The Scarlet Letter HTML version

18. A Flood Of Sunshine
Arthur Dimmesdale gazed into Hester's face with a look in which hope and joy shone out,
indeed, but with fear betwixt them, and a kind of horror at her boldness, who had spoken
what he vaguely hinted at, but dared not speak.
But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period
not merely estranged, but outlawed from society, had habituated herself to such latitude
of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without
rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness, as vast, as intricate, and shadowy as the untamed
forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to decide
their fate. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she
roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this
estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had
established; criticising all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the
clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church. The
tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her
passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude!
These had been her teachers--stern and wild ones--and they had made her strong, but
taught her much amiss.
The minister, on the other hand, had never gone through an experience calculated to lead
him beyond the scope of generally received laws; although, in a single instance, he had so
fearfully transgressed one of the most sacred of them. But this had been a sin of passion,
not of principle, nor even purpose. Since that wretched epoch, he had watched with
morbid zeal and minuteness, not his acts--for those it was easy to arrange--but each
breath of emotion, and his every thought. At the head of the social system, as the
clergymen of that day stood, he was only the more trammelled by its regulations, its
principles, and even its prejudices. As a priest, the framework of his order inevitably
hemmed him in. As a man who had once sinned, but who kept his conscience all alive
and painfully sensitive by the fretting of an unhealed wound, he might have been
supposed safer within the line of virtue than if he had never sinned at all.
Thus we seem to see that, as regarded Hester Prynne, the whole seven years of outlaw
and ignominy had been little other than a preparation for this very hour. But Arthur
Dimmesdale! Were such a man once more to fall, what plea could be urged in
extenuation of his crime? None; unless it avail him somewhat that he was broker, down
by long and exquisite suffering; that his mind was darkened and confused by the very
remorse which harrowed it; that, between fleeing as an avowed criminal, and remaining
as a hypocrite, conscience might find it hard to strike the balance; that it was human to
avoid the peril of death and infamy, and the inscrutable machinations of an enemy; that,
finally, to this poor pilgrim, on his dreary and desert path, faint, sick, miserable, there
appeared a glimpse of human affection and sympathy, a new life, and a true one, in
exchange for the heavy doom which he was now expiating. And be the stern and sad truth
spoken, that the breach which guilt has once made into the human soul is never, in this