Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter Quotes

  • Guilt and Blame

    Chapter 23
    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "Is not this better," murmured he, "than what we dreamed of in the forest?"

    "I know not! I know not!" she hurriedly replied. "Better? Yea; so we may both die, and little Pearl die with us!" (23.18-23)

    Uh, we're going to go with no. No, it is not better for all three of them to die at the scaffold rather than run off and start a new life in England. But to Dimmesdale, it actually is better. Poor man.

    Chapter 2

    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. (2.10)

    Hester accepts her community's blame—but she's going to let it get her down. In other words, doesn't have to ruin your life; it can maybe even redeem it. (Try telling that to your parents next time you break curfew.)

    Chapter 3
    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "[…] 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." (3.26)

    Dimmesdale practically begs Hester to place the blame where it belongs (on him), but she refuses. Why? When the whole community is frothing at the mouth to shame someone else, why does she protect Dimmesdale?

    Chapter 11
    Roger Chillingworth

    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 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! (11.1)

    Anyone else get goosebumps? Look at the way guilt is described: as a "dark treasure" to be "lavished" on someone. If you ask us, that's a little sick.

    Chapter 12

    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. (12.33-34)

    Bathed in a maybe-supernatural light, Dimmesdale's guilt is momentarily lifted, while Chillingworth just looks plain guilty. And evil.

    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. (12.17-28)

    Whew. Time for a momentary sigh of relief here as we watch Dimmesdale make this fake confession, invigorated by the idea of telling the truth of his relationship with Hester. The word "electric" strikes us as pretty fancy and somehow important. Why do you think the narrator describes the trio as an "electric chain?" (Fun fact: the electric telegraph is still really new at this point, so it's cool to think of these three as forming a telegraph line, passing messages between each other.)

    Poor, miserable man! what right had infirmity like his to burden itself with crime? Crime is for the iron-nerved, 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! (12.2)

    In other words, if you feel guilty every time you steal a paperclip from the supply closet, then a life of crime is probably not for you.

    Chapter 18

    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. (18.2)

    Living with her guilt for seven years has taught Hester a thing or two about life—like, if your community just wants to blame you, maybe they don't have all the answers. Coincidentally, at this moment we see Hester in the middle of a literal forest as well as a metaphorical one.

    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! (18.11-12)

    So, it is the letter that makes Hester feel guilty—or does she actually accept the blame for her actions? Here, it seems like all the guilt and blame are sewn up into the letter. When she takes it off, she takes off the guilt as well.

    And be the stern and sad truth spoken, that the breach which guilt has once made 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. (18.4)

    Once guilty, always guilty. That's the kind of idea that leads to hit musicals and unstable communities. Without a concept of forgiveness and redemption, it's too easy to keep on sinning.

    Chapter 24

    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! (24.11)

    Here, the narrator tells us that Hester once thought she could revolutionize the roles women play in relation to men and to society. The narrator claims that such a philosophizing person would have to be a woman, but she would have to be knowledgeable and wise because of "joy." Too bad for Hester that her wisdom comes through grief and guilt.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Chapter 1

    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. (1.3)

    Um, maybe. Or you could just see this little rosebush as a mockery. If we were heading off to be executed or publicly shamed, we might want everything to look as miserable as we felt.

    Chapter 7

    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. (7.20)

    Nature on this side of the Atlantic is so tough that even the rich people can't manage to have nice gardens. (Give it time, guys.)

    Chapter 8
    Mistress Hibbins

    “Wilt thou go with us tonight? There will be a merry company in the forest; and I well-nigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should make one.” (8.39)

    Fun! We love a good Satanic party in the woods. After all, you can't exactly have a Satanic party in your living room. The tone just isn't right.

    Chapter 9

    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. (9.2)

    Considering that the European system of medicine at this time mostly consisted of bloodletting and chopping off limbs, yeah: probably almost anything would have been better.

    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 in treetops. (9.12)

    Check out the way Chillingworth's and Dimmesdale's "various talk" sounds just like another kind of natural noise, like the "murmur" of the waves or the "solemn" sounds of the wind. Man and nature don't have to be opposed—they can be in harmony, too.

