The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Modern Text

It was only the darkened house that could contain her. When sunshine came again, she was not there. Her shadow had faded across the threshold. The helpful inmate had departed, without one backward glance to gather up the meed of gratitude, if any were in hearts of those whom she had served so zealously. Meeting them in the street, she never raised her head to receive their greeting. If they were resolute to accost her, she laid her finger on the scarlet letter, and passed on. This might be pride, but was so like humility, that it produced all the softening influence of the latter quality on the public mind. The public is despotic in its temper; it is capable of denying common justice, when too strenuously demanded as a right; but quite as frequently it awards more than justice, when the appeal is made, as despots love to have it made, entirely to its generosity. Interpreting Hester Prynne’s deportment as an appeal of this nature, society was inclined to show its former victim a more benign countenance than she cared to be favored with, or, perchance, than she deserved. But only a house of sickness or sadness could hold her. When life brightened again, she was no longer there. Her shadow faded from the doorway. The helper departed without looking back for any sign of gratitude in the hearts of those she had served. When she passed them on the street, she never raised her head to greet them. If they persisted in approaching her, she pointed to the scarlet letter and walked on by. Hester may have been acting this way out of pride, but it seemed so much like humility that the public reacted as though it truly were. The public often acts like a fickle king. When justice is called for too aggressively, the public will often deny it. But that same public often goes overboard—just as a king would—in granting justice when the appeal is made to its generosity. Thinking that Hester Prynne’s actions were an appeal to its generous nature, society was inclined to be more kind than she wanted, or perhaps than she even deserved.
The rulers, and the wise and learned men of the community, were longer in acknowledging the influence of Hester’s good qualities than the people. The prejudices which they shared in common with the latter were fortified in themselves by an iron framework of reasoning, that made it a far tougher labor to expel them. Day by day, nevertheless, their sour and rigid wrinkles were relaxing into something which, in the due course of years, might grow to be an expression of almost benevolence. Thus it was with the men of rank, on whom their eminent position imposed the guardianship of the public morals. Individuals in private life, meanwhile, had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay, more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin, for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since. “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!” Then, it is true, the propensity of human nature to tell the very worst of itself, when embodied in the person of another, would constrain them to whisper the black scandal of bygone years. 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. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness, which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril. Had she fallen among thieves, it would have kept her safe. It was reported, and believed by many, that an Indian had drawn his arrow against the badge, and that the missile struck it, but fell harmless to the ground. The rulers—the wise and learned men of the community—took longer than the common people to acknowledge Hester’s good qualities. They shared the same prejudices as the rest of the community, and their rigorous reasoning worked to hold those prejudices firmly in place. Yet, day by day, their sour faces relaxed into something that might eventually become a kind expression. The same was true for the men of high status, whose lofty positions made them the guardians of public virtue. But almost everyone had privately forgiven Hester Prynne for her human weakness. Even more than that, they had begun to look at the scarlet letter not as the symbol of one sin but as a symbol of the many good deeds she had done since. “Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge?” they would ask strangers. “That’s our Hester—our own Hester—who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so generous to the troubled!” Truly, the same human tendency to proclaim the worst when embodied in others also restrains them to only whisper about the scandals of the past. Nonetheless, even in the eyes of the very same men who talk about the sins of others, the scarlet letter had the effect of a cross on a nun’s bosom. It gave the wearer a kind of holiness, enabling her to walk safely though all kinds of danger. It would have kept her safe if she had fallen prey to thieves. It was rumored—and many believed it—that an Indian’s arrow had struck the letter and fallen harmlessly to the ground.
The effect of the symbol—or rather, of the position in respect to society that was indicated by it—on the mind of Hester Prynne herself, was powerful and peculiar. All the light and graceful foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and had long ago fallen away, leaving a bare and harsh outline, which might have been repulsive, had she possessed friends or companions to be repelled by it. Even the attractiveness of her person had undergone a similar change. It might be partly owing to the studied austerity of her dress, and partly to the lack of demonstration in her manners. It was a sad transformation, too, that her rich and luxuriant hair had either been cut off, or was so completely hidden by a cap, that not a shining lock of it ever once gushed into the sunshine. It was due in part to all these causes, but still more to something else, that there seemed to be no longer any thing in Hester’s face for Love to dwell upon; nothing in Hester’s form, though majestic and statue-like, that Passion would ever dream of clasping in its embrace; nothing in Hester’s bosom, to make it ever again the pillow of Affection. 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 transfiguration. We shall see whether Hester Prynne were ever afterwards so touched, and so transfigured. The symbol—or, rather of the position in society that it signaled—had a powerful and strange effect on the mind of Hester Prynne. All the light and graceful aspects of her character had been burned away by this flame-colored letter. Only a bare, harsh outline remained, like a tree that has lost its leaves. If she’d had any friends or companions, they might have been repelled by it. Even her lovely features had changed. The change might be partly due to the deliberate plainness of her clothing, and to her reserved manners. Her luxurious hair had been sadly transformed, as well: either cut off or so completely hidden beneath her cap that net even a lock of it ever saw the sun. Partly for these reasons, though more so for another reason, it seemed that there was no longer anything lovely in Hester’s face. Her form, though majestic and statuesque, evoked no passion. Her bosom incited no thoughts of affection. Something had left her—some essential womanly quality. This stern change is often what happens when a woman lives through a tough time. She won’t survive the experience if she is too tender. But if she does survive, any tenderness will either be crushed out of her or—what is essentially the same—buried so deeply inside her that it can never be seen again. Most often, it is buried. It would take a miracle for a woman who has been hardened in this way to become womanly once again. We’ll see whether Hester ever received such a miracle, such a transformation.