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The Scarlet Letter

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Arthur Dimmesdale gazed into Hester’s face with a look in which hope and joy shone out, indeed, but with fear betwixt them, and a kind of horror at her boldness, who had spoken what he vaguely hinted at, but dared not speak. Arthur Dimmesdale gazed into Hester’s face with a look of hope and joy—yet there was fear and a kind of shock at her boldness     in speaking what he had hinted at but did not dare to say.
But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to decide their fate. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church. The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss. But Hester Prynne had a naturally active and courageous mind. She had been outlawed from society for so long that she had become used to a freedom of thought that was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered in a moral wilderness, without rule or guidance—a wilderness as vast, dark, and complex as the untamed forest in which they were now together. Her mind and heart were at home in uninhabited places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For many years now she had looked at human institutions from this isolated point of view. She criticized it all with almost as little reverence as an Indian would feel for the ministry or the judiciary, the many forms of ritual punishment, the fireside around which families gathered, or the church in which they prayed. Her fate had set her free from all. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not go. Shame, despair, and solitude had been her stern and wild teachers. They had made her strong, but they had often guided her poorly.
The minister, on the other hand, had never gone through an experience calculated to lead him beyond the scope of generally received laws; although, in a single instance, he had so fearfully transgressed one of the most sacred of them. But this had been a sin of passion, not of principle, nor even purpose. Since that wretched epoch, he had watched, with morbid zeal and minuteness, not his acts,—for those it was easy to arrange,—but each breath of emotion, and his every thought. At the head of the social system, as the clergymen of that day stood, he was only the more trammelled by its regulations, its principles, and even its prejudices. As a priest, the framework of his order inevitably hemmed him in. As a man who had once sinned, but who kept his conscience all alive and painfully sensitive by the fretting of an unhealed wound, he might have been supposed safer within the line of virtue, than if he had never sinned at all. The minister, on the other hand, had never experienced anything to lead him beyond the scope of social authority—though he had once violated that authority quite gravely. But that had been a sin of passion, not a matter of choosing the wrong principle to follow or even of making a deliberate choice at all. Since that awful time, he had kept an obsessively close watch not only over his acts—for those were easy to control—but over each emotion and passing thought he experienced. In those days, the clergyman stood at the head of the social system. And so Mr. Dimmesdale was all the more trodden down by society’s regulations, its principles, and even its prejudices. As a priest, the framework of order inevitably constrained him. As a man who had once sinned, and then kept his conscience alive and painfully sensitive by worrying over the unhealed spiritual wound, it might be the case the he was less likely to step out of line than if he had never sinned at all.
Thus, we seem to see that, as regarded Hester Prynne, the whole seven years of outlaw and ignominy had been little other than a preparation for this very hour. But Arthur Dimmesdale! Were such a man once more to fall, what plea could be urged in extenuation of his crime? None; unless it avail him somewhat, that he was broken down by long and exquisite suffering; that his mind was darkened and confused by the very remorse which harrowed it; that, between fleeing as an avowed criminal, and remaining as a hypocrite, conscience might find it hard to strike the balance; that it was human to avoid the peril of death and infamy, and the inscrutable machinations of an enemy; that, finally, to this poor pilgrim, on his dreary and desert path, faint, sick, miserable, there appeared a glimpse of human affection and sympathy, a new life, and a true one, in exchange for the heavy doom which he was now expiating. And be the stern and sad truth spoken, that the breach which guilt has once made into the human soul is never, in this mortal state, repaired. It may be watched and guarded; so that the enemy shall not force his way again into the citadel, and might even, in his subsequent assaults, select some other avenue, in preference to that where he had formerly succeeded. But there is still the ruined wall, and, near it, the stealthy tread of the foe that would win over again his unforgotten triumph. And so it seems that for Hester Prynne, her seven years of isolation and shame had only prepared her for this very moment. But Arthur Dimmesdale! If such a man were to sin again, what plea could be made to excuse his crime? None, except that he was broken down by long, intense suffering. Perhaps it could be said that any conscience would have trouble choosing between fleeing as a confessed criminal and remaining as a hypocrite. And it is only human to avoid the dangers of death and shame and the mysterious plotting of an enemy. Moreover, this poor man, wandering exhausted, sick, and miserable down his lonely, dreary path, this man had finally caught a glimpse of human affection and sympathy. He had seen a new life, a true one, which could be traded for the heavy sentence he was now serving. And, truth be told, a soul that guilt has entered can never be repaired in this life. It is like a defeated castle: It may be watched and guarded so that the enemy will not enter once again. But the ruined wall remains, and close by is the foe who wishes to triumph once again.
The struggle, if there were one, need not be described. Let it suffice, that the clergyman resolved to flee, and not alone. If there was a struggle in the clergyman’s soul, it need not be described. Suffice it to say that he resolved to flee—and not alone.
“If, in all these past seven years,” thought he, “I could recall one instant of peace or hope, I would yet endure, for the sake of that earnest of Heaven’s mercy. But now,—since I am irrevocably doomed,—wherefore shouId I not snatch the solace allowed to the condemned culprit before his execution? Or, if this be the path to a better life, as Hester would persuade me, I surely give up no fairer prospect by pursuing it! Neither can I any longer live without her companionship; so powerful is she to sustain,—so tender to soothe! O Thou to whom I dare not lift mine eyes, wilt Thou yet pardon me!” “If in all these last seven years,” he thought, “I could remember one instant of peace or hope, then I would remain here because of that sign of Heaven’s mercy. But now, since I am doomed beyond salvation, why shouldn’t I enjoy the relief allowed to the condemned criminal before he is put to death? Or if this is the path to a better life, as Hester says it is, then surely I am not giving anything up to pursue it! And I can no longer live without her companionship: Her power sustains me, and her tenderness soothes me! O God, to whom I dare not lift my eyes, will you pardon me?”

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