    Chapter 15

    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, dogwood, henbane, and whatever else of vegetable wickedness the climate could produce, all flourishing with hideous luxuriance? (15.1)

    Nature isn't all rosebushes and dewdrops. It's also poison. Keep that in mind next time someone tells to be one with nature.

    Chapter 16

    It straggled onward into the mystery of the primevil forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and imposed 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. (16.3)

    Descriptions of the forest that the European settlers encountered are pretty intense. It's hard to imagine now, but at one time almost all of the Eastern United States was covered with forest, including 200-foot tall pines—which were quickly turned into masts for the English navy. By the 18th century, most of these forests we gone. In fact, the land that Hawthorne knew might have been even more deforested than it is today, since a lot of forest land has been replanted. This "primeval forest" is a place where people can shed some of those pesky trappings of civilization.

    Pearl resembled the brook, inasmuch as the current of her life gushed from a wellspring as mysterious, and had flown through scenes shadowed as heavily with gloom. But, unlike the little stream, she danced and sparkled and prattled airily along her course. (16.25)

    Okay, we get it: Pearl has a close connection to the natural world. Is that because she grew up on the edge of the forest? Or is she actually a little elf-child?

    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 heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or mirror its revelations on the smooth surface of the pool. (16.23)

    The woods are alive with the sound of music—or, at least of secret. Here, everything in the forest seems to be talking, listening, and taking note of Hester and Dimmesdale's conversation. Are these illicit conversations some of the secrets that the forest keeps?

    Chapter 22

    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 they had known each other then! And was this the man? She hardly knew him now! (22.6)

    In town, appearances matter: Hester and Dimmesdale aren't officially allowed to know each other, and so they don't. But when they met in the forest, they "had known each other" deeply. It's the kind of human connection that they can't make in town, where houses and rules dictate the kinds of meetings people can have.

  • The Supernatural

    Chapter 2

    It had the affect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity and enclosing her in a sphere by herself. (2.11)

    This is the scarlet letter: it's a "spell" that takes her out of the ordinary stuff of day-to-day life. But is Hester the only one under the letter's spell? And if Hester made the letter herself, who cast the spell?

    It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. (2.1)

    Nice, Hawthorne. But does he really believe that she's a witch—or is he just talking with the voice of the community, here?

    Chapter 3

    It was whispered, by those who peered after her, that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passageway of the interior. (3.33)

    Okay, obviously the scarlet letter wasn't actually glowing. But this incident—and other supernatural type events—put us into a different world, one in which everyday natural events have supernatural meanings. To people who can see the supernatural where it doesn't exist, Hester's adultery would mean something very different.

    Chapter 4
    Hester Prynne

    “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?” (4.33)

    You'd think that, if you sold your soul to the devil, you'd know about it—but here, Hester is trying to figure out if she actually did. Apparently, Chillingworth is so good as the whole creepy thing that he's actually being confused for the Devil.

    Chapter 5

    They averred that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth tinged in an earthly dyepot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the nighttime. 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. (5.12)

    Infernal fire, eh? That's a pretty hefty thing to have to carry around on your chest everyday. And yet, people seem to be more taken by its color and its glowing qualities than they are by what it represents (adultery, temptation, the Devil). We get a feeling that these townspeople are kind of in awe of the scarlet A and not for entirely negative reasons. It almost seems like the townspeople talk more about the A than they do about Hester's sin.

    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 courser expression, that fell upon the sufferer’s defenceless breast like a rough blow upon an ulcerated wound. (5.8)

    Alchemists were like (emphasis on the "like") scientists who were primarily concerned with (1) turning everyday metals into gold, and (2) concocting the elixir of life. Here, our narrator describes the coldness of the "elevated" ladies toward Hester. Their mean words are like those cool little sponges that, when dry, are the size of your pinky nail, and that, when wet, grow to be the size of your hand. That's where the alchemy comes in —these women say civil things to Hester, but these words have huge, hurtful meanings beneath them.

    Chapter 6

    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. (6.8)

    Witchcraft, sure—or maybe just active imagination. But to the Puritan kids, who only know how to play at going to church and "scourging Quakers," this wild imagination probably does seem a lot like witchcraft.

