Hester, then, the social outcast, finds no invitation to repentance in the law that crushes her. The only alternative it offers her is abject self-extinction, or defiance. She chooses the latter: but at this point her course is swayed by a providential circumstance with which society had nothing to do. “Man had marked this woman's sin by a scarlet letter, which had such potent and disastrous efficacy that no human sympathy could reach her, save it were sinful like herself. God, as a direct consequence of the sin which man had thus punished, had given her a lovely child, whose place was on that same dishonored bosom, to connect her parent forever with the race and descent of mortals, and to be finally a blessed soul in heaven.” The sacred obligation of maternity—the more sacred to Hester because it seems the only sacred thing left to her—restrains her from plunging recklessly into the abyss of sin, towards which her punishment would naturally impel her. “Make my excuse to him, so please you,” she says, with a triumphant smile, to old Mistress Hibbins, in response to the latter's invitation to meet the Black Man in the forest. “I must tarry at home and keep watch over my little Pearl. Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Man's book too, and that with mine own blood!” But although she is thus saved from further overt degradation, she is as far from repentance as ever. Standing, as she did, alone with Pearl amidst a hostile world, her life turned, in a great measure, from passion and feeling to thought. She cast away the fragments of a broken chain. The world's law was no law for her mind. She assumed a freedom of speculation which her neighbors, had they known it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter. Shadowy guests entered her lonesome cottage that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door. “There was wild and ghastly scenery all around her, and a home and comfort nowhere. At times, a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl at once to Heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice might provide. The scarlet letter had not done its office.”
Such being the result of society's management of the matter, let us see what success attended the efforts of an individual to take the law into his own hands. It is to exemplify this phase of the subject that Roger Chillingworth exists; and his operations are of course directed not against Hester (“I have left thee to the scarlet letter,” he says to her. “If that have not avenged me, I can do no more!”), but against her accomplice. This accomplice is unknown; that is, society has not found him out. But he is known to himself, and consequently to Roger Chillingworth, who is a symbol of a morbid and remorseless conscience. Chillingworth has been robbed of his wife. But between that and other kinds of robbery there is this difference, — that he who is robbed wishes not to recover what is lost, but to punish the robber. And his object in inflicting this punishment is not the robber's good, nor the wife's good, nor even the public good; but revenge, pure and simple. The motive or passion which actuates him, is, in short, a wholly selfish one. It was deeply provoked, no doubt; but so, also, in another way, was the crime which it would requite. Unlike the latter, moreover, it involves no risk; on the contrary, it is enforced by the whole weight of social opinion. If the man had really or unselfishly loved his wife, he would not act thus. His wish would be to shield her, — to protect the sanctity of the marriage relation, as typified in her, from further pollution. His hostility to the seducer, even, would be more public than personal, — hatred of the sin, not of the individual; for men support with considerable equanimity the destruction of other men's married happiness. But, by bringing the matter to the personal level, Chillingworth confesses his indifference to any but personal considerations, not to mention his disbelief in God. As regards religion, indeed, he declares himself a fatalist. “My old faith,” he says to Hester, “explains all that we do and all that we suffer. By thy first step awry thou didst plant the germ of evil; but since that moment it has all been a dark necessity. Ye that have wronged me are not sinful, save in a kind of typical illusion; neither am I fiend-like, who have snatched a fiend's office from his hands. It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may!” Accordingly, Chillingworth is an image in little of society; and the external difference between his action and that of society is due to unlikeness not of inward motive, but of outward conditions. The revenge of society consists in publishing the sinner's ignominy. But this method would baffle Chillingworth's revenge just where he designed it to be most effective; for, by leaving the sinner with no load of secret guilt in his heart, it is inadvertently merciful in its very unmercifulness. The real agony of sin, as Chillingworth clearly perceived, lies not in its commission, which is always delightful, nor in its open punishment, which is a kind of relief, but in the dread of its discovery. The revenge which he plans, therefore, depends above all things upon keeping his victim's secret. By rejecting all brutal and obvious methods he gains entrance into a much more sensitive region of torture. He will not poison Hester's babe, because he knows that it will live to cause its mother the most poignant pangs she is capable of feeling. He will not sacrifice Hester, because “what could I do better for my object than to let thee live, than to give thee medicines against all harm and peril of life, so that this burning shame may still blaze upon thy bosom?” And, finally, he will not reveal the minister's guilt. “Think not,” he says, “that I shall, to my own loss, betray him to the gripe of the law. … Let him live! Let him hide himself in outward honor, if he may! Not the less he shall be mine!” And afterwards, when years had vindicated the diabolical accuracy of his judgment, “Better he had died at once!” he exclaims, in horrible triumph. “He fancied himself given over to a fiend, to be tortured with frightful dreams and desperate thoughts, the sting of remorse and despair of pardon, as a foretaste of what awaits him beyond the grave. But it was the constant shadow of my presence, the closest propinquity of the man whom he had most vilely wronged, and who had grown to exist only by this perpetual poison of the direst revenge!” But this carnival of refined cruelty, as is abundantly evident, can be productive of nothing but evil to all concerned; evil to the victim, and still more evil, if possible, to the executioner, who, finding himself transformed by his own practices from a peaceful scholar to a fiend, makes Dimmesdale answerable for the calamity, and proposes to wreak fresh vengeance upon him on that account. And it demonstrates the truth that the only punishment which man is justified in inflicting upon his fellow is the punishment which is incidental to his being restrained from further indulgence in crime. Such restraint acts as a punishment, because the wicked impulse is thereby prevented from realizing itself; but it is intrinsically an act not of revenge, but of love, since the criminal is thereby preserved from increasing his sinful burden by accomplishing in fact what he had purposed in thought. The Puritan system was selfish and brutal, merely; Chillingworth's was satanically malignant; but both alike are impotent to do anything but inflame the evils they pretend to assuage.