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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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What have we here? A self-aware human being? A man, among all these self-righteous Puritans, capable of seeing life not in black and white but in various shades of gray. It is a fascinating glimpse of a character that might have been, a Chillingworth who might have commanded our respect, if not our sympathy.

But it is only a glimpse, and then Hawthorne shuts the door. We are left, instead, with a villainous thing whose fingers scorch Hester's flesh as they brush the scarlet letter, and whose glowing eyes threaten to read the secrets of her innermost soul.

All this demonic imagery is a sign of evil intent, for Chillingworth's real purpose is coming to the fore. He is planning revenge, though not against Hester. It is her lover he seeks. Chillingworth has come to the prison to ask the man's name. Does Hester refuse it? No matter. The man shall be his in any case. His for some unspeakable form of revenge: not murder, not dishonor, something worse.

Somewhere along the line, Chillingworth has crossed a boundary. He is not in the human realm any more, but in the demonic sphere of soul possession. Hester senses it. She says, underscoring the split in Chillingworth we have felt all along. "Thy acts are like mercy, but thy words interpret thee as a terror!"


A terror he is indeed. Why then does Hester promise Chillingworth the shield of her silence? Perhaps guilt comes into play. Chillingworth is asking to be spared the dishonor of a cuckold, and Hester feels she owes him at least this much. Perhaps fatigue also plays a part. Hester is no match for Chillingworth after the turmoils of the day.

But Hester's main motive is to spare her lover the scaffold. She has no doubt that Chillingworth will ferret him out. And Chillingworth has threatened, should Hester reveal his secret, that her lover's name and reputation will be forfeit.

"I will keep thy secret, as I have his," Hester swears to Chillingworth.

Nonetheless, Hester has qualms. Having given her word, she wonders if she has been lured into a pact with the devil that will prove the ruination of her soul.

"Not thy soul," Chillingworth answers, implying that another soul than Hester's will be damned. Chillingworth means the soul of Hester's lover, but, as we shall see, it turns out to be his own.

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