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The Scarlet Letter

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Much of the marble coldness of Hester’s impression was to be attributed to the circumstance that her life had turned, in a great measure, from passion and feeling, to thought. Standing alone in the world,—alone, as to any dependence on society, and with little Pearl to be guided and protected—alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even had she not scorned to consider it desirable,—she cast away the fragments of a broken chain. The world’s law was no law for her mind. It was an age in which the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a more active and a wider range than for many centuries before. Men of the sword had overthrown nobles and kings. Men bolder than these had overthrown and rearranged—not actually, but within the sphere of theory, which was their most real abode—the whole system of ancient prejudice, wherewith was linked much of ancient principle. Hester Prynne imbibed this spirit. She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter. In her lonesome cottage, by the seashore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door. Much of the stone-like coldness of Hester’s appearance could be attributed to the fact that she had gone from a life of passion and feeling to one of quiet thought. She stood alone in the world. She had little Pearl to guide and protect, without the help of the society around her. She had no hope of recovering her former social status, even if she had wanted to. She had cast aside her link to society like pieces of a broken chain. The world’s law did not restrict her mind. This was an age when men had freed the mind from many centuries of tradition. Kings and nobility had been overthrown by revolution. Bolder men than the revolutionary soldiers had, in their writings at least, overthrown the entire system of ancient philosophy and its ancient prejudices. Hester had immersed herself in this spirit. She assumed a freedom of thought that was typical enough for Europe at the time but one that our Puritan forefathers would have considered a crime deadlier than the one marked by the scarlet letter. The thoughts that visited Hester in her lonely cottage by the seashore would not have dared to visit any other New England home. These shadowy guests would have been as dangerous to Hester as demons, if others could have seen them knocking at her door.
It is remarkable, that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society. The thought suffices them, without investing itself in the flesh and blood of action. So it seemed to be with Hester. Yet, had little Pearl never come to her from the spiritual world, it might have been far otherwise. Then, she might have come down to us in history, hand in hand with Ann Hutchinson, as the foundress of a religious sect. She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess. She might, and not improbably would, have suffered death from the stern tribunals of the period, for attempting to undermine the foundations of the Puritan establishment. But, in the education of her child, the mother’s enthusiasm of thought had something to wreak itself upon. Providence, in the person of this little girl, had assigned to Hester’s charge the germ and blossom of womanhood, to be cherished and developed amid a host of difficulties. Every thing was against her. The world was hostile. The child’s own nature had something wrong in it, which continually betokened that she had been born amiss,—the effluence of her mother’s lawless passion,—and often impelled Hester to ask, in bitterness of heart, whether it were for ill or good that the poor little creature had been born at all. It’s remarkable that the most freethinking people are often perfectly happy to conform to the various social conventions. Thought gives them their freedom, without converting it into physical action. This seemed to be the way with Hester. But this might not have been the case, if little Pearl had not descended from Heaven to join her. Otherwise, Hester might have gone down in history as the founder of religious sect, just like Ann Hutchinson. She might have become a prophet. More likely, church leaders would have executed her for undermining their Puritan establishment. But instead Hester’s enthusiasm was expressed in the education of her child. God had placed this bud of womanhood in Hester’s care, to be cherished and nurtured through life’s many difficulties. Everything was against her. The world was a hostile place. The child’s own perverse nature constantly hinted that she had been conceived in a fit of her mother’s lawless passion. Hester would often bitterly ask whether it was for good or bad that the little creature had been born.
Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind, with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth accepting, even to the happiest among them? As concerned her own individual existence, she had long ago decided in the negative, and dismissed the point as settled. A tendency to speculation, though it may keep woman quiet, as it does man, yet makes her sad. She discerns, it may be, such a hopeless task before her. As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position. Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated. A woman never overcomes these problems by any exercise of thought. They are not to be solved, or only in one way. If her heart chance to come upper-most, they vanish. Thus, Hester Prynne, whose heart had lost its regular and healthy throb, wandered without a clew in the dark labyrinth of mind; now turned aside by an insurmountable precipice; now starting back from a deep chasm. There was wild and ghastly scenery all around her, and a home and comfort nowhere. At times, a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl at once to Heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide. Hester asked the same question about all women. Was life worth the trouble to even the happiest woman? As for herself, she had decided long ago that it was not. Though the tendency to think too much may keep a woman quiet as it does so many men, it also makes her sad. Perhaps she understands the hopeless task ahead of her. First, the whole system of society must be torn down and built again. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex—or at least the habit passed down from generations—must be modified so that women can assume a fair position in society. And once all of these barriers have been lifted, a woman cannot take advantage of the reforms unless she herself has undergone an even greater change in the core of her being. A woman cannot overcome these problems through thought alone. They are not to be solved—or perhaps they have only one solution. If a woman’s heart can rise above them, the problems vanish. So Hester Prynne, whose heart had lost its regular, healthy beat, wandered without purpose through the dark maze of her mind, thwarted by tall mountains and deep pitfalls. The scenery around her was wild and terrifying, and comfort was nowhere to be found. At times, a fearful doubt griped her: Would it be better to send Pearl immediately to Heaven, and go herself to whatever fate eternity had in store for her?

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