University of Virginia Library


Page 192

13. XIII.

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
a responsibility upon her, in reference to the clergyman,


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which she owed to no other, nor to the whole
world besides. The links that united her to the rest of
human kind—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


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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 bitter-hearted 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 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


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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


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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, 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


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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,
and that the missile struck it, but fell harmless to the

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


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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 transfiguration.
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


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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


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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.

Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her
mind, with reference to the whole race of womanhood.
Was existence worth accepting, 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


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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.

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 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


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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

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 medicines withal.