne — imprinted in the flesh. As regarded its origin, there
were various explanations, all of which must necessarily have been conjectural. Some affirmed that the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, on the very day
when Hester Prynne first wore her ignominious badge, had begun a course
of penance, — which he afterwards, in so many futile methods, followed
out, — by inflicting a hideous torture on himself. Others contended that the
stigma had not been produced until a long time subsequent, when old
Roger Chillingworth, being a potent necromancer, had caused it to appear,
through the agency of magic and poisonous drugs. Others, again, — and
those best able to appreciate the minister’s peculiar sensibility, and the
wonderful operation of his spirit upon the body, — whispered their belief,
that the awful symbol was the effect of the ever active tooth of remorse,
gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly, and at last manifesting Heaven’s
dreadful judgment by the visible presence of the letter. The reader may
choose among these theories. We have thrown all the light we could acquire
upon the portent, and would gladly, now that it has done its office, erase its
deep print out of our own brain; where long meditation has fixed it in very
undesirable distinctness.
It is singular, nevertheless, that certain persons, who were spectators
of the whole scene, and professed never once to have removed their eyes
from the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, denied that there was any mark whatever on his breast, more than on a new-born infant’s. Neither, by their
report, had his dying words acknowledged, nor even remotely implied, any,
the slightest connection, on his part, with the guilt for which Hester Prynne
had so long worn the scarlet letter. According to these highly respectable
witnesses, the minister, conscious that he was dying, — conscious, also,
that the reverence of the multitude placed him already among saints and
angels, — had desired, by yielding up his breath in the arms of that fallen
woman, to express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of
man’s own righteousness. After exhausting life in his efforts for mankind’s
spiritual good, he had made the manner of his death a parable, in order to
impress on his admirers the mighty and mournful lesson, that, in the view
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of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike. It was to teach them, that the holiest among us has but attained so far above his fellows as to discern more
clearly the Mercy which looks down, and repudiate more utterly the phantom of human merit, which would look aspiringly upward. Without disputing a truth so momentous, we must be allowed to consider this version of
Mr. Dimmesdale’s story as only an instance of that stubborn fidelity with
which a man’s friends — and especially a clergyman’s — will sometimes
uphold his character; when proofs, clear as the mid-day sunshine on the
scarlet letter, establish him a false and sin-stained creature of the dust.
The authority which we have chiefly followed — a manuscript of old
date, drawn up from the verbal testimony of individuals, some of whom
had known Hester Prynne, while others had heard the tale from contemporary witnesses — fully confirms the view taken in the foregoing pages.
Among many morals which press upon us from the poor minister’s miserable experience, we put only this into a sentence: — “Be true! Be true! Be
true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the
worst may be inferred!”
Nothing was more remarkable than the change which took place,
almost immediately after Mr. Dimmesdale’s death, in the appearance and
demeanour of the old man known as Roger Chillingworth. All his strength
and energy — all his vital and intellectual force — seemed at once to desert
him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shrivelled away, and almost
vanished from mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the
sun. This unhappy man had made the very principle of his life to consist in
the pursuit and systematic exercise of revenge; and when, by its completest
triumph and consummation, that evil principle was left with no further
material to support it, — when, in short, there was no more devil’s work on
earth for him to do, it only remained for the unhumanized mortal to betake
himself whither his Master would find him tasks enough, and pay him his
wages duly. But, to all these shadowy beings, so long our near acquaintances, — as well Roger Chillingworth as his companions, — we would fain be
merciful. It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred
and love be not the same thing at bottom. Each, in its utmost development,
supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one
individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon
another; each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater,
forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his object. Philosophically considered, therefore, the two passions seem essentially the same, except that one
happens to be seen in a celestial radiance, and the other in a dusky and lurid
glow. In the spiritual world, the old physician and the minister — mutual
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victims as they have been — may, unawares, have found their earthly stock of
hatred and antipathy transmuted into golden love.