    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. (6.6)

    Before you start calling Pearl a little witch, take a look at her childhood: she was born in a prison, she lives with her mother in a tiny cottage far away from town, and kids say mean things to her all day long. We don't know about you, but we'd be cursing up a storm if we were in Pearl's position.

    Chapter 8
    Reverend John Wilson

    “Art thou a Christian child – ha? Dost thou know thy catechism? Or art thou one of those naughty elves or fairies whom we thought to have left behind us, with other relics of Papistry, in merry old England?” (8.5)

    Gee, "merry old England" sounds a lot pleasanter than the strict Puritan world of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We get the sense that Mr. Wilson and his fellow government officials think of England as a place where frivolous things go down (things like dancing, parties, and eating good food). Apparently, England is also full of elves and fairies, and the Puritans had hoped to have a purely elfless and fairyless society. No supernatural here—unless it's prophetic meteors, of course.

    Chapter 12

    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. (12.31)

    Not that we think Pearl is a witch or anything, but we do almost get the feeling that Pearl conjures Chillingworth up. Our narrator gives us no clues as to Chillingworth's whereabouts prior to this moment, and we don't even see or hear Chillingworth approach. It's only after Pearl points at something that we realize the doctor is even there. Spoooooooky.

  • Isolation

    Chapter 2

    Measured by the prisoner's experience, however, it might reckoned a journey of some length; for, haughty as her demeanor was, she perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung in the street for them all to spurn and trample upon. (2.17)

    Ouch. Talk about isolation: the entire town has turned out to see Hester paraded through the streets like a criminal. (Well, she is a criminal.) Surrounded by people, she's totally alone.

    Chapter 3

    While this passed, Hester Prynne had been standing on her pedestal, still with a fixed gaze toward 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. (3.14)

    For Chillingworth, it might as well just be him, Hester, and Dimmesdale. The rest of the town can go to… well, anywhere else, for all he cares. He's got a morality/revenge play to act out.

    Dreadful as it was, she was conscious of a shelter in the presence of these thousands of witnesses. It was better to stand thus, with so many betwixt him and her, than to greet him, face to face, they two alone. (3.14)

    Sometimes there's safety in numbers. Chillingworth can't exactly confront her while she's standing up on stage in front of "thousands" of townspeople—not if he wants to carry out his insane revenge plan, anyway.

    From the 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. (3.1)

    Hester and Dimmesdale aren't the only ones who are isolated: Chillingworth is all alone, too. Fittingly, he shows up on the outskirts of town.

    Chapter 4
    Roger Chillingworth

    "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!" (4.18)

    Aw. We could almost feel sorry for poor, lonely Chillingworth—except that he's about to prove himself a psycho-stalker.

    “Here on this wild outskirt of 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.” (4.26)

    Chillingworth and Hester do have some things in common, after all. Both hold a secret. Both are unhappy. Both have a very desirable skill (Chillingworth is a doctor and Hester is an amazing sewer). And both live on the outskirts of this Puritan society. You'd think they'd have a happier marriage.

    As he spoke, he laid his long forefinger on the scarlet letter, which forwith seemed to scortch 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 thou didst call thy husband—in the eyes of yonder child! And, that thou mayst live, take off this draught.” (4.13)

    Does Chillingworth remind anybody else of the evil Queen in Snow White or of Yzma in The Emperor's New Groove? The interesting thing is that instead of killing people, Chillingworth keeps them alive. He wants Hester and Dimmesdale to be as healthy as can be so they can feel their punishment and the judgment of others as fully as possible. Even though he’s constantly being called the Devil in this story, Chillingworth is all about life and health.

    Chapter 5

    On the outskirts of 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 toward the west. (5.4)

    Well, obviously Hester lives on the "outskirts" of town. (Hawthorne must love that word.) She's an outcast; she can't exactly pop over the neighbors every time she wants to borrow a cup of sugar or gossip about that adulteress at the end of the block.

    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. (5.8)

    Hester may be an outcast, but she's not entirely isolated. She manages to win a place for herself by sheer hard work—although we're not 100% sure why she even bothers. Why would you want to be a part of the community that had cast you out?

    In all her 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 had inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs than the rest of human kind. (5.8)

    So, Hester, how's that re-integration working out for you? She may have a job and some charity work to keep her busy, but she's not exactly winning any friends. In fact, the Puritans are so busy making sure she knows that she's not part of their little clique that we're surprised they have time to read their Bibles.

