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The Scarlet Letter

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Hester Prynne’s term of confinement was now at an end. Her prison-door was thrown open, and she came forth into the sunshine, which, falling on all alike, seemed, to her sick and morbid heart, as if meant for no other purpose than to reveal the scarlet letter on her breast. Perhaps there was a more real torture in her first unattended footsteps from the threshold of the prison, than even in the procession and spectacle that have been described, where she was made the common infamy, at which all mankind was summoned to point its finger. Then, she was supported by an unnatural tension of the nerves, and by all the combative energy of her character, which enabled her to convert the scene into a kind of lurid triumph. It was, moreover, a separate and insulated event, to occur but once in her lifetime, and to meet which, therefore, reckless of economy, she might call up the vital strength that would have sufficed for many quiet years. The very law that condemned her—a giant of stern features, but with vigor to support, as well as to annihilate, in his iron arm—had held her up, through the terrible ordeal of her ignominy. But now, with this unattended walk from her prison-door, began the daily custom, and she must either sustain and carry it forward by the ordinary resources of her nature, or sink beneath it. She could no longer borrow from the future, to help her through the present grief. To-morrow would bring its own trial with it; so would the next day, and so would the next; each its own trial, and yet the very same that was now so unutterably grievous to be borne. The days of the far-off future would toil onward, still with the same burden for her to take up, and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating days, and added years, would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame. Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast,—at her, the child of honorable parents,—at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman,—at her, who had once been innocent,—as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. And over her grave, the infamy that she must carry thither would be her only monument. Hester Prynne’s prison sentence was over. The prison door was thrown open, and she walked out into the sunshine. Although the light fell equally on everyone, to Hester it seemed designed to show off the scarlet letter on her breast. Those first steps out of the prison may have been a greater torture than the elaborate public humiliation described before, when the entire town gathered to point its finger at her. At least then, her concentration and fierce combativeness allowed her to transform the scene into a sort of grotesque victory. And that was just a one-time event—the kind that happens only once in a lifetime—so she could expend several years’ worth of energy to endure it. The law that condemned her was like an iron-fisted giant, and it had the strength to either support or destroy her. It had held her up throughout that terrible ordeal. But now, with this lonely walk from the prison door, her new reality began. This would be her everyday life, and she could use only everyday resources to endure it, or else she would be crushed by it. Tomorrow would bring its own struggle, and the next day, and the day after that—every day its own struggle, just like the one that was so unbearable today. The days in the distant future would arrive with the same burden for her to bear and to never put down. The accumulating days and years would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame. Through them all, she would be a symbol for the preacher and the moralist to point at: the symbol of feminine frailty and lust. The young and pure would be taught to look at Hester and the scarlet letter burning on her breast. She was the child of good parents, the mother of a baby that would grow to womanhood; she had once been innocent herself. But now she would become the embodiment of sin, and her infamy would be the only monument over her grave.
It may seem marvellous, that, with the world before her,—kept by no restrictive clause of her condemnation within the limits of the Puritan settlement, so remote and so obscure,—free to return to her birthplace, or to any other European land, and there hide her character and identity under a new exterior, as completely as if emerging into another state of being,—and having also the passes of the dark, inscrutable forest open to her, where the wildness of her nature might assimilate itself with a people whose customs and life were alien from the law that had condemned her,—it may seem marvellous, that this woman should still call that place her home, where, and where only, she must needs be the type of shame. But there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime; and still the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it. Her sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil. It was as if a new birth, with stronger assimilations than the first, had converted the forest-land, still so uncongenial to every other pilgrim and wanderer, into Hester Prynne’s wild and dreary, but life-long home. All other scenes of earth—even that village of rural England, where happy infancy and stainless maidenhood seemed yet to be in her mother’s keeping, like garments put off long ago—were foreign to her, in comparison. The chain that bound her here was of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul, but never could be broken. It may seem unbelievable that, with the whole world open to her, this woman would remain in the one and only place where she would face this shame. The conditions of her sentence didn’t force her to stay in that remote and obscure Puritan settlement. She was free to return to her birthplace—or anywhere else in Europe—where she could hide under a new identify, as though she had become a new person. Or she could have simply fled to the forest, where her wild nature would be a good fit among Indians unfamiliar with the laws that had condemned her. But an irresistible fatalism exists that forces people to haunt the place where some dramatic event shaped their lives. And the sadder the event, the greater the bond. Hester’s sin and shame rooted her in that soil. It was as if the birth of her child had turned the harsh wilderness of New England into her lifelong home. Every other place on Earth—even the English village where she had been a happy child and a sinless young woman—was now foreign to her. The chain that bound her to this place was made of iron, and though it troubled her soul, it could not be broken.
It might be, too,—doubtless it was so, although she hid the secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hole,—it might be that another feeling kept her within the scene and pathway that had been so fatal. There dwelt, there trode the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union, that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage-altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution. Over and over again, the tempter of souls had thrust this idea upon Hester’s contemplation, and laughed at the passionate and desperate joy with which she seized, and then strove to cast it from her. She barely looked the idea in the face, and hastened to bar it in its dungeon. What she compelled herself to believe,—what, finally, she reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a resident of New England,—was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom. Perhaps there was also another feeling that kept her in this place that was so tragic for her. This had to be true, though she hid the secret from herself and grew pale whenever it slithered, like a snake, out of her heart. A man lived there who she felt was joined with her in a union that, though unrecognized on earth, would bring them together on their last day. The place of final judgment would be their marriage altar, binding them in eternity. Over and over, the Devil had suggested this idea to Hester and then laughed at the desperate, passionate joy with which she grasped at it, then tried to cast it off. She barely acknowledged the thought before quickly locking it away. What she forced herself to believe—the reason why she chose to stay in New England—was based half in truth and half in self-delusion. This place, she told herself, had been the scene of her guilt, so it should be the scene of her punishment. Maybe the torture of her daily shame would finally cleanse her soul and make her pure again. This purity would be different than the one she had lost: more saint-like because she had been martyred.

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