Leaving this discussion apart, we have a matter of business to communicate to the reader. At old Roger Chillingworth’s decease (which took
place within the year), and by his last will and testament, of which
Governor Bellingham and the Reverend Mr. Wilson were executors, he
bequeathed a very considerable amount of property, both here and in
England, to little Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne.
So Pearl — the elf-child, — the demon offspring, as some people, up to
that epoch, persisted in considering her — became the richest heiress of
her day, in the New World. Not improbably, this circumstance wrought a
very material change in the public estimation; and, had the mother and
child remained here, little Pearl, at a marriageable period of life, might
have mingled her wild blood with the lineage of the devoutest Puritan
among them all. But, in no long time after the physician’s death, the
wearer of the scarlet letter disappeared, and Pearl along with her. For
many years, though a vague report would now and then find its way across
the sea, — like a shapeless piece of driftwood tost ashore, with the initials
of a name upon it, — yet no tidings of them unquestionably authentic were
received. The story of the scarlet letter grew into a legend. Its spell, however, was still potent, and kept the scaffold awful where the poor minister
had died, and likewise the cottage by the sea-shore, where Hester Prynne
had dwelt. Near this latter spot, one afternoon, some children were at play,
when they beheld a tall woman, in a gray robe, approach the cottage-door.
In all those years it had never once been opened; but either she unlocked
it, or the decaying wood and iron yielded to her hand, or she glided shadowlike through these impediments, — and, at all events, went in.
On the threshold she paused, — turned partly round, — for, perchance,
the idea of entering, all alone, and all so changed, the home of so intense a
former life, was more dreary and desolate than even she could bear. But
her hesitation was only for an instant, though long enough to display a
scarlet letter on her breast.
And Hester Prynne had returned, and taken up her long-forsaken
shame. But where was little Pearl? If still alive, she must now have been in
the flush and bloom of early womanhood. None knew — nor ever learned,
with the fulness of perfect certainty — whether the elf-child had gone thus
untimely to a maiden grave; or whether her wild, rich nature had been softened and subdued, and made capable of a woman’s gentle happiness. But,
through the remainder of Hester’s life, there were indications that the
recluse of the scarlet letter was the object of love and interest with some
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inhabitant of another land. Letters came, with armorial seals upon them,
though of bearings unknown to English heraldry. In the cottage there were
articles of comfort and luxury, such as Hester never cared to use, but
which only wealth could have purchased, and affection have imagined for
her. There were trifles, too, little ornaments, beautiful tokens of a continual remembrance, that must have been wrought by delicate fingers, at the
impulse of a fond heart. And, once, Hester was seen embroidering a babygarment, with such a lavish richness of golden fancy as would have raised
a public tumult, had any infant, thus apparelled, been shown to our sobrehued community.88
In fine, the gossips of that day believed, — and Mr. Surveyor Pue, who
made investigations a century later, believed, — and one of his recent successors in office, moreover, faithfully believes, — that Pearl was not only alive,
but married, and happy, and mindful of her mother; and that she would most
joyfully have entertained that sad and lonely mother at her fireside.
But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne, here, in New England,
than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home. Here had been
her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had
returned, therefore, and resumed, — of her own free will, for not the sternest
magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it, — resumed the symbol
of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her
bosom. But, in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years
that made up Hester’s life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which
attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to
be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too. And, as
Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit
and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and
besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble.
Women, more especially, — in the continually recurring trials of wounded,
wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passion, — or with the
dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought, — came
to Hester’s cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy! Hester comforted and counselled them, as best she might. She assured
them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world
88. sobre-hued community: Most textual editors, including those in the Centenary Edition
of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, change this phrase to “sombre-hued community,” noting the frequent repetition of the word “somber” through the text. The misspelling of the
word probably happened sometime during the production process of the first edition.
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should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be
revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on
a surer ground of mutual happiness. Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth
should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or
even burdened with a life-long sorrow. The angel and apostle of the coming
revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise,
moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!
