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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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It is a magnificent speech, a clarion call to freedom. And in it, Hester has captured the whole premise of America. The New World meant precisely escape from the past, one's own past included. What Hester holds forth to Dimmesdale is what the frontier offered every man: a shining vision of a new life, waiting somewhere just to the west, where the grass glistens in the morning dew as if in the first sunrise of the world.

Yes, it is a magnificent speech, but one we should read with caution. For Hester's speech raises two questions that are absolutely central to The Scarlet Letter: Is escape from the past possible? And even if possible, is escape an ethically acceptable choice?

NOTE: Hester's speech bears a remarkable resemblance to one of Dimmesdale's own sermons. The verbs are overwhelmingly commands. "'Begin all anew!'... 'Preach! Write! Act!'"

The rhetorical devices, too, are those a minister might use to sway a doubtful audience. The questions, for example, seem to have obvious answers, but when properly considered, they yield unexpected and illuminating insights. "'Whither leads yonder forest-track? Backward to the settlement, thou sayest! Yea; but onward, too! Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness... until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man's tread.'"

We remember that the chapter is called "The Pastor and His Parishioner," and we appreciate the irony of the title now. The roles of pastor and parishioner are reversed. Dimmesdale is seeking guidance, and Hester is giving it, with all the skill of a Puritan divine.

To Dimmesdale, Hester's vision of the future seems like a dream. Perhaps he has an inkling of the truth, that the wilderness will hold for him only what he brings to it. And he can bring very little now.

Dimmesdale protests that he is too weak to start a new life. He has moral objections, too. He would feel like a sentry deserting his post.

But his protests are feeble. He is all the while angling for something. Twice he says to Hester that he is unable to consider such a venture alone.

Hester is at the starting gate, waiting for him. It is the invitation, even if only half-expressed, that she has been hoping for.

She whispers to her minister, "'Thou shalt not go alone!'"

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

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