    Chapter 17
    Hester Prynne

    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.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Chapter 2

    "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 heart." (2.6)

    This woman might be the only person in the entire community who actually feels sorry for Hester. It is because she's young, and has a young child? Or does she maybe have some shameful secret of her own?

    "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!" (2.7)

    Talk about legalistic: this woman actually name-checks both the Bible ("Scripture") and secular law ("the statute-book") to explain why Hester deserves to be executed. Way harsh. (Although check out Hawthorne's catty little moment when he basically accuses her of being jealous—she's the "ugliest" woman there, so we're supposed to think that she couldn't have had an affair even if she'd wanted to.)

    Chapter 3
    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "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?" (3.26)

    Irony alert: Dimmesdale is practically begging Hester to reveal his name, so he won't be "compelled" to hide his sin. She sees it at compassion; he sees it as cruel.

    Chapter 5

    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. (5.1)

    Hester's punishment isn't to wear the scarlet letter for a year, or even five years: it's to wear it for the rest of her life, and—oh yeah—to be ostracized and shunned until the day she dies. Forgiveness doesn't even enter into it.

    Chapter 13

    "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!" (13.3)

    Great. Now that Hester's tending to the poor and sick, the townspeople are all, "Oh, look at our Hester!" Not that she still gets to come to church or gets invited to the Tupperware parties—we're not talking forgiveness, after all.

    Chapter 17
    Hester Prynne

    "Thou shalt forgive me!" cried Hester, flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him [Dimmesdale]. "Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!" (17.18)

    As if you needed any more proof of how awesome Hester is (check out her "Character Analysis" to see what we're talking about), witness this: she doesn't ask for forgiveness. She demands it. (You go, girl!) But more seriously, what she seems to be saying is, "don't you dare become like all of those cruel townspeople! God is the only person who can punish me. We humans are meant to forgive one another." Philosopher Hester strikes again and argues that Dimmesdale has to forgive her—it's what humans do.

    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "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)

    Let's say you've messed up. Really messed up—like, can't-even-talk-about-it messed up. Being forgiven can actually be harder than being punished, because you feel like you deserve something really bad. (Don't believe that it can mess with your head? Just ask this guy.)

    "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 now. May God forgive us both!" (17.21)

    Well, we're glad for Hester, but we're still not sure why she needs Dimmesdale to forgive her. (Okay, okay, beside the whole Chillingworth thing.) From our perspective, Dimmesdale is the one who really needs mercy.

    Chapter 23
    Roger Chillingworth

    "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!" (23.18)

    Dimmesdale finds forgiveness, though not from Chillingworth. Chillingworth admits that Dimmesdale has escaped his revenge. Is Chillingworth capable of forgiveness at this point?

    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "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!" (23.35)

    If it weren't disrespectful, we might say that Dimmesdale and God sound like they have a pretty messed-up, abusive relationship: God sends "burning torture" and "triumphant ignominy," but Dimmesdale thinks he totally deserves it.

    "May God forgive thee!" said the minister. "Thou, too, hast deeply sinned!" (23.28-29)

    My, how the tables have turned. It's one thing to mercilessly pursue your enemy without compassion or forgiveness for seven years; it's quite another when all of a sudden you're the one who needs forgiveness. This reminds us of something. Oh yeah! The Golden Rule: one of the most important underpinnings of the entire Christian religion. Maybe Chillingworth should pick up the Bible now and then.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Chapter 2

    "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 heart." (2.5-6)

    Not everyone in the crowd wants to see Hester burn at the stake. This woman understand that Hester is so busy judging herself that she hardly cares what happens to her publicly.

    "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!" (2.5)

    Uh, we're glad that this lady isn't a magistrate. She thinks that being publicly shamed is just a little too merciful. Hey, at least she doesn't want Hester to be executed, which is what another woman suggests.

    Chapter 5

    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. (5.3)

    All the magistrates can do is force Hester to wear a scarlet letter: Hester is the one making herself endure the punishment of sticking around in a community that runs on judgment.