So said Hester Prynne, and glanced her sad eyes downward at the
scarlet letter. And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an
old and sunken one, in that burial-ground beside which King’s Chapel has
since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space
between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one
tombstone served for both. All around, there were monuments carved with
armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate — as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport — there
appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our
now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing
point of light gloomier than the shadow: —
89. Description of a red letter A on a black shield as a heraldic coat of arms.
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Suggestions for Further Reading and Research
Nathaniel Hawthorne was the subject of the first extended biography of an
American writer, Henry James’s Hawthorne (1879), which is again available in print
(Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1998). The most recent concise and easily accessible biography
of Hawthorne is Brenda Wineapple’s Hawthorne: A Life (New York: Knopf, 2003).
This book takes into account new scholarship on Hawthorne’s relationships with
women and his political and cultural background, in particular. Another important
biography is Arlin Turner’s Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Oxford UP, 1980).
For accounts of Hawthorne’s career and his movement from short story writer
to novelist, see Nina Baym, The Shape of Hawthorne’s Career (Ithaca: Cornell UP,
1976); Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction,
1790–1860 (New York: Oxford UP, 1985); and Richard Brodhead, The School
of Hawthorne (New York: Oxford UP, 1986). The latter two of these works focus in
particular on Hawthorne’s relation to his publisher, James T. Fields, and the ways
Fields helped produce Hawthorne as a “high art” (and highly canonical) author.
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Important contextual information on this relation is contained in James T. Fields,
Yesterdays with Authors (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1872) (which contains his
account of the “discovery” of The Scarlet Letter); Caroline Ticknor, Hawthorne and
his Publisher (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1913); and William Charvat, The Profession
of Authorship in America, ed. Matthew Bruccoli (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1968).
Hawthorne’s letters at the time of The Scarlet Letter are available in The Letters,
1843–1853, ed. Thomas Woodson, L. Neal Smith, and Norman Holmes Pearson
(Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1985).
On Hawthorne’s relationships with significant women in his life, see Nina
Baym, “Hawthorne and His Mother: A Biographical Speculation,” American Literature
54 (1982): 1–27, which focuses on Hawthorne’s relationship with his mother and the
significance of her death to the writing of The Scarlet Letter; and T. Walter Herbert,
Dearest Beloved: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle-Class Family
(Berkeley: U of California P, 1993), which provides information on Hawthorne’s relationship with his wife, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s connections to
women writers is traced in Hawthorne and Women, ed. John L. Idol and Melinda M.
Ponder (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1999), and in particular in Nina Baym’s
thoughtful account, in “Again and Again, the Scribbling Women” (pp. 36–44), of his
infamous complaint about the “damned mob of women writers.” The classic description of the ideal virtues of womanhood in the mid-nineteenth century is Barbara
Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820–1860,” American Quarterly 18 (1966):
151–74. Brook Thomas provides an important account of changing conceptions of
marriage in The Scarlet Letter in “Love, Politics, Sympathy and Justice in The
Scarlet Letter,” in The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Richard
Millington (New York: Cambridge UP, 2004).
For contextual and historical information on Puritanism, see Edmund Morgan,
The Puritan Dilemma (Boston: Little Brown, 1958). Michael Colacurcio provides
very specific and intense readings of Hawthorne’s use of Puritan theology, particularly in his stories, in The Province of Piety (Durham: Duke UP, 1995). John
McWilliams examines early-nineteenth-century constructions of Puritanism in
New England’s Crises and Cultural Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004).
Information on Anne Hutchinson and the antinomian controversy can be found in
chapter 3 of McWilliams’s book, as well as in David Hall’s The Antinomian
Controversy 1636–1638: A Documentary History, and in Amy Schrager Lang,
Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in New England
(Berkeley: U of California P, 1987). For a concise but comprehensive, general historical guide to Hawthorne, see Larry J. Reynolds, ed., A Historical Guide to Nathaniel
Hawthorne (New York: Oxford UP, 2001).
