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The magistrates, we note, are men of action. Dimmesdale is a scholar, fresh from the great English universities. He is not at home in the market-place. He prefers the seclusion of his study. Right now, he would give a lot to be at home with his books.
The minister seems to be frankly troubled to be witness to this spectacle at all. His presence has been required; it has not been a matter of choice. His intervention in the proceedings is also involuntary. He speaks to Hester Prynne only at Wilson's insistence.
Dimmesdale's appeal to Hester is quieter than Wilson's and far less self-assured. His call for confession is conditional; it leaves some freedom of choice. "If thou feelest it to be for thy soul's peace," he tells Hester, "I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow sinner."
Dimmesdale's arguments are also more personal than Wilson's, presumably closer to the heart of a woman in love. He urges Hester to confess for her lover's own good. She should not be silent out of misguided pity or affection. "Take heed how thou deniest to him-who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself-the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips."
It is a moving appeal, a compelling line of reasoning, and a totally amazing speech, once we realize that Dimmesdale is talking against himself.
Every word the minister utters is charged with double meaning. Each inflection of his voice has one significance for the crowd of spectators, another for Hester Prynne who alone knows that Dimmesdale himself is the man the magistrates so urgently seek.
Dimmesdale is in a tight corner, one of the tightest in which a man of the cloth can find himself. He is a public official, under orders to elicit Hester's confession. He is also the private lover who benefits from her silence. As Hester's pastor, Dimmesdale has a moral obligation to seek the salvation of her soul. But as a man with a lot to lose, his interests lie in her continued resistance to religious authority.
Do you think Dimmesdale is sincere-or self-serving-in this plea he makes to Hester Prynne? It isn't easy to decide. Part of Dimmesdale seems truly to envy Hester the comparative luck of an open shame. But the deadly irony of his position takes much of the force and fire from his words.
Hester-either in accordance with or in opposition to her lover's real wishes-maintains her silence. Her refusal to speak gives us an opportunity to measure her generosity of spirit.
Another woman, exhibited for hours on the scaffold and left alone to bear the burden of public shame, might have decided, humanly enough, that two could bear the burden better than one. But Hester lifts the entire load onto her own strong shoulders. Looking straight into Dimmesdale's troubled eyes, she says, "Would that I might endure his agony as well as my own."
Dimmesdale, who should know, takes her silence for love. But we may sense, as well, an element of scorn in Hester's defiance of her judges. Wilson, who should have read her character better, makes her an offer that is little short of a bribe. If she names her lover to the authorities, they will consider a reversal of sentence. Confession may remove the scarlet letter from her breast.
Hester has understood, better than the magistrates, the meaning of the badge of shame they have forced upon her. For the first time (but not the last) in the novel, she claims the letter for her own, clutching it to herself with a mixture of pride and despair. "Never!" she answers Wilson, "The letter is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off."
She will forget that truth only once in her life, at an enormous cost.