    Chapter 12

    Why, then, had he come hither? Was it but the mockery of penitence? A mockery, indeed, but in which his soul trifled with itself […] He had been driven hither by the impulse of that Remorse which dogged him everywhere. (12.2)

    Dimmesdale doesn't have the guts to face judgment—he can hardly even face his own soul's judgment. No wonder the narrator calls him a coward.

    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. (12.2)

    Our Shmoopster brains just can’t help but stare at the phrase "heaven-defying guilt" here—what does that mean? Does it mean that the guilt Dimmesdale endures will ultimately prevent him from getting into heaven? Or does it mean that the guilt he imposes upon himself is not necessarily the kind of guilt that heaven endorses?

    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "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 mother, and thou, and I, must stand together. But the daylight of this world shall not see our meeting!" (12.17-28)

    All the judgment on earth is just preparation for the big judgment day, when it's not just a bunch of sour magistrates deciding your fate but God himself. We get the feeling that Hawthorne thinks that maybe the magistrates should leave the judging up to God.

    Chapter 13

    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. (13.35)

    Hester's scarlet letter might be the community's version of justice, but it ends up being a judgment on them: she shows up the community by being better than all of them.

    Chapter 17
    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    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?

    Chapter 18

    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. (18.2)

    How the tables have turned. Hester was judged by the clerical band and judicial robe, and now she's criticizing it in turn. Why does she stick around, then? If she judges it and finds that it's not all it's cracked up to be, why does she continue to let herself be confined by its laws?

    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. (18.4)

    If you throw people out of your community, then you shouldn't be surprised if they refuse to live by your rules. Hester is so over the Puritans right now.

    Chapter 23
    Roger Chillingworth

    "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!" (23.18)

    Chillingworth was paying enough attention in church to hear the part about not cheating on your husband, but he evidently snoozed through the follow up: "judge not, lest ye be judged." Oops.

    Chapter 24

    It bore a device, a herald's wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so somber is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:—"On a field, sable, the letter A, gules." (24.12)

    The community's final judgment is Hester's tombstone: a scarlet letter A on a field of black. Have they forgiven her? Or is her punishment to be marked by the letter even in death?

  • Fate and Free Will

    Chapter 2

    Stretching for 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. (2.9)

    We like to think of it this way. But seriously: "as if." Does that mean it's not actually free will? Or is it—and does actively choosing to be shamed and punished mean that she eventually gets forgiveness?

    Chapter 8
    Reverend John 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.” (8.37)

    Chillingworth is desperate to find out who Pearl's father is, but Mr. Wilson thinks that they need to let God reveal it. God, or maybe Jerry Springer. What happens to free will in an era of DNA testing?

    Hester Prynne

    “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 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. (8.24)

    This "sudden impulse" makes it sound a lot like Hester is possessed—that she's not actually operating out of her own will. Maybe it's just a mother's love—or many it's something a lot bigger. (Is there anything bigger?)

    Chapter 9

    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. (9.3)

    Dimmesdale sees everything—his life, work, and death—as being out of his power. Maybe that's why he keeps begging Hester to reveal his secret. He can't take a single action for himself; it's not what he believes.

    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. (9.7)

    Dimmesdale wants to let himself die, but he's not allowed to: it would be a sin to refuse Chillingworth's help. (This kind of logic gets tricky once you start adding life-support machines into the mix.)

    Chapter 12
    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    “At the great judgment day,” whispered the minister—and, strangely enough, the sense that he was a professional teacher of truth impelled him to answer the child so. “Then, and there, before the judgment seat, thy mother, and thou, and I, must stand together. But the daylight of this world shall not see our meeting!” (12.28)

    Check out the word "must": at some point, it's all going to be taken out of Dimmesdale's hand, and the whole mess will be revealed—to God. But at this point, he still seems to think that he doesn't have the will to reveal it himself.

    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 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! (12.32)

    When Dimmesdale sees the meteoric "A," he thinks it's in reference to his own destiny. But most people don't believe that God would bother sending a message about your individual life: meteors and earthquakes are reserved for major communications about the fate of a nation.

    Chapter 13

    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…Providence, 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. (13.7)

    Question: does our narrator believe in fate? Here, it sound like he does. "Providence" gave Hester Pearl. But are we supposed to take this literally, or is it more true that Pearl is the way she is because of her crazy upbringing?

