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The Scarlet Letter

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“I know not Lethe nor Nepenthe,” remarked he; “but I have learned many new secrets in the wilderness, and here is one of them,—a recipe that an Indian taught me, in requital of some lessons of my own, that were as old as Paracelsus. Drink it! It may be less soothing than a sinless conscience. That I cannot give thee. But it will calm the swell and heaving of thy passion, like oil thrown on the waves of a tempestuous sea.” “I don’t know about

Lethe

River in Greek mythology, whose waters bring about forgetfulness.

Lethe
or

Nepenthe

Drug, perhaps made of opium, that eases sorrow.

Nepenthe
,” he said, “but I have learned many new secrets in the woods. This is one of them. An Indian taught me the recipe, in return for teaching him some medicines that were as old as

Paraclesus

Swiss physician and philosopher.

Paraclesus
. Drink it! It may be less soothing than a sinless conscience, but I can’t give you that. But it will calm the storm of your passion, like oil thrown on the waves of a stormy sea.”
He presented the cup to Hester, who received it with a slow, earnest look into his face; not precisely a look of fear, yet full of doubt and questioning, as to what his purposes might be. She looked also at her slumbering child. He gave the cup to Hester. As she took it, she gave his face a slow and serious look. She wasn’t exactly afraid, but she was full of doubt and confusion. She looked over to her sleeping child.
“I have thought of death,” said she,—“have wished for it,—would even have prayed for it, were it fit that such as I should pray for any thing. Yet, if death be in this cup, I bid thee think again, ere thou beholdest me quaff it. See! It is even now at my lips.” “I have thought about death,” she said, “wished for it. I would even have prayed for it if I were worthy to pray. Yet if this cup is full of death, think twice before you watch me drink it. Look—the cup is at my lips!”
“Drink, then,” replied he, still with the same cold composure. “Dost thou know me so little, Hester Prynne? Are my purposes wont to be so shallow? Even if I imagine a scheme of vengeance, what could I do better for my object than to let thee live,—than to give thee medicines against all harm and peril of life,—so that this burning shame may still blaze upon thy bosom?”—As he spoke, he laid his long forefinger on the scarlet letter, which forthwith seemed to scorch into Hester’s breast, as if it had been red-hot. He noticed her involuntary gesture, and smiled.—“Live, therefore, and bear about thy doom with thee, in the eyes of men and women,—in the eyes of him whom thou didst call thy husband,—in the eyes of yonder child! And, that thou mayest live, take off this draught.” “So drink it,” he replied with the same cold expression. “Do you know me so poorly, Hester Prynne? Are my aims that petty? Even if I had dreamed up a scheme for revenge, how I could I do better than to let you live, to give you every good medicine I know, so that this burning shame could remain on your bosom?” As he spoke, he placed his long forefinger on the scarlet letter, which seemed to burn Hester’s breast as though it had been red hot. He saw her flinch with pain, and he smiled. “Live, and carry your punishment with you: In the eyes of men and women, in the eyes of the man you called your husband, and in the eyes of that child! Drink this potion and live.”
Without further expostulation or delay, Hester Prynne drained the cup, and, at the motion of the man of skill, seated herself on the bed where the child was sleeping; while he drew the only chair which the room afforded, and took his own seat beside her. She could not but tremble at these preparations; for she felt that—having now done all that humanity, or principle, or, if so it were, a refined cruelty, impelled him to do, for the relief of physical suffering—he was next to treat with her as the man whom she had most deeply and irreparably injured. Hester Prynne quickly drank the cup. At the doctor’s beckoning she sat on the bed, where the child was sleeping. He took the only chair in the room and pulled it beside her. She trembled as he did so. Hester felt that—being done with his obligations to humanity, or principle, or perhaps only a refined cruelty—he was now going to treat her as a deeply wounded husband would.
“Hester,” said he, “I ask not wherefore, nor how, thou hast fallen into the pit, or say rather, thou hast ascended to the pedestal of infamy, on which I found thee. The reason is not far to seek. It was my folly, and thy weakness. I,—a man of thought,—the book-worm of great libraries,—a man already in decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge,—what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own! Misshapen from my birth-hour, how could I delude myself with the idea that intellectual gifts might veil physical deformity in a young girl’s fantasy! Men call me wise. If sages were ever wise in their own behoof, I might have foreseen all this. I might have known that, as I came out of the vast and dismal forest, and entered this settlement of Christian men, the very first object to meet my eyes would be thyself, Hester Prynne, standing up, a statue of ignominy, before the people. Nay, from the moment when we came down the old church-steps together, a married pair, I might have beheld the bale-fire of that scarlet letter blazing at the end of our path!” “Hester,” he said, “I don’t ask why or how you have fallen into this pit—no!—ascended this pedestal of infamy on which I have found you. The reason is obvious. It was my foolishness and your weakness. I am a learned man; I have devoured many libraries. I gave my best years to the pursuit of knowledge, and now I am falling apart. What business did I have with youth and beauty such as yours? I was born defective—how could I fool myself into thinking that my intellectual gifts might convince a young girl to overlook my physical deformity? People say that I am wise. If that wisdom had extended to my own life, I might have foreseen all of this. I might have known that, as I came out of the dark forest and into this Christian settlement, I would lay my eyes upon you, Hester Prynne, standing up like a statue of shame before the people. Yes, from the moment of our marriage, I might have glimpsed the scarlet letter burning at the end of our road!”
“Thou knowest,” said Hester,—for, depressed as she was, she could not endure this last quiet stab at the token of her shame,—“thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any.” “You know,” said Hester, who even as depressed as she was could not take that last little insult, “you know that I was honest with you. I felt no love for you and did not pretend to feel any.”
“True!” replied he. “It was my folly! I have said it. But, up to that epoch of my life, I had lived in vain. The world had been so cheerless! My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one! It seemed not so wild a dream,—old as I was, and sombre as I was, and misshapen as I was,—that the simple bliss, which is scattered far and wide, for all mankind to gather up, might yet be mine. And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made there!” “True,” he replied. “It was my foolishness! But I had lived in vain until the moment we met. The world had been so gloomy! My heart was a house large enough for many guests, but lonely and cold, with no home fire burning. I longed to light one! It didn’t seem like a crazy dream—even as old and serious and ill-formed as I was—that simple human joy could be mine too. And so, Hester, I drew you into my heart, into its innermost room, and tried to warm you with the warmth that you gave me.”

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