Hawthorne’s prominence as a key writer in the drive for American literary emergence was solidified by F. O. Matthiessen in his classic work, The American
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Suggestions for Further Reading and Research
Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York:
Oxford UP, 1941). The 1960s brought important extended readings of The Scarlet
Letter that focused on psychological themes. Foremost among these are Leslie
Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion, 1960) and
Frederick Crews’s The Sins of the Fathers (New York: Oxford UP, 1966). The 1960s
also marked the hundredth anniversary of Hawthorne’s death, an event that occasioned the launching of the standard “Centenary Edition” of his works, as well as an
important collection of essays, Hawthorne Centenary Essays, ed. Roy Harvey
Pearce (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1964). The Centenary Edition, the first volume of
which is The Scarlet Letter, is an important source for the textual history of the
novel, extended notes, and a contextual introduction.
The 1970s saw the increase of structuralist readings of The Scarlet Letter,
which often focused on its allegorical meanings and the multiple interpretations
of the meaning of the “A.” Among the important contributions to such readings are
Kenneth Dauber, Rediscovering Hawthorne (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1977)
and Edgar Dryden, Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Poetics of Enchantment (Ithaca:
Cornell UP, 1977).
The 1980s and 1990s witnessed an increased concern with The Scarlet Letter
as a social commentary and its implications for notions of citizenship and political
power. The most influential of these accounts are Jonathan Arac, “The Politics of
The Scarlet Letter,” in Ideology and Classic American Literature, ed. Sacvan
Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen (New York: Cambridge UP, 1986), pp. 247–66; Lauren
Berlant, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life
(Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991); and Sacvan Bercovitch, The Office of The Scarlet
Letter (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991). Arac and Berlant both examine the failure of Hawthorne to make good on his radical insights, whereas Bercovitch is most
interested in the process by which individual dissent can become part of an active
construction of social consent. These decades also saw a great deal of interest in
Hawthorne’s relation to the literary marketplace and to his audience. Foremost
among these studies are Richard Brodhead’s The School of Hawthorne (listed
above); Michael T. Gilmore’s American Romanticism and the Marketplace (Chicago:
U of Chicago P, 1985); and Stephen Railton’s Authorship and Audience: Literary
Performance in the American Renaissance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1991).
The past several years have witnessed a new wave of rereadings of The Scarlet
Letter that challenge some of the established critical categories through which we
view this work. Lawrence Buell, for example, questions the “Americanness” of The
Scarlet Letter in one of several important essays in Hawthorne and the Real:
Bicentennial Essays, ed. Millicent Bell (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2005). Teresa
Goddu examines Hawthorne’s status as an editor, as well as an author, in “Letters
Turned to Gold: Hawthorne, Authorship, and Slavery,” part of an important special
issue on “The Scarlet Letter after 150 Years” in Studies in American Fiction 29 (2001):
3–128. For an updated account of Hawthorne’s relation to feminism, see Jamie
Barlowe, The Scarlet Mob of Scribblers: Rereading Hester Prynne (Carbondale:
Southern Illinois UP, 2000). Finally, a new companion volume to Hawthorne studies
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provides valuable readings of The Scarlet Letter and of Hawthorne’s career as a
whole: The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Richard Millington
(New York: Cambridge UP, 2004).
“Hawthorne in Salem” <> provides a hypertext version of “The Custom-House,” along with portraits of Hawthorne and his family,
photographs of the Salem Custom House, and audio accounts of lectures given
by Hawthorne scholars at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. The Nathaniel
Hawthorne page maintained by the Eldritch Press <
hawthorne.html> provides online versions of some of his works, along with biographical information and a very helpful page of nineteenth-century illustrations
of The Scarlet Letter. Finally, the homepage of The Nathaniel Hawthorne Society,
the main scholarly association devoted to Hawthorne, contains information about
The Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, news about the Society, and an updated list of
related links.
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Glossary of Literary Terms
Abstract language Any language that
employs intangible, nonspecific concepts. Love, truth, and beauty are
abstractions. Abstract language is
the opposite of concrete language.
Both types have different effects and
are important features of an author’s
Allegory A narrative in which persons, objects, settings, or events represent general concepts, moral qualities,
or other abstractions.