    She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy; or, what 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 a symbol of her calling. (13.3)

    Hester becomes a kind of nurse, almost a nun—but she didn't want to be one, and it almost sounds like the world doesn't want her to be one, either. It's just out of their hands.

    Chapter 14
    Roger Chillingworth

    “Peace, Hester, peace!” replied the old man, with gloomy sternness. “It is not granted me to pardon. I have no such power as though tallest me of. (…) Ye that have wronged me are not sinful, save in a kind of typical illusion; neither am I fiendlike, 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.” (14.32)

    Okay, since the evil Chillingworth obviously thinks that he and everyone else are ruled by fate, we're going to go out on a limb and say that Hawthorne is coming down on the side of free will. He totally does have control of his actions.

  • Women and Femininity

    Chapter 3
    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "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 to grasp it for himself—the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!" (3.26)

    The problem with being a woman in these pre-birth control days—well, one of the many problems—is that secret adultery can quickly become very public pregnancy. Irony alert: the man saying this to Hester is Dimmesdale, whose ignominy (shame) is not open. By the end of the novel, we find out that it would have been better for him if it had been open. (Although probably not in the Junior kind of way.)

    Chapter 5

    By degrees, nor very slowly, her handiwork became what would now be termed the fashion….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. (5.6).

    Obviously. You can't have Hester's sinful, sexy hands embroidering a bride's veil. It might, like, infect her with cooties, or something. (Also, history fail: it's entirely unlikely that the Puritans actually wore bridal veils. It's cool, Hawthorne. We'll allow you some poetic license.)

    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. (5.1)

    Hester isn't an individual woman anymore. Now she's just a Fallen Woman, an example to all the other girls who might be battling woman's "frailty and sinful passion." (No word on men's frailty and sinful passion, of course.)

    Women derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle. (5.6).

    Right, ladies? Don't you all just loooooove to sit down by the fire and do a little embroidery or—hey, let's not be greedy—even mend a few of your husband's shirts?

    No? Huh. Okay, Hawthorne.

    Chapter 13

    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 strength. (13.3)

    World's Strongest Woman sounds like much less of a spectator sport than World's Strongest Man: more sewing clothes for the poor and ladling soup than pulling a Boeing 767.

    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. (13.9)

    Hester has definitely decided that her life isn't worth living (although note that she never actually considers suicide—major sin), but she's torn on whether or not life is worth living for the rest of women. Think about it: Hester thinks life isn't worth living for women, but she still basically accepts the punishment and rules of her community. That tells us something about how powerful the religious and social pressures were: you'd have to think that leaving was a lot worse than sticking around.

    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 transformation. (13.5-6)

    Hey girl. Basically, you have two choices: stay tender and die, or lose your tenderness and stop being a woman. Not much of a choice, is it? (Oh, apparently there's a third option: go through your entire life without suffering, but good luck with that.)

    Chapter 15

    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. (15.5)

    To the Puritans, marriage wasn't about love: it was about teaming up to make sure that life didn't kill you. You know, "You make sure the wolves don't get in, and I'll knit you a pair of socks." But Hawthorne is writing in the 1850, when most people agreed that you should at least have some warm feelings for the person you were planning to marry.

    Chapter 21

    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 (21.4)

    In contrast to her ice-queen mom, Pearl is like a Girl Gone Wild without all the unsavory aspects. Is Pearl special, or do all girls in this community have to learn to hide their feelings, just like Hester?

    Chapter 23

    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. (23.10-12; 30-32)

    Seeing her father die turns Pearl from a wild "demon-child" determined to "do battle with the world" into a woman—which apparently means having human emotions like joy and sorrow. Aw, our little Pearl is all grown up.

  • Hypocrisy

    Chapter 3
    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "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?" (3.26)

    Hmm. Here, Dimmesdale seems to see hypocrisy as separate from sin, and not as a type of sin. Either way, we're not too cool with the fact that he seems to see it as Hester's responsibility—maybe he should take control of his own life.

    Chapter 11

    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! (11.7)

    It's not like Dimmesdale doesn't try to confess. He does—sort of. A little half-heartedly and non-distinctly, but still. The problem is that his community just won't believe it. So, is it their fault that he's a hypocrite? Do they force him to live a lie?

