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The Scarlet Letter

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His inward trouble drove him to practices, more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome, than with the better light of the church in which he had been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly, because of that bitter laugh. It was his custom, too, as it has been that of many other pious Puritans, to fast,—not, however, like them, in order to purify the body and render it the fitter medium of celestial illumination,—but rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance. He kept vigils, likewise, night after night, sometimes in utter darkness; sometimes with a glimmering lamp; and sometimes, viewing his own face in a looking-glass, by the most powerful light which he could throw upon it. He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify, himself. In these lengthened vigils, his brain often reeled, and visions seemed to flit before him; perhaps seen doubtfully, and by a faint light of their own, in the remote dimness of the chamber, or more vividly, and close beside him, within the looking-glass. Now it was a herd of diabolic shapes, that grinned and mocked at the pale minister, and beckoned him away with them; now a group of shining angels, who flew upward heavily, as sorrow-laden, but grew more ethereal as they rose. Now came the dead friends of his youth, and his white-bearded father, with a saint-like frown, and his mother, turning her face away as she passed by. Ghost of a mother,—thinnest fantasy of a mother,—methinks she might yet have thrown a pitying glance towards her son! And now, through the chamber which these spectral thoughts had made so ghastly, glided Hester Prynne, leading along little Pearl, in her scarlet garb, and pointing her forefinger, first, at the scarlet letter on her bosom, and then at the clergyman’s own breast. His inner turmoil drove him to practices more familiar to the corrupted old Catholic Church than the reformed faith in which he had been raised. Locked away in Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet was a bloody whip. This Puritan had often whipped himself with it, laughing bitterly while he did, and then beating himself more brutally for his bitter laughter. He also fasted, as did other pious Puritans. But unlike these others, he did not fast to purify his body and make it a fitter vessel for holy inspiration. He fasted as an act of penance, until his knees trembled beneath him. He kept vigils night after night, sometimes in utter darkness, sometimes by a flickering light, and sometimes staring into a mirror while the light glared bright around him. These scenes symbolize the constant introspection through which he tortured, without purifying, himself. Visions often seemed to flit before him during these long vigils. Sometimes, these visions flickered vaguely in the dim corners of his room; sometimes they appeared more clearly, right beside him in the mirror. Now, devilish hordes grinned and mocked the pale minister, beckoning him to follow them. Now, a group of shining angels flew upward slowly, as though weighed down by their sorrow for him but growing lighter as they rose. Dead friends from his youth appeared, along with his white-bearded father with a saintlike frown and his mother, turning her face away as she passed. Though she was only a ghost, it would have been nice if she would throw her son a pitying glance! And now, across the terrible, ghost-filled room, glided Hester Prynne. She was leading her little Pearl in scarlet clothes and pointing her forefinger first at the scarlet letter on her own bosom and then at the clergyman’s breast.
None of these visions ever quite deluded him. At any moment, by an effort of his will, he could discern substances through their misty lack of substance, and convince himself that they were not solid in their nature, like yonder table of carved oak, or that big, square, leathern-bound and brazen-clasped volume of divinity. But, for all that, they were, in one sense, the truest and most substantial things which the poor minister now dealt with. It is the unspeakable misery of a life so false as his, that it steals the pith and substance out of whatever realities there are around us, and which were meant by Heaven to be the spirit’s joy and nutriment. To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,—it is impalpable,—it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist. The only truth, that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth, was the anguish in his inmost soul, and the undissembled expression of it in his aspect. Had he once found power to smile, and wear a face of gayety, there would have been no such man! These visions never completely fooled him. At any time, by concentrating, he could make out objects—such as a carved oak table, or a large, leather-bound and bronze-clasped book of divinity—which convinced him that the visions were not real. But in a way the visions were the truest and most solid things the poor minister now dealt with. The most unspeakably tragic thing about a false life like his is that it sucks the substance from the reality around us, robbing the meaning from all the things that Heaven intended as nourishment to enrich the spirit. To the false man, the whole universe is false, unreal. It shrinks to nothing in his hands. And this man, as long as he walks in the false light, becomes a shadow and ceases to exist. The only truth that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth was the anguish deep in his soul and the clear expression of its pain on his face. Had he found the power to force a smile—to pretend to be happy—he might have vanished forever!
On one of those ugly nights, which we have faintly hinted at, but forborne to picture forth, the minister started from his chair. A new thought had struck him. There might be a moment’s peace in it. Attiring himself with as much care as if it had been for public worship, and precisely in the same manner, he stole softly down the staircase, undid the door, and issued forth. On one of those ugly nights, which I have hinted at but have hesitated to fully describe, the minister leapt from his chair. Something occurred to him which just might provide him a moment of peace. He dressed himself as carefully as if he were going to lead a public worship, crept softly down the staircase, unlatched the door, and walked out.