The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter Chapter 17 Quotes
How we cite the quotes:
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." (17.43-44)
Where Dimmesdale can only see judgment, Hester sees mercy. Is mercy a kind of justice? Or does it operate on a totally different scale?
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? Backwards 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? (17.46)
NEWS FLASH! Massachusetts Bay Colony is not, we repeat not, the center of the universe. There is a whole entire world out there, one in which Hester and Dimmesdale could live freely, without guilt, and among people who accept them. Hester seems truly enlightened at this moment. She has the big-picture perspective. Years of being rejected as an outcast have allowed her to realize how ridiculous the rules are in her community—at least at this moment.
"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!" (17.18)
We're trying to feel sorry for Dimmesdale; really, we are. But here, he's basically saying, "Oh, Hester, you're so lucky that you get to be ostracized by your entire community. Look at poor me, having to keep it a secret and live a blameless, honored life." We're impressed that Hester manages not to throw her sewing basket at his head.