The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  Chapter 5 Hester at Her Needle

page Chapter 5: Hester at Her Needle: Page 4

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But sometimes, once in many days, or perchance in many months, she felt an eye—a human eye—upon the ignominious brand, that seemed to give a momentary relief, as if half of her agony were shared. The next instant, back it all rushed again, with still a deeper throb of pain; for, in that brief interval, she had sinned anew. Had Hester sinned alone? But once in a while, she felt an eye upon the mark that seemed to give her a moment’s relief, as though half her agony were shared. The next instant, it all rushed back again, with a throb of deeper pain—for in that brief moment, she had sinned again. But had she sinned alone?
Her imagination was somewhat affected, and, had she been of a softer moral and intellectual fibre, would have been still more so, by the strange and solitary anguish of her life. Walking to and fro, with those lonely footsteps, in the little world with which she was outwardly connected, it now and then appeared to Hester,—if altogether fancy, it was nevertheless too potent to be resisted,—she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts. She was terror-stricken by the revelations that were thus made. What were they? Could they be other than the insidious whispers of the bad angel, who would fain have persuaded the struggling woman, as yet only half his victim, that the outward guise of purity was but a lie, and that, if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne’s? Or, must she receive those intimations—so obscure, yet so distinct—as truth? In all her miserable experience, there was nothing else so awful and so loathsome as this sense. It perplexed, as well as shocked her, by the irreverent inopportuneness of the occasions that brought it into vivid action. Sometimes, the red infamy upon her breast would give a sympathetic throb, as she passed near a venerable minister or magistrate, the model of piety and justice, to whom that age of antique reverence looked up, as to a mortal man in fellowship with angels. “What evil thing is at hand?” would Hester say to herself. Lifting her reluctant eyes, there would be nothing human within the scope of view, save the form of this earthly saint! Again, a mystic sisterhood would contumaciously assert itself, as she met the sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the rumor of all tongues, had kept cold snow within her bosom throughout life. That unsunned snow in the matron’s bosom, and the burning shame on Hester Prynne’s, what had the two in common? Or, once more, the electric thrill would give her warning,—“Behold, Hester, here is a companion!”—and, looking up, she would detect the eyes of a young maiden glancing at the scarlet letter, shyly and aside, and quickly averted, with a faint, chill crimson in her cheeks; as if her purity were somewhat sullied by that momentary glance. O Fiend, whose talisman was that fatal symbol, wouldst thou leave nothing, whether in youth or age, for this poor sinner to revere?—Such loss of faith is ever one of the saddest results of sin. Be it accepted as a proof that all was not corrupt in this poor victim of her own frailty, and man’s hard law, that Hester Prynne yet struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal was guilty like herself. Hester’s imagination was somewhat affected by the strange and lonely pain of her life. Walking here and there, with lonely footsteps, in the little world she was superficially connected to, it sometimes seemed to Hester that the scarlet letter had given her a new sense. It scared her, but she couldn’t help believing that the letter gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the sin hidden in other people’s hearts. She was terrified by the revelations that came to her this way. What were they? Could they be nothing more than the whispers of the Devil, who tried to convince Hester that the seeming purity of others was merely a lie, and that many breasts beside hers deserved a scarlet letter? Or was her awareness of the sins of others—so strange, and yet so clear—real? In all of her miserable experience, there was nothing so awful as this sensation. It struck her at the most inappropriate moments, shocking and confusing her. Sometimes her red mark of shame would throb in sympathy as she passed a respected minister or magistrate, models of holiness and justice who were regarded as almost angelic in those days. “What evil thing is near?” Hester would ask herself. As she looked up reluctantly, she would find only this earthly saint! This same mystical sympathy would rudely assert itself when she met the frown of some older lady who was thought to have been pure and frigid her entire life. What could the coldness within that matron’s breast have in common with the burning shame upon Hester Prynne’s? Or, again, an electric shock would warn her: “Look, Hester, here is a companion.” Looking up, she would find the eyes of a young maiden glancing shyly at the scarlet letter and turning quickly away with a faint blush, as though her purity were somehow spoiled by that brief glance. Oh Devil, whose symbol that scarlet letter was, would you leave nothing—young or old—for Hester to admire? Such loss of faith is always one of the saddest results of sin. Hester Prynne struggled to believe that no other person was guilty like her. Her struggle was proof that this victim of human weakness and man’s strict law was not entirely corrupt.
The vulgar, who, in those dreary old times, were always contributing a grotesque horror to what interested their imaginations, had a story about the scarlet letter which we might readily work up into a terrific legend. They averred, that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight, whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night-time. And we must needs say, it seared Hester’s bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit. In those dreary times, the common people were always adding some grotesque horror to whatever struck their imaginations. And so they created a story about the scarlet letter that we could easily build up into a terrific legend. They swore that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, dyed in a stone pot. It was red-hot with hellfire that could be seen glowing whenever Hester went walking in the nighttime. The letter burned Hester’s breast so deeply that perhaps there was more truth in that story than we modern skeptics would care to admit.