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The Scarlet Letter

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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 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 mouth-piece 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! Mr. Dimmesdale would normally have belonged in this group of exceptionally spiritual ministers. He would have achieved their lofty heights of faith and holiness had he not been thwarted by the burden of whatever crime or suffering he struggled under. That burden kept this spiritual man—whose voice the angels might have answered!—down among the lowest of the low. But it also gave him an intimate understanding of the sinful brotherhood of mankind. His heart beat in unison with a thousand other hearts, taking in their pain and sending out its own beat in waves of sad, touching eloquence. Often touching, but sometimes terrible! The congregation did not understand the power that moved them so. They saw the young clergyman as a true miracle of holiness. They imagined him to be the spokesman of Heaven delivering messages of wisdom, rebuke, and love. In their eyes, the ground he walked on was holy. The young women in his church swooned when he came near, struck with a passion they imagined to be inspired by religious zeal. Believing their feelings entirely pure, they carried them openly in their breasts and offered them at the altar as their most valuable sacrifice. The elderly church members, seeing that Mr. Dimmesdale was even weaker than they and figuring he would ascend to Heaven first, asked their children to bury them near the young pastor’s grave. And the whole time, whenever poor Mr. Dimmesdale happened to think of his grave, he wondered whether grass would ever grow upon such a cursed burial mound!
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,—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 had quitted,—I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!” This public admiration tortured Mr. Dimmesdale! His instinct was to adore the truth, and to think anything not filled with the divine essence of truth to be completely insignificant and worthless. But if that were the case, then what significance could he have? He longed to speak out from his own pulpit with the full weight of his voice and tell the people what he was. “I, whom you see dressed in these black robes of the priesthood . . . I, who ascend to the altar and turn my face upward to pray on your behalf . . . I, whose daily life you assume to be as holy as


Old Testament figure who, because of his righteousness, God allowed to ascend to Heaven before dying.

 . . . I, whose footsteps you believe mark the pathway to Heaven . . . I, who have baptized your children . . . I, who have prayed over your dying friends . . . I, your pastor, whom you revere and trust, am a completely corrupt fraud!”
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! More than once, Mr. Dimmesdale had gone up to the pulpit thinking he would not come down until he had spoken these words. More than once he had cleared his throat and taken a long, deep, wavering breath, meant to deliver the black secret of his soul. More than once—no, more than a hundred times—he had actually spoken! But how? He had told his listeners that he was totally vile, the lowest companion of the low, the worst of sinners, a thing of unimaginable depravity. He said it was a wonder God did not torch his wretched body before their very eyes. Could he say it any more plainly? Wouldn’t the people rise from their seats at once and tear him out of the pulpit he was defiling? No, indeed! They heard it all, and it only increased their admiration. They never imagined the true meaning lurking behind his words of self-condemnation. “The godly young man!” they said to themselves. “He is a saint on earth! If he has such sinfulness in his own pure soul, what horrors must he see in yours or mine?” Subtle but remorseful hypocrite that he was, the minister knew they would interpret his vague confession this way. He tried to deceive himself by confessing a guilty conscience, but this only compounded the sin—and without even giving him the momentary relief of self-delusion. He had spoken the very truth but transformed it into the purest falsehood. And yet in his nature he loved the truth and hated lies as few men ever did. So he hated his miserable self above all else!