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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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"'Thou shalt not go alone.'" Hester's words echo in Dimmesdale's mind. His heart leaps with joy, but hypocrite that he is, he is appalled at Hester's boldness in speaking out loud what he himself has barely hinted at.

Nonetheless, Dimmesdale decides to go, a decision over which Hawthorne draws a curtain of silence. Let us peer beneath the curtain for a moment and see if we can figure out what is on Dimmesdale's mind. Then we'll go back and see what Hawthorne actually says.

Dimmesdale, as we know, is in no shape for a calm and rational decision. He is exhausted and emotionally overwrought. He is wide open to the power of suggestion. He will grasp at any solution Hester offers him.

And what does Hester offer him? Something very much like escape from death row. Dimmesdale must feel, at this point, rather like a man who has been imprisoned in a dungeon for years. Suddenly, a guard appears and unbolts the door. The guard says-the words are like music to the prisoner's ears-"It is all a mistake. You are free to go."

Such a prisoner might doubt his senses for a while. But he would not send the guard back to check on his release. He would not ask too many questions either. He would stand on his wobbly legs and go.

In effect, that is what Dimmesdale does. And Hawthorne now has a few things to say. At this point in the chapter, the author breaks into the flow of the narrative to provide a commentary on what has taken place.

The section of commentary begins with the second paragraph ("But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage....") and continues for four paragraphs more (through"... the clergyman resolved to flee, and not alone"). It is a section that has caused problems to many a reader.

Problem 1: In the middle of a love scene, this section seems dry and analytical. We have just been carried away on the wings of Hester's enthusiasm. And here is Hawthorne, calling us back down to earth.

Problem 2: After the warmth and emotive power of the dialogue, the section is preachy and didactic. It is a sermon, if you like, to counter Hester's own.

Hawthorne wants to explain, it seems, that all that wonderful rhetoric of Hester's was really just the talk of a renegade. Society has outlawed Hester Prynne. As a result, she has wandered "without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness." Hester has been set free as a savage to criticize all that is sacred in religion, all that is venerable in law. We can admire Hester's courage, Hawthorne tells us, for daring to venture into intellectual wastelands like these. But we cannot admire her conclusions. Her conclusions are wrong.

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

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