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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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Contemplating just how far he has fallen from grace, Chillingworth knows there is no turning back. Once he was a decent man, kindly, honest, just. But now he is a hellish creature, given over to another's torment. Like Macbeth, Chillingworth has waded in evil so far that he can't imagine returning to shore. Hester pleads for pardon, but her words are thrown back by the winds. Chillingworth is too far out to sea to hear.

Overwhelmed by a sense of futility, Hester gives way to despair. She will not stoop to plead with such a creature as Chillingworth, even for Dimmesdale's life. She will do as she must. She will go to the minister and reveal her husband's secret, though all the while she will expect the worst. "'Do with him as thou wilt! There is no good for him,- no good for me,- no good for thee!... There is no path to guide us out of this dismal maze!'"

NOTE: Hester's cry of despair is worth stopping for, since it is one of three significant quotes that occur in the short space of a single chapter. All these quotes sound like term paper topics; quick, easy summaries of the meaning of The Scarlet Letter.

It is important to remember, under this barrage of aphorisms, that we are reading dramatic dialogue. Hester and Chillingworth are both speaking out of full hearts and under the pressure of the moment.

Chillingworth's eyes light up at the sheer magnificence of Hester's despair. He feels a thrill of admiration for her capacity to look truth so cooly in the face. What a woman, he thinks to himself. And he says (it is the second of those significant quotes), "'I pity thee, for the good that has been wasted in thy nature."'

Once again, Chillingworth seems to hit the nail on the head. His words echo within us. They express our fear that Hester has, indeed, lived for nothing-for a few weeks of love, perhaps, and then for the long years of emptiness.

Is Hester a waste? Some readers say yes, appalled at the lonely life which seems so contrary to her passionate nature. Others say no, impressed by the spiritual growth which gives meaning to her existence. You will have to draw your own conclusions, remembering that it is Chillingworth, no trustworthy critic, who has called Hester a waste in the first place.

Chillingworth closes the chapter with a moral shrug of the shoulders. He cannot change, he will not pardon. For the desperate straits in which he, Hester, and Dimmesdale now find themselves, there is really no one to blame. It has all been fate, or (here comes that third quote) "dark necessity."

What does Chillingworth mean? He is referring to a dark, fatalistic strain in Puritanism, the idea that we are all damned or saved by God, even before we are born. Since our future is predetermined, Chillingworth is saying, why worry about it? We do what we are destined to do.

Now the Puritans did believe in predestination. But they never for a moment argued that we are therefore absolved of the obligation to live the best possible lives. In fact, they insisted on quite the reverse: goodness and morality every waking minute.

Chillingworth is being heretical in his views. But you don't need to be a religious expert to question Chillingworth's opinion. You only need common sense. Chillingworth wants to believe that it is impossible for him to pardon. And so, he goes to his religion for a doctrine to confirm his desire.

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

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