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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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"The Interview" brings together the estranged husband and wife in the comparative privacy of the Boston prison. Chillingworth has come to the prison in his role of physician, sent for by the jailor who can no longer control his overwrought charges, Hester and Pearl. (Chillingworth, as we shall see, always manages to be sent for. It is part and parcel of his cleverness never to simply arrive.)

When Hester sees Chillingworth, she becomes as still as death. Her heart leaps into her throat. Hester has steeled herself to bear the day's trials, but her husband's unlooked-for arrival throws her completely off base.

Hester's bravado, which carried her through the ordeal in the market-place, deserts her now. She can barely look Chillingworth in the face. She feels all the shame and terror she never felt before the magistrates. This man has a right to punish her, perhaps even to take her life.

Hester, in fact, believes that Chillingworth has come to the prison with murder in his heart. When the physician hands her a draught of medicine to calm her down, Hester visibly hesitates, wondering if there is poison in the cup.

Poison? Don't be silly, Chillingworth replies. He adds that, if he wanted revenge, there were better, subtler ways than poison. After all, Chillingworth asks Hester, when have his purposes ever been "so shallow"?

Kind actions. Deep and subtle purposes. There is apparently a big difference between what Chillingworth does and what he means. What he does in this scene is just what we would expect of a skilled and kindly physician. He soothes Hester and her child with calming potions, quite possibly saving the infant's life. (In doing so, Chillingworth accomplishes what no other man in Boston is equipped to do. He has come to the prison with Sagamore remedies, medicines he has forced the New World to yield to his inquiring mind.)

And Chillingworth goes beyond the relief of physical suffering. For one brief moment, he offers Hester a fair measure of understanding. The ill-used husband takes on himself a share of the blame for his wife's downfall. "It was my folly, and thy weakness. I,- a man of thought,- the bookworm of great libraries,- a man already in decay,- what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own!"

Yes, it was folly, especially in a scholar like himself. Surely he had read enough about December-May marriages to have foreseen the disastrous ending of his own. Men called him wise, but wise he clearly was not. And here they both were, with this grievous mess on their hands.

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