Skip over navigation

The Scarlet Letter

Original Text

Modern Text

Walking in the shadow of a dream, as it were, and perhaps actually under the influence of a species of somnambulism, Mr. Dimmesdale reached the spot, where, now so long since, Hester Prynne had lived through her first hour of public ignominy. The same platform or scaffold, black and weather-stained with the storm or sunshine of seven long years, and foot-worn, too, with the tread of many culprits who had since ascended it, remained standing beneath the balcony of the meeting-house. The minister went up the steps. Walking, as if in a dream—perhaps actually sleep-walking—Mr. Dimmesdale reached the spot where long ago Hester Prynne had first been publicly shamed. The same platform was there, black and weather-stained after seven long years. It was worn, too, from the feet of the many guilty people who had ascended it since. The minister went up the steps.
It was an obscure night of early May. An unvaried pall of cloud muffled the whole expanse of sky from zenith to horizon. If the same multitude which had stood as eyewitnesses while Hester Prynne sustained her punishment could now have been summoned forth, they would have discerned no face above the platform, nor hardly the outline of a human shape, in the dark gray of the midnight. But the town was all asleep. There was no peril of discovery. The minister might stand there, if it so pleased him, until morning should redden in the east, without other risk than that the dank and chill night-air would creep into his frame, and stiffen his joints with rheumatism, and clog his throat with catarrh and cough; thereby defrauding the expectant audience of to-morrow’s prayer and sermon. No eye could see him, save that ever-wakeful one which had seen him in his closet, wielding the bloody scourge. Why, then, had he come hither? Was it but the mockery of penitence? A mockery, indeed, but in which his soul trifled with itself! A mockery at which angels blushed and wept, while fiends rejoiced, with jeering laughter! He had been driven hither by the impulse of that Remorse which dogged him everywhere, and whose own sister and closely linked companion was that Cowardice which invariably drew him back, with her tremulous gripe, just when the other impulse had hurried him to the verge of a disclosure. 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! 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. It was a dark night in early May. A thick layer of clouds covered the sky. If the same crowd that witnessed Hester Prynne’s punishment could have been summoned, they would barely have been able to see the outline of a human shape, much less a face above the platform, in the gray dark of midnight. But the town was asleep. There was no danger of discovery. If the minister wished to stand there until the sun rose in the east, the only risk he would face is the damp, cold night air creeping into his body, stiffening his joints with arthritis and making his throat sore. His congregation might be cheated of their morning prayers and sermon, but that would be the worst of it. The only eye that would see him was God’s, just as when he whipped himself in his closet. So why had he come there? Was it only to pretend to be sorry? Of course, that’s the same game his soul always played! And angels blushed and cried at this masquerade, while demons rejoiced with jeering laughter! He had been led there by the same feeling of remorse that followed him everywhere. But cowardice—the sister and close companion of remorse—drew him back with her trembling grip just as he was on the verge of confession. Poor, miserable man! Why should his weak spirit burden itself with crime? Crime is for the iron-nerved—those who can either endure the guilt or use their strength to confess and bring an end to their pain! This weak and sensitive spirit could do neither. But he always went back and forth, weaving Heaven-defying guilt and vain remorse into an unbreakable knot.
And thus, while standing on the scaffold, in this vain show of expiation, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain. Without any effort of his will, or power to restrain himself, he shrieked aloud; an outcry that went pealing through the night, and was beaten back from one house to another, and reverberated from the hills in the background; as if a company of devils detecting so much misery and terror in it, had made a plaything of the sound, and were bandying it to and fro. While standing on the platform in this futile charade of repentance, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with horror, as though the universe were staring at a scarlet mark on his breast, right over his heart. To tell the truth, there had long been a gnawing, poisonous pain in that spot. Without the will or power to restrain himself, he cried aloud. The cry rang out through the night, bouncing from one house to another and echoing off the distant hills. It was as though a horde of devils had made a toy out of the horrible, miserable outcry and were tossing it back and forth.
“It is done!” muttered the minister, covering his face with his hands. “The whole town will awake and hurry forth, and find me here!” “It is done!” muttered the minister, covering his face with his hands. “The whole town will awake and rush out to find me here!”
But it was not so. The shriek had perhaps sounded with a far greater power, to his own startled ears, than it actually possessed. The town did not awake; or, if it did, the drowsy slumberers mistook the cry either for something frightful in a dream, or for the noise of witches; whose voices, at that period, were often heard to pass over the settlements or lonely cottages, as they rode with Satan through the air. The clergyman therefore, hearing no symptoms of disturbance, uncovered his eyes and looked about him. At one of the chamber-windows of Governor Bellingham’s mansion which stood at some distance, on the line of another street, he beheld the appearance of the old magistrate himself, with a lamp in his hand, a white night-cap on his head, and a long white gown enveloping his figure. He looked like a ghost, evoked unseasonably from the grave. The cry had evidently startled him. At another window of the same house, moreover, appeared old Mistress Hibbins, the Governor’s sister, also with her a lamp, which, even thus far off, revealed the expression of her sour and discontented face. She thrust forth her head from the lattice, and looked anxiously upward. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, this venerable witch-lady had heard Mr. Dimmesdale’s outcry, and interpreted it, with its multitudinous echoes and reverberations, as the clamor of the fiends and night-hags, with whom she was well known to make excursions into the forest. But this didn’t happen. Perhaps the shriek sounded louder to him than it actually was. The town did not awake—or, if it did, the drowsy sleepers mistook the cry for a nightmare, or the sound of witches. At that time, witches were often heard as they rode with Satan above the settlements or lonely cottages. The minister, hearing no one stirring, uncovered his eyes and looked around. At one of the bedroom windows of Governor Bellingham’s mansion, some distance away, he saw the old magistrate himself with a lamp in his hand and nightcap on his head. He wore a long white gown that made him look like a ghost rising suddenly from the grave. The cry had evidently startled him. Old Mistress Hibbins, the Governor’s sister, appeared at another window of the same house. She also had a lamp. Even this far away, its light revealed her sour, unhappy face. She stuck her head out and looked anxiously upward. Without a doubt, this old witch-lady had heard Mr. Dimmesdale’s cry and interpreted it as the sound of the demons and witches she was known to spend time with in the forest.

More Help

Previous Next