Antagonist A character in some fiction, whose motives and actions work
against, or are thought to work
against, those of the hero, or protagonist. The conflict between these characters shapes the plot of their story.
Archetype A term introduced in the
1930s by psychologist C. G. Jung, who
described archetypes as “primordial
images” repeated throughout human
history. Archetypes, or archetypal patterns, recur in myths, religion, dreams,
Prepared by Beverly Lawn, Adelphi University.
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fantasies, and art, and are said to have
power because we know them, even if
unconsciously. In literature, archetypes appear in character types, plot
patterns, and descriptions.
Characterization Characterization
means the development of a character
or characters throughout a story.
Characterization includes the narrator’s description of what characters
look like and what they think, say, and
do (these are sometimes very dissimilar). Their own actions and views of
themselves, and other characters’
views of and behavior toward them, are
also means of characterization.
Characters One of the elements of
fiction, characters are usually the people of a work of literature; characters
may be animals or some other beings.
Characters are those about whom a
story is told and sometimes, too, the
ones telling the story. Characters may
be minor, or major, depending on their
importance to a story.
Climax The moment of greatest
intensity and conflict in the action of a
story is its climax.
Concrete language Any specific,
physical language that appeals to one
or more of the senses — sight, hearing,
taste, smell, or touch. Stones, chairs,
and hands are concrete words.
Concrete language is the opposite of
abstract language. Both types are
important features of an author’s style.
Conflict Antagonism between characters, ideas, or lines of action;
between one character and the outside
world; or between aspects of a character’s own nature. Conflict is essential
in a traditional plot.
Description Language that presents
specific features of a character, object,
or setting, or the details of an action or
Dialogue Words spoken by characters, often in the form of conversation
between two or more. In stories and
other forms of prose, dialogue is commonly enclosed between quotation
marks. Dialogue is an important element in characterization and plot.
Diction A writer’s selection of words.
Particular patterns or arrangements of
words in sentences and paragraphs
constitute prose style. Hemingway’s
diction is said to be precise, concrete,
and economical.
Didactic fiction A kind of fiction that
is designed to present or demonstrate
a moral, religious, political, or other
belief or position. Didactic works are
different from purely imaginative
ones, which are written for their inherent interest and value. The distinction
between imaginative and didactic writing is not always sharp.
Elements of fiction Major elements of
fiction are plot, characters, setting,
point of view, style, and theme. Skillful
employment of these entities is essential in effective novels and stories.
From beginning to end, each element
is active and relates to the others
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Glossary of Literary Terms
Epiphany In literature, epiphany
describes a sudden illumination of the
significance or true meaning of a person, place, thing, idea, or situation.
Often a word, gesture, or other action
reveals the significance. The term was
popularized by James Joyce, who
explained it fully in his autobiographical novel Stephen Hero (written in
1914; pub. 1944).
Fiction Traditionally, a prose narrative whose plot, characters, and settings are constructions of its writer’s
imagination, which draws on his or her
experiences and reflections. Short stories are comparatively short works of
fiction, novels long ones.
Figurative language Suggestive,
rather than literal, language employing metaphor, simile, or other figures
of speech.
First-person narrator See point
of view.
Flashback A writer’s way of introducing important earlier material.
As a narrator tells a story, he or
she may stop the flow of events and
direct the reader to an earlier time.
Sometimes the reader is returned
to the present, sometimes kept in
the past.
Foreshadowing Words, gestures, and
other actions that suggest future
events or outcomes. An example would
be a character’s saying, “I’ve got a bad
feeling about this,” and later in the
narration something “bad” does happen to the character.
Genre A type or form of literature.
The major literary genres are fiction,
drama, poetry, and exposition (essay or
book-length biography, criticism, history, and so on). Subgenres of fiction
are the novel and the short story.
Image A word or group of words evoking concrete visual, auditory, or tactile
associations. An image, sometimes
called a “word-picture,” is an important
instance of figurative language.
Interior monologue An extended
speech or narrative, presumed to be
thought rather than spoken by a character. Interior monologues are similar
to, but different from, stream of consciousness, which describes mental
life at the border of consciousness.