    Chapter 12
    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "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 thee one other day, but not to-morrow!" (12.17-28)

    As our mother always said, "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today," which in this case includes confessing your adulterous sin to your worshipful community. Dimmesdale, like us, should listen to our mother a little more often.

    Chapter 16
    Pearl

    "And so it is!" said the child [Pearl]. "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?" (16.32)

    As bad as it is to live your life as a hypocrite, it's even worse when your kids figure it out. This is the "Do as I say, not as I do" school of parenting, and it works just about as well as it always does. (Not very.)

    Chapter 17
    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "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!" (17.18)

    Right, because you can't be penitent if your entire community thinks you can do no wrong. Problem #193 with hypocrisy: you can't even expiate your sin.

    "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.

    Chapter 18

    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. (18.4)

    Here, Dimmesdale is deciding whether or not to run off with Hester, choosing between being an "avowed criminal" and a "hypocrite." Obviously, we decides to remain a hypocrite—but it's close to a toss-up.

    Chapter 19
    Pearl

    "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. (19.33-37)

    Pearl answers her mom's question, "Will you love Dimmesdale?" by saying, essentially, "Will he still be a hypocrite?" She can't love him while he's living a lie—and the moment he confesses, she acknowledges him as a father. Too bad that he's literally dying when he does it.

    Chapter 21
    Pearl

    "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!" (21.10-12)

    Yeah, it is weird that Dimmesdale will only acknowledge his lover and child in the dark forest—weird and sad. But not quite sad enough for us to feel sorry for him, since there's an easy fix.

    Chapter 23
    Roger Chillingworth

    "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!" (23.18)

    The only place for Dimmesdale to escape Chillingworth is in public. Ironic, right? Hiding out, escaping to England, living in the forest—anywhere he tried to hide, Chillingworth would find him. But the moment he casts off his hypocrisy, he's free.

  • Sin

    Chapter 3
    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "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!" (3.26)

    In today's legal system, there's a lot of talk about "victimless crimes," like certain drug offenses. By referring to Hester's "fellow-sinner," Dimmesdale seems to be suggesting that there's no such thing as a victimless sin: someone else is always dragged into it. Is that true? And is there really such a thing as a victimless crime?

    Chapter 5

    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. (5.1)

    "Sin" may be an abstract noun, but it's not abstract to the Puritan community. Now they've got Hester in their midst to make an example of. (Hey, every community needs a scapegoat.)

    Chapter 14

    The scarlet letter burned on Hester Prynne's bosom. Here was another ruin, the responsibility of which came partly home to her. (14.9)

    It's not enough to be responsible for her own sin; Hester decides that she's also responsible for Dimmesdale's sin (hypocrisy) and Chillingworth's sin (pure evilness). Geez, Hester, maybe you should take it easy on yourself.

    Roger Chillingworth

    "What evil have I done the man?" asked Roger Chillingworth again. (14.16)

    Uh, well, you've tortured him into a living death? Chillingworth raises an important question, though—not "what evil have I done the man?" but "Who gets to decide what counts as sin?" Chillingworth doesn't think he's done anything wrong, but Dimmesdale has a different opinion: he sees Chillingworth's sin as way worse than his or Hester's.

    "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!" (14.18)

    Who needs the devil when you've got a friend like Chillingworth to take care of all your penance needs? This also raises a question: if you don't think that something is a sin, do you still need to be punished for it?

    Chapter 15
    Hester Prynne

    "Be it sin or no," said Hester Prynne bitterly, as she still gazed after him, "I hate the man!"

    […]

    "Yes, I hate him!" repeated Hester, more bitterly than before. "He betrayed me! He has done me worse wrong than I did him!" (15.2-4)

    You go, girl! Here, Hester has finally realizes that she's not the community's wrongdoer. Chillingworth has a lot of sin to answer for, too—like, convincing this young, beautiful woman to marry his old, scholarly, crippled self. (And then sending her all alone to the New World; not nice.)

    Chapter 17

    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. (17.23)

    Oh, Hester. First, she has an extramarital affair with the town pastor, and then she makes it worse by letting her husband persecute him. Can the girl do anything right?

