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The Scarlet Letter

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After many days, when time sufficed for the people to arrange their thoughts in reference to the foregoing scene, there was more than one account of what had been witnessed on the scaffold. After several days, when enough time had passed for people to gather their thoughts, there was more than one account of what they had seen on the platform.
Most of the spectators testified to having seen, on the breast of the unhappy minister, a scarlet letter—the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne—imprinted in the flesh. As regarded its origin, there were various explanations, all of which must necessarily have been conjectural. Some affirmed that the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, on the very day when Hester Prynne first wore her ignominious badge, had begun a course of penance,—which he afterwards, in so many futile methods, followed out,—by inflicting hideous torture on himself. Others contended that the stigma had not been produced until a long time subsequent, when old Roger Chillingworth, being a potent necromancer, had caused it to appear, through the agency of magic and poisonous drugs. Others, again—and those best able to appreciate the minister’s peculiar sensibility, and the wonderful operation of his spirit upon the body,—whispered their belief, that the awful symbol was the effect of the ever active tooth of remorse, gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly, and at last manifesting Heaven’s dreadful judgment by the visible presence of the letter. The reader may choose among these theories. We have thrown all the light we could acquire upon the portent, and would gladly, now that it has done its office, erase its deep print out of our own brain; where long meditation has fixed it in very undesirable distinctness. Most of the crowd claimed to have seen a scarlet letter on the breast of the sorrowful minister—looking exactly the same as the one worn by Hester Prynne—imprinted in his flesh. There were many explanations for it, none better than a guess. Some said that the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, on the very day when Hester Prynne first wore her badge of shame, had begun a regimen of penance by inflicting a series of hideous tortures upon himself. Others said that the mark appeared much later, when old Roger Chillingworth—a powerful sorcerer—produced it with his magic drugs. Others, who could best appreciate the minister’s peculiar sensitivity and the way his spirit worked on his body, whispered that the awful symbol was the effect of his constant remorse. They said the remorse had gnawed outward from his heart until finally the letter rendered Heaven’s dreadful judgment visible upon his breast. You are free to choose among these stories. I have learned all that I could about the symbol. Now that it has had its effect, I would be glad to erase its deep mark from my own brain. I have thought about the sign for so long that it is now uncomfortably distinct in my mind.
It is singular, nevertheless, that certain persons, who were spectators of the whole scene, and professed never once to have removed their eyes from the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, denied that there was any mark whatever on his breast, more than on a new-born infant’s. Neither, by their report, had his dying words acknowledged, nor even remotely implied, any, the slightest connection, on his part, with the guilt for which Hester Prynne had so long worn the scarlet letter. According to these highly respectable witnesses, the minister, conscious that he was dying,—conscious, also, that the reverence of the multitude placed him already among saints and angels,—had desired, by yielding up his breath in the arms of that fallen woman, to express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man’s own righteousness. After exhausting life in his efforts for mankind’s spiritual good, he had made the manner of his death a parable, in order to impress on his admirers the mighty and mournful lesson, that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike. It was to teach them, that the holiest among us has but attained so far above his fellows as to discern more clearly the Mercy which looks down, and repudiate more utterly the phantom of human merit, which would look aspiringly upward. Without disputing a truth so momentous, we must be allowed to consider this version of Mr. Dimmesdale’s story as only an instance of that stubborn fidelity with which a man’s friends—and especially a clergyman’s—will sometimes uphold his character; when proofs, clear as the mid-day sunshine on the scarlet letter, establish him a false and sin-stained creature of the dust. Still, it is curious that several people who witnessed the whole scene, and claimed to have never taken their eyes off the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, denied that there was a mark at all on his breast. They said he was as bare as a newborn. They also said his dying words never acknowledged, nor even implied, any connection with the guilty act for which Hester Prynne had worn the scarlet letter all this time. These highly respectable witnesses said that the minister, knowing that he was dying and that the people thought him the equal of saints and angels, had breathed his last in the arms of that sinful woman as a way of expressing the futility of human righteousness. After spending his life working for mankind’s spiritual good, he had made his death into a parable. He wished to impress upon his admirers the strong, sorrowful message that, in the view of the pure God, we are all equally sinners. He tried to teach them that even the holiest among us has only learned enough to understand more clearly the scope of divine mercy and to completely abandon the illusion of human goodness in the eyes of God. While I don’t want to dispute the truth of such a powerful lesson, more than anything that version of Mr. Dimmesdale’s story provides evidence of the stubborn lengths to which a man’s friends—and especially a clergyman’s friends—will sometimes go to defend his character against even the clearest proofs that he is a deceitful, sinful man.
The authority which we have chiefly followed—a manuscript of old date, drawn up from the verbal testimony of individuals, some of whom had known Hester Prynne, while others had heard the tale from contemporary witnesses—fully confirms the view taken in the foregoing pages. Among many morals which press upon us from the poor minister’s miserable experience, we put only this into a sentence:—“Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” In telling this story, I have mostly relied on an old manuscript drawn from the testimony of individuals. Some of these people had known Hester Prynne, while others had heard the story from contemporary witnesses. The document fully confirms the view that I have taken in these pages. Among many morals that I could draw from the tale, I choose this: “Be true! Be true! If you will not show the world your worst, at least show some quality that suggests to others the worst in you!”
Nothing was more remarkable than the change which took place, almost immediately after Mr. Dimmesdale’s death, in the appearance and demeanour of the old man known as Roger Chillingworth. All his strength and energy—all his vital and intellectual force—seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shrivelled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun. This unhappy man had made the very principle of his life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of revenge; and when, by its completest triumph and consummation, that evil principle was left with no further material to support it,—when, in short, there was no more Devil’s work on earth for him to do, it only remained for the unhumanized mortal to betake himself whither his Master would find him tasks enough, and pay him his wages duly. But, to all these shadowy beings, so long our near acquaintances,—as well Roger Chillingworth as his companions—we would fain be merciful. It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. Each, in its utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another; each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his object. Philosophically considered, therefore, the two passions seem essentially the same, except that one happens to be seen in a celestial radiance, and the other in a dusky and lurid glow. In the spiritual world, the old physician and the minister—mutual victims as they have been—may, unawares, have found their earthly stock of hatred and antipathy transmuted into golden love. After Mr. Dimmesdale’s death, a remarkable change took place in the appearance and personality of the old man known as Roger Chillingworth. All his strength and energy, all his physical and intellectual force, seemed to leave him at once. He withered up, shriveled away, and almost vanished from human sight, like an uprooted weed that wilts in the sun. This sad man had made the pursuit of revenge the one mission in his life. When that evil aim had achieved its ultimate end—when there was no more Devil’s work left for him on earth—there was nothing for that inhuman man to do but return to his master. But I would like show some mercy to Roger Chillingworth, as I would to all of these characters that I have known for so long now. The question of whether hatred and love are not, in the end, the same is worth investigation. Each requires a great deal of intimacy to reach full development. Each requires that one person depend on another for their emotional and spiritual life. Each leaves the passionate lover—or the passionate hater—abandoned and depressed when his subject departs. And so, considered philosophically, the two passions seem essentially the same. One is thought of with a heavenly glow, while the other seems dark and disturbing. But they are remarkably similar. Perhaps, in the afterlife, the old doctor and the minister—each the victim of the other—found their earthly hatred transformed into golden love.

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