Interior monologues are typically more
consciously controlled and conventionally structured, however private their
Irony A way of writing or speaking
that asserts the opposite of what the
author, reader, and character know to
be true. Verbal or rhetorical irony
accomplishes these contradictory
meanings by direct misstatements.
Situational irony is achieved when
events in a narrative turn out to be
very different from, or even opposite
to, what is expected.
Narrative A narrator’s story of characters and events over a period of time.
Usually the characters can be analyzed
and generally understood; usually the
events proceed in a cause-and-effect
relation; and usually some unity can
be found among the characters, plot,
point of view, style, and theme of a
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narrative. Novels as well as stories are
usually narratives, and journalism
commonly employs narrative form.
Narrator The storyteller, usually an
observer who is narrating in the thirdperson point of view, or a participant
in the story’s action speaking in the
first person. Style and tone are important clues to the nature of a narrator
and the validity and objectivity of the
story itself. Sometimes a narrator who
takes part in the action is too emotionally involved to be trusted for objectivity or accuracy. This narrator would be
called an unreliable narrator.
Naturalism A literary movement
that began in France in the late nineteenth century, spread, moderated, and
influenced much twentieth-century literature. The movement, which started
in reaction against the antiscientific
sentimentality of the period, borrowed
from the principles, aims, and methods of scientific thinkers such as
Darwin and Spencer. Early naturalists
held that human lives are determined
externally by society and internally by
drives and instincts and that free will
is an illusion. Writers were to proceed
in a reporterlike, objective manner.
Stephen Crane shows the influence of
early naturalism, Ernest Hemingway
of later, more moderate, naturalism.
Novel An extended prose narrative
or work of prose fiction, usually published alone. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet
Letter is a fairly short novel, Melville’s
Moby-Dick, or, the Whale a very long
one. The length of a novel enables its
author to develop characters, plot, and
settings in greater detail than a short
story writer can.
Novella Between the short story and
the novel in size and complexity. Like
them, the novella is a work of prose fiction. Sometimes it is called a long
short story.
Omniscient narrator See point of view.
Parable A simple story that illustrates a moral point or teaches a lesson. The persons, places, things, and
events are connected by the moral
question only. The moral position of a
parable is developed through the
choices of people who believe and act
in certain ways and are not abstract
personifications as in allegory, nor
animal characters as in folk tales.
Parody Usually, a comic or satirical
imitation of a serious piece of writing,
exaggerating its weaknesses and
ignoring its strengths. Its distinctive
features are ridiculed through exaggeration and inappropriate placement
in the parody.
Plot One of the elements of fiction,
plot is the sequence of major events in
a story, usually in a cause-effect relation. Plot and character are intimately
related, since characters carry out the
plot’s action. Plots may be described as
simple or complex, depending on their
degree of complication. “Traditional”
writers usually plot their stories
tightly; modernist writers employ
looser, often ambiguous plots.
Point of view One of the elements of
fiction, point of view is the perspective,
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Glossary of Literary Terms 229
or angle of vision, from which a narrator presents a story. Point of view tells
us about the narrator as well as about
the characters, setting, and theme of a
story. Two common points of view are
first-person narration and third-person
narration. If a narrator speaks of himself or herself as “I,” the narration is in
the first person; if the narrator’s self is
not apparent and the story is told about
others from some distance, using “he,”
“she,” “it,” and “they,” then third-person
narration is likely in force. The point of
view may be omniscient (all-knowing)
or limited. When determining a story’s
point of view, it is helpful to decide
whether the narrator is reporting
events as they are happening or as they
happened in the past; is observing or
participating in the action; and is or is
not emotionally involved.
Protagonist The hero or main character of a narrative or drama. The
action is the presentation and resolution of the protagonist’s conflict, internal or external; if the conflict is with
another major character, that character is the antagonist.
Realism Literature that seeks to
present life as it is really lived by real
people, without didacticism or moral
agendas. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries realism was controversial; today it is usual.