    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "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. Even thus much of truth would save me! But now, it is all falsehood! —all emptiness! —all death!" (17.18)

    Poor Dimmesdale. All he wants is for one person—anyone—to know just how bad he is. But instead, the entire town thinks he's basically an angel on earth. Must be hard.

    "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!" (17.31)

    Check out the way that Dimmesdale talks about Chillingworth "violating" the "sanctity of a human heart." To us, that sounds a lot like a type of rape: Chillingworth has psychologically raped Dimmesdale. Which, yeah, that sounds pretty sinful.

    Chapter 23
    Roger Chillingworth

    "Thou hast escaped me!" [Chillingworth] repeated more than once. "Thou hast escaped me!"

    "May God forgive thee!" said the minister. "Thou, too, hast deeply sinned!" (23.28-29)

    After Dimmesdale dies, we don't see what happens to Chillingworth. But we do get the feeling that, eventually, he realizes that he's done some bad things. Giving his fortune to Pearl feels a lot like an apology and a confession. Maybe there's hope for him after all.

  • Revenge

    Chapter 11

    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. (11.1)

    Hester is paying a hefty price for her crime, but public shaming and repentance is different from the "intimate revenge" that Chillingworth is planning. Wearing a scarlet letter is apparently appropriate revenge for a community to take; but psychologically torturing a man to death? That's taking things a little too far.

    Chapter 12

    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 annihilated. (12.34)

    Who needs a flashlight when you've got the incredibly creepy face of a vengeful demon to light up the night? And we're not talking nice vengeance demons, either. We're talking a human man who's been so corrupted by his pursuit of personal vindication that he's no better than the devil himself.

    Chapter 14
    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "What evil have I done the man?" asked Roger Chillingworth again. "I tell thee, Hester Prynne, the richest fee that ever physician earned from 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!" (14.16)

    Okay, well, that's one way to look at it: Chillingworth's vengeful attention has actually kept Dimmesdale alive. But, considering that he's made the poor guy's life a living hell, that might not be something to brag about.

    "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!" (14.14)

    We know that Chillingworth could have gotten revenge by making sure that Dimmesdale was thrown in prison or hanged (really?), but he doesn't. Why? What makes this psychological revenge so much sweeter?

    "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!" (14.18)

    Whoa, Rog. Take a chill pill. This guy has evidently never heard that revenge is a dish best served cold, because it's been seven years and he's still ticked off. The problem? Making revenge your reason to live isn't great for your longevity.

    "I have left thee to the scarlet letter," replied Roger Chillingworth. "If that have not avenged me, I can do no more!" (14.25)

    Hmm. Chillingworth is obsessed with taking personal revenge on Dimmesdale, but he lets the community revenge itself on Hester. Does this mean that, deep down, he still loves her? Is wearing the scarlet letter worse than being secretly persecuted? Or is Chillingworth just not all that evil, after all? (Nah. We're pretty sure he's that evil.)

    Chapter 17
    Hester Prynne

    "Thou shalt forgive me!" cried Hester, flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside [Dimmesdale]. "Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!" (17.18).

    When Dimmesdale finds out that Chillingworth's mental manipulation is all part of a twisted plot to seek revenge on his wife's lover, he not too happy. Okay, maybe it's not as bad as adultery, but it's still a major betrayal. But he decides to listen to Hester and leave the vengeance to God. It's too bad Chillingworth didn't come up with the same plan.

    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

    "[…] 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!" (17.21)

    We imagine Chillingworth's Evil To-Do List goes something like this: (1) Maniacally stroke cat; (2) Violate sanctity of human heart.

    Chapter 23
    Roger Chillingworth

    "Thou hast escaped me!" [Chillingworth] repeated more than once. "Thou hast escaped me!"

    "May God forgive thee!" said the minister. "Thou, too, hast deeply sinned!" (23.28-29)

    By now, the whole "I'm gonna get you" shtick that Chillingworth has been playing with for the last seven years seems to be less about exactly a well-deserved revenge than about playing some sort of sick cat-and-mouse game. Check out the word "escaped": Dimmesdale is going to expose his sin and die, but that's still not enough. The revenge has to be personal.

    Chapter 24

    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. (24.6)

    Is this Roger Chillingworth's final, twisted act of revenge—a way of haunting Hester and Pearl? Or is it just a (very nice) apology?