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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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Even as we meet Chillingworth, he goes underground. He assumes total ignorance of Hester and her situation. He takes on a new identity, that of a recently arrived physician, seeking the shelter of civilization after a stay among the savages.

As Chillingworth's conversation with the townsman indicates, he will use his new position to solve the mystery that confronts him: the identity of his wife's lover. (Hawthorne did not know the word, but perhaps he would not object to our thinking of Chillingworth, in the language of modern espionage novels, as a "mole," or long-term secret agent.)

We now have two characters in hiding, a concealed husband and a concealed lover, the one gone into hiding to ferret out the other. We are hearing a lot of proud talk in this market-place about the godly colony of Massachusetts, where "iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine." But we should note that, so far, something pretty sinister is doing a good job of keeping itself under wraps.

The magistrates now address this question of hidden evil in their own fashion. Turning to Hester Prynne, they attempt to prevail upon her to reveal the name of her partner in sin.

In a ringing voice that echoes through the crowd, the Reverend John Wilson, religious head of the colony, calls upon the adulteress to forego her "hardness and obstinacy" and identify the man who led her into error. But encountering only silence, Wilson admits defeat. He turns to Arthur Dimmesdale to second his appeal.


NOTE: Wilson's urging of Hester Prynne is not merely investigative police work. In the Puritan scheme of things, Hester is a lost soul whose only hope of salvation lies in sincere and thorough repentance. Confession, in Wilson's own words, would be the "proof" of repentance, and the "consequence thereof." If Hester were truly sorry for her fault, she would not hesitate to put her lover, along with herself, on the path of open contrition.

Well, it is a sticky moral point, this business of naming names. The great Salem witch hunt was shortly to come, when men and women would be asked to prove the pristine cleanliness of their souls by soiling the reputations of their friends and loved ones. In later chapters, Hawthorne will skirt the issue, sensibly enough, by putting the onus of confession where it belongs. It is not up to Hester Prynne to name her lover; the man should come forward himself.

Wilson's words turn our attention to Arthur Dimmesdale, seated on the balcony with the magistrates, but somehow apart from the rest. Dimmesdale is younger than the men who surround him, and softer. Against the icy sternness of the Puritan elders, he appears, if anything, too sensitive. There is a frightened look about the eyes, a certain trembling of the mouth.

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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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