The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Modern Text

The crowd was in a tumult. The men of rank and dignity, who stood more immediately around the clergyman, were so taken by surprise, and so perplexed as to the purport of what they saw,—unable to receive the explanation which most readily presented itself, or to imagine any other,—that they remained silent and inactive spectators of the judgment which Providence seemed about to work. They beheld the minister, leaning on Hester’s shoulder and supported by her arm around him, approach the scaffold, and ascend its steps; while still the little hand of the sin-born child was clasped in his. Old Roger Chillingworth followed, as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene. The crowd was frenzied. The men of rank and dignity who stood closest to the clergyman were surprised and confused by what they were seeing. They remained silent and passive observers of the judgment God seemed prepared to carry out, unwilling to accept the obvious explanation but unable to imagine any other. They saw the minister, leaning on Hester’s shoulder and supported by her arm, approach the platform and climb its steps. The little hand of the sin-born child was held in his. Old Roger Chillingworth followed. He was intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all played a part, and therefore he was entitled to be present at its closing scene.
“Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,” said he, looking darkly at the clergyman, “there was no one place so secret,—no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me,—save on this very scaffold!” “Even if you had searched the whole world,” he said, looking at the clergyman with malice, “there was no place so secret, high or low, where you could have escaped me—except on this very platform!”
“Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!” answered the minister. “Thanks be to Him who has led me here!” replied the minister.
Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester with an expression of doubt and anxiety in his eyes, not the less evidently betrayed, that there was a feeble smile upon his lips. Yet he trembled and looked to Hester with doubt and anxiety in his eyes, though there was a feeble smile upon his lips.
“Is not this better,” murmured he, “than what we dreamed of in the forest?” “Isn’t this better,” he murmured, “than what we dreamed of in the forest?”
“I know not! I know not!” she hurriedly replied. “Better? Yea; so we may both die, and little Pearl with us!” “I don’t know! I don’t know!” she quickly replied. “Better? I suppose, so we both can die, and little Pearl along with us!”
“For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,” said the minister; “and God is merciful! Let me now do the will which He hath made plain before my sight. For, Hester, I am a dying man. So let me make haste to take my shame upon me.” “May it be as God wishes for you and Pearl,” said the minister, “and God is merciful! Let me now do what He has made clear to me. Hester, I am dying. Let me be quick to take on my shame!”
Partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one hand of little Pearl’s, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to the dignified and venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, who were his brethren; to the people, whose great heart was thoroughly appalled, yet overflowing with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep life-matter—which, if full of sin, was full of anguish and repentance likewise—was now to be laid open to them. The sun, but little past its meridian, shone down upon the clergyman, and gave a distinctness to his figure, as he stood out from all the earth to put in his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice. Partly supported by Hester Prynne and holding little Pearl’s hand, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to the community leaders, the fellow holy ministers, and the people. Deep down, the people were both shocked and truly sympathetic, sensing that some profound aspect of life—full of sin, but also full of repentance—was about to be revealed. The sun, a little past its highest point, shone down upon the minister, making his form distinct. He stood apart from all the earth, ready to plead guilty before the court of eternal justice.
“People of New England!” cried he, with a voice that rose over them, high, solemn, and majestic,—yet had always a tremor through it, and sometimes a shriek, struggling up out of a fathomless depth of remorse and woe,—“ye, that have loved me!—ye, that have deemed me holy!—behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last!—at last!—I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from grovelling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her walk hath been,—wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have hoped to find repose,—it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!” “People of New England!” he cried, with a voice that rose over them. The voice was high, solemn, and majestic but with that familiar tremor and an occasional shriek that would struggle up from the bottomless depth of remorse and woe. “You people that have loved me! You that have thought me holy! Look at me, the one sinner in the world! At last, at last, I stand upon the spot where I should have stood seven years before. I stand here with this woman whose arm gives me more strength at this dreadful moment than the little strength I crept here with. If not for her, I would now be groveling on my face! See the scarlet letter Hester wears! You have all shuddered at it! Wherever she has walked, wherever she has hoped to find rest from this miserable burden, it has cast a glow of terror and disgust around her. But someone stood in your midst whose sin and shame you did not shudder at!”
It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave the remainder of his secret undisclosed. But he fought back the bodily weakness,—and, still more, the faintness of heart,—that was striving for the mastery with him. He threw off all assistance, and stepped passionately forward a pace before the woman and the child. It seemed, at this point, as though the minister would not live to reveal the rest of his secret. But he fought off the weak body and faint heart that was struggling to master him. He shook off all assistance and passionately stepped forward from the woman and their daughter.
“It was on him!” he continued, with a kind of fierceness; so determined was he to speak out the whole. “God’s eye beheld it! The angels were for ever pointing at it! The Devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger! But he hid it cunningly from men, and walked among you with the mien of a spirit, mournful, because so pure in a sinful world!—and sad, because he missed his heavenly kindred! Now, at the death-hour, he stands up before you! He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!” “The mark of sin was upon him!” he continued, with a fierce determination to reveal the whole truth. “The eye of God saw it! The angels were constantly pointing at it! The Devil was well aware of it. He kept scratching it with his burning finger! But this man cleverly hid it from other men. He walked among you with the expression of one who mourned because his pure spirit was forced to live in such a sinful world. He looked sad, as though his missed the company of the angels among whom he belonged! Now, at the hour of his death, he stands before you! He asks you to look at Hester’s scarlet letter once again! He tells you that, as mysterious and horrible as it is, it is only a shadow of what he wears on his own breast! Even his own red mark is nothing compared to what is burned deep into his heart! Does anyone here doubt that God punishes sinners? Look! Behold a terrible witness of his punishment!”