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The Scarlet Letter

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The scene was not without a mixture of awe, such as must always invest the spectacle of guilt and shame in a fellow-creature, before society shall have grown corrupt enough to smile, instead of shuddering, at it. The witnesses of Hester Prynne’s disgrace had not yet passed beyond their simplicity. They were stern enough to look upon her death, had that been the sentence, without a murmur at its severity, but had none of the heartlessness of another social state, which would find only a theme for jest in an exhibition like the present. Even had there been a disposition to turn the matter into ridicule, it must have been repressed and overpowered by the solemn presence of men no less dignified than the Governor, and several of his counsellors, a judge, a general, and the ministers of the town; all of whom sat or stood in a balcony of the meeting-house, looking down upon the platform. When such personages could constitute a part of the spectacle, without risking the majesty or reverence of rank and office, it was safely to be inferred that the infliction of a legal sentence would have an earnest and effectual meaning. Accordingly, the crowd was sombre and grave. The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and concentred at her bosom. It was almost intolerable to be borne. Of an impulsive and passionate nature, she had fortified herself to encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely, wreaking itself in every variety of insult; but there was a quality so much more terrible in the solemn mood of the popular mind, that she longed rather to behold all those rigid countenances contorted with scornful merriment, and herself the object. Had a roar of laughter burst from the multitude,—each man, each woman, each little shrill-voiced child, contributing their individual parts,—Hester Prynne might have repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful smile. But, under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to endure, she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once. The scene was somewhat awful, as spectacles of guilt and shame always are, until that time when society becomes so corrupt that it laughs when it should be shuddering. The witnesses of Hester Prynne’s disgrace were still simple, innocent folk. They were stern enough to have watched her execution—had she been sentenced to die—without uttering a word about the cruelty of it. But they were not so heartless as to joke about the matter. And even if they had wanted to laugh, the presence of the governor and his advisers, a judge, a general, and the town’s ministers standing in the church balcony would have kept them quiet. When important men like these could participate in this kind of event without risking their reputations, it signified that these sentences were a serious matter. The crowd was fittingly solemn, and the unhappy criminal handled herself as best a woman could with a thousand merciless eyes fixated on her bosom. The situation was nearly intolerable. Impulsive and passionate by nature, Hester Prynne had prepared herself for the stings and stabs of public scorn, which might come in any variety of insult. But the gloomy, serious mood of the crowd was much worse. She wished that everyone would laugh and shout at her instead. If they had only laughed, Hester Prynne could return a bitter, disdainful smile. But under the heavy weight of their solemnity, she felt at times that she would either cry out with all her might and hurl herself off of the platform or else go mad.
Yet there were intervals when the whole scene, in which she was the most conspicuous object, seemed to vanish from her eyes, or, at least, glimmered indistinctly before them, like a mass of imperfectly shaped and spectral images. Her mind, and especially her memory, was preternaturally active, and kept bringing up other scenes than this roughly hewn street of a little town, on the edge of the Western wilderness; other faces than were lowering upon her from beneath the brims of those steeple-crowned hats. Reminiscences, the most trifling and immaterial, passages of infancy and school-days, sports, childish quarrels, and the little domestic traits of her maiden years, came swarming back upon her, intermingled with recollections of whatever was gravest in her subsequent life; one picture precisely as vivid as another; as if all were of similar importance, or all alike a play. Possibly, it was an instinctive device of her spirit, to relieve itself, by the exhibition of these phantasmagoric forms, from the cruel weight and hardness of the reality. But at other times the entire scene, in which she played the largest part, seemed to vanish before her eyes or flicker like a ghostly vision. Hester Prynne’s mind and memory were hyperactive. She kept recalling scenes far removed from this small town on the edge of the wilderness and faces other than those glowering at her now. The silliest and slightest memories came back to her: moments from her infancy, childhood, and the early days of her adulthood all came flooding through, mixed up with more serious and more recent memories. Each memory was as vivid as the next, as if they were all equally important or all equally unreal, like scenes in a play. Maybe her spirit was instinctively relieving itself from the cruelness of reality by showing her these fantasies.
Be that as it might, the scaffold of the pillory was a point of view that revealed to Hester Prynne the entire track along which she had been treading, since her happy infancy. Standing on that miserable eminence, she saw again her native village, in Old England, and her paternal home; a decayed house of gray stone, with a poverty-stricken aspect, but retaining a half-obliterated shield of arms over the portal, in token of antique gentility. She saw her father’s face, with its bald brow, and reverend white beard, that flowed over the old-fashioned Elizabethan ruff; her mother’s, too, with the look of heedful and anxious love which it always wore in her remembrance, and which, even since her death, had so often laid the impediment of a gentle remonstrance in her daughter’s pathway. She saw her own face, glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating all the interior of the dusky mirror in which she had been wont to gaze at it. There she beheld another countenance, of a man well stricken in years, a pale, thin, scholar-like visage, with eyes dim and bleared by the lamp-light that had served them to pore over many ponderous books. Yet those same bleared optics had strange, penetrating power, when it was their owner’s purpose to read the human soul. This figure of the study and the cloister, as Hester Prynne’s womanly fancy failed not to recall, was slightly deformed, with the left shoulder a trifle higher than the right. Next rose before her, in memory’s picture-gallery, the intricate and narrow thoroughfares, the tall, gray houses, the huge cathedrals, and the public edifices, ancient in date and quaint in architecture, of a Continental city; where a new life had awaited her, still in connection with the misshapen scholar; a new life, but feeding itself on time-worn materials, like a tuft of green moss on a crumbling wall. Lastly, in lieu of these shifting scenes, came back the rude market-place of the Puritan settlement, with all the townspeople assembled and levelling their stern regards at Hester Prynne,—yes, at herself,—who stood on the scaffold of the pillory, an infant on her arm, and the letter A, in scarlet, fantastically embroidered with gold thread, upon her bosom! Be that as it may, the scaffold now revealed the path of Hester Prynne’s life. Standing on that unhappy stage, she saw her hometown in England and the home in which she grew up. That crumbling house of gray stone looked poor, but the half-visible coat of arms that hung over the doorway indicated a former nobility. She saw her father’s face, with its bold forehead and venerable white beard flowing over an Elizabethan

ruff

Stiff collar worn by both men and women in the 16th and 17th centuries.

ruff
. She saw her mother’s face too, with its look of anxious and earnest love, which had served as a gentle guide to Hester even after her mother’s death. Hester also saw her own face glowing with girlish beauty, lighting up the mirror into which she had often gazed. But she saw another face in that mirror: the pale, thin face of a man whose years had worn on him, the weary face and bleary eyes of a scholar who had read many books. Yet those same bleary eyes had a strange, penetrating power that could see into a human soul. Hester Prynne couldn’t help but remember this monkish figure, slightly deformed with his left shoulder a touch higher than his right. The next image that came to her mind was of a continental city, with intricate, narrow streets; tall gray houses; huge cathedrals; and ancient public buildings. A new life had awaited her there, still connected to the misshapen scholar—a new life, but one that fed off of the past, like a tuft of moss on a crumbling wall. Finally, in place of these shifting scenes, came the image of the primitive marketplace of the Puritan settlement, where all the townspeople had gathered to point their stern gazes at Hester Prynne. She stood on the platform of the pillory, an infant on her arm and the letter A—surrounded in scarlet and wonderfully embroidered with gold thread—upon her bosom!

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