Regionalism Literature that is
strongly identified with a specific
place. Writers like Kate Chopin who
concentrate on one area are called
regional realists; writers who do so for
several works are said to have strong
regional elements in their body of
Rising action The part of a story’s
action that develops its conflict and
leads to its climax.
Setting One of the elements of fiction,
setting is the context for the action:
the time, place, culture, and atmosphere in which it occurs. A work may
have several settings; the relation
among them may be significant to the
meaning of the work.
Short story A short work of narrative
fiction whose plot, characters, settings, point of view, style, and theme
reinforce each other, often in subtle
ways, creating an overall unity.
Stream of consciousness A narrative
technique primarily based on the works
of psychologist-philosophers Sigmund
Freud, Henri Bergson, and William
James, who originated the phrase in
1890. In fiction, the technique is
designed to represent a character’s
inner thoughts, which flow in a stream
without grammatical structure and
punctuation or apparent coherence.
The novels Ulysses and Finnegans
Wake, by James Joyce, contain the most
famous and celebrated use of the technique. Stream of consciousness, which
represents the borders of consciousness, may be distinguished from the
interior monologue, which is more
structured and rational.
Structure The organizational pattern or relation among the parts of a
story. Questions to help determine
a story’s structure may include the
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230 Glossary of Literary Terms
following: Is the story told without
stop from beginning to end, or is it
divided into sections? Does the narrator begin at the beginning of a plot, or
when actions are already under way (in
medias res, in the middle of things)?
Does the narrator begin at the end of
the plot and tell the story through a
series of flashbacks? Is the story
organized by major events or episodes,
or by images or moods?
In literature, symbolism refers to an
author’s use of symbols.
Style One of the elements of fiction,
style in a literary work refers to the
diction (choice of words), syntax
(arrangement of words), and other linguistic features of a work. Just as no
two people have identical fingerprints
or voices, so no two writers use words
in exactly the same way. Style distinguishes one writer’s language from
Tone Like tone of voice. Literary tone
is determined by the attitude of a narrator toward characters in a story and
the story’s readers. For example, the
tone of a work may be impassioned,
playful, haughty, grim, or matter-offact. Tone is distinct from atmosphere,
which refers to the mood of a story and
can be analyzed as part of its setting.
Symbol A reference to a concrete
image, object, character, pattern, or
action whose associations evoke significant meanings beyond the literal
ones. An archetype, or archetypal symbol, is a symbol whose associations are
said to be universal — that is, they
extend beyond the locale of a particular nation or culture. Religious symbols, such as the cross, are of this kind.
Theme One of the elements of fiction, the theme is the main idea that is
explored in a story. Characters, plot,
settings, point of view, and style all
contribute to a theme’s development.
Third-person narrator See point of
Unity The oneness of a short story.
Generally, each of a story’s elements
has a unity of its own, and all reinforce
each other to create an overall unity.
Although a story’s unity may be evident on first reading, much more often
discovering the unity requires rereading, reflection, and analysis. Readers
who engage themselves in these ways
experience the pleasure of bringing a
story to life.
About the Editor.qxd
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About the Editor
Susan S. Williams has taught American literature in the English
Department at Ohio State University since 1991. At Ohio State, she has
served as director of Graduate Studies in the English Department and
is the recipient of the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching, the
university’s highest recognition for teaching. She is the author of two
books, both published by the University of Pennsylvania Press: Confounding Images: Photography and Portraiture in Antebellum American
Fiction (1997) and Reclaiming Authorship: Literary Women in America,
1850–1900 (2006). Her work has also appeared in American Quarterly,
The New England Quarterly, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Narrative, among others. She is coeditor, along with her colleague Steven Fink,
of a collection of essays entitled Reciprocal Influences: Literary
About the Editor.qxd
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232 About the Editor
Production, Distribution, and Consumption in America (Ohio State UP, 1999).
She also coedits the journal American Periodicals and currently serves on the
board of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society and of the Bedford Anthology of
American Literature. She is currently writing a study of nineteenth-century
abolitionist and publisher James Redpath.

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