The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

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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. But he clasped both his hands over his breast, and cast his eyes towards the zenith. Little Pearl’s eyes took on a bewitched look. As she glanced up at the minister, her face wore that naughty, elfish smile. She pulled her hand back from Mr. Dimmesdale’s and pointed across the street. But he clasped both his hands over his breast and looked up at the sky.
Nothing was more common, in those days, than to interpret all meteoric appearances, and other natural phenomena, that occurred with less regularity than the rise and set of sun and moon, as so many revelations from a supernatural source. Thus, a blazing spear, a sword of flame, a bow, or a sheaf of arrows, seen in the midnight sky, prefigured Indian warfare. Pestilence was known to have been foreboded by a shower of crimson light. We doubt whether any marked event, for good or evil, ever befell New England, from its settlement down to Revolutionary times, of which the inhabitants had not been previously warned by some spectacle of this nature. Not seldom, it had been seen by multitudes. Oftener, however, its credibility rested on the faith of some lonely eyewitness, who beheld the wonder through the colored, magnifying, and distorting medium of his imagination, and shaped it more distinctly in his after-thought. 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 infant 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! In such a case, it could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a man, rendered morbidly self-contemplative by long, intense, and secret pain, had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul’s history and fate. It was common in those days for people to interpret meteors and other natural phenomena as divine revelation. If something like a blazing spear, sword of flame, bow, or sheaf of arrows was seen in the midnight sky, it foretold war with the Indians. A shower of crimson light meant disease was coming. I doubt that any significant event, whether good or bad, ever occurred in New England without the inhabitants claiming they had been warned by some sort of sign. Many times, multitudes claimed to have seen the spectacle. More often, though, evidence rested with a single, lonely eyewitness, who viewed the event through the distortions of his imagination then shaped it more clearly afterward. What a magnificent idea that the fates of nations should be written in these heavenly symbols. God must not have thought such a wide scroll as the sky was too big to use for writing down a people’s destiny. This belief was a favorite of our forefathers, since it suggested that God kept a close watch over their young commonwealth. But what can we say when a revelation addressed to just one person is written on that same giant scroll? That discovery could only be the symptom of insanity. It would show that the individual, so self-absorbed after a long, intense, and secret pain, had extended his egotism a step further, until the sky itself appeared nothing more than a record of his own history and fate.
We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own eye and heart, that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter,—the letter A,—marked out in lines of dull red light. Not but the meteor may have shown itself at that point, burning duskily through a veil of cloud; but with no such shape as his guilty imagination gave it; or, at least, with so little definiteness, that another’s guilt might have seen another symbol in it. So when the minister, looking up toward the meteor, thought he saw a vast letter A drawn in lines of dull red light, it had to be his self-absorbed heart playing tricks on his eyes. Not that the meteor was not visible at the time, burning behind a cloudy veil. But someone else’s imagination could have easily seen in it the image of his own guilt, and not the minister’s.
There was a singular circumstance that characterized Mr. Dimmesdale’s psychological state, at this moment. All the time that he gazed upward to the zenith, he was, nevertheless, perfectly aware that little Pearl was pointing her finger towards old Roger Chillingworth, who stood at no great distance from the scaffold. The minister appeared to see him, with the same glance that discerned the miraculous letter. 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. 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. There was one thing on Mr. Dimmesdale’s mind just then. All the while that he stared up at the meteor, he knew that little Pearl was pointing toward old Roger Chillingworth standing near the platform. The minister seemed to see him at the same time that he saw the miraculous letter in the sky. The meteor cast Roger Chillingworth in a new light, as it did the rest of the world—or perhaps the doctor was simply less careful than usual to mask his hatred for the minister. If the meteor lit up the sky with a horror suggesting Judgment Day, then Roger Chillingworth might have stood in for the Devil himself, smiling as souls were cast into Hell. His expression—or at least the minister’s perception of it—was so intense that it seemed to glow even after the light from the meteor had faded and left the rest of the scene in darkness.
“Who is that man, Hester?” gasped Mr. Dimmesdale, overcome with terror. “I shiver at him! Dost thou know the man? I hate him, Hester!” “Who is that man, Hester?” gasped Mr. Dimmesdale, overcome with terror. “The sight of him makes me shiver! Do you know who he is? I hate him, Hester!”
She remembered her oath, and was silent. She remembered her vow and remained silent.
“I tell thee, my soul shivers at him,” muttered the minister again. “Who is he? Who is he? Canst thou do nothing for me? I have a nameless horror of the man.” “I tell you, the sight of him makes my soul shiver!” the minister muttered once again. “Who is he? Who is he? Can’t you help me? I am terribly afraid of the man!”
“Minister,” said little Pearl, “I can tell thee who he is!” “Minister,” said little Pearl, “I can tell you who he is!”
“Quickly, then, child!” said the minister, bending his ear close to her lips. “Quickly!—and as low as thou canst whisper.” “Quickly then, child!” said the minister, bending his ear close to her lips. “Quickly!—and as soft as you can whisper.”
Pearl mumbled something into his ear, that sounded, indeed, like human language, but was only such gibberish as children may be heard amusing themselves with, by the hour together. At all events, if it involved any secret information in regard to old Roger Chillingworth, it was in a tongue unknown to the erudite clergyman, and did but increase the bewilderment of his mind. The elvish child then laughed aloud. Pearl mumbled something into his ear. It sounded like a human language but was only the sort of gibberish that children often use when playing together. In any case, if her babbling contained any secret information about old Roger Chillingworth, it was spoken in a language the learned clergyman didn’t understand. This only made him more confused. The elf-child laughed out loud.