Chapter 3 - The Recognition

From this intense consciousness of being the object of
severe and universal observation, the wearer of the scarlet
letter was at length relieved, by discerning, on the
outskirts of the crowd, a figure which irresistibly took
possession of her thoughts. An Indian in his native garb
was standing there; but the red men were not so
infrequent visitors of the English settlements that one of
them would have attracted any notice from Hester Prynne
at such a time; much less would he have excluded all other
objects and ideas from her mind. By the Indian’s side, and
evidently sustaining a companionship with him, stood a
white man, clad in a strange disarray of civilized and
savage costume.
He was small in stature, with a furrowed visage, which
as yet could hardly be termed aged. There was a
remarkable intelligence in his features, as of a person who
had so cultivated his mental part that it could not fail to
mould the physical to itself and become manifest by
unmistakable tokens. Although, by a seemingly careless
arrangement of his heterogeneous garb, he had
endeavoured to conceal or abate the peculiarity, it was sufficiently evident to Hester Prynne that one of this man’s
shoulders rose higher than the other. Again, at the first
instant of perceiving that thin visage, and the slight
deformity of the figure, she pressed her infant to her
bosom with so convulsive a force that the poor babe
uttered another cry of pain. But the mother did not seem
to hear it,
At his arrival in the market-place, and some time before
she saw him, the stranger had bent his eyes on Hester
Prynne. It was carelessly at first, like a man chiefly
accustomed to look inward, and to whom external matters
are of little value and import, unless they bear relation to
something within his mind. Very soon, however, his look
became keen and penetrative. A writhing horror twisted
itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over
them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed
intervolutions in open sight. His face darkened with some
powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so
instantaneously controlled by an effort of his will, that,
save at a single moment, its expression might have passed
for calmness. After a brief space, the convulsion grew
almost imperceptible, and finally subsided into the depths
of his nature. When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne
fastened on his own, and saw that she appeared to recognize him, he slowly and calmly raised his finger,
made a gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips.
Then touching the shoulder of a townsman who stood
near to him, he addressed him in a formal and courteous
‘I pray you, good Sir,’ said he, ‘who is this woman? —
and wherefore is she here set up to public shame?’
‘You must needs be a stranger in this region, friend,’
answered the townsman, looking curiously at the
questioner and his savage companion, ‘else you would
surely have heard of Mistress Hester Prynne and her evil
doings. She hath raised a great scandal, I promise you, in
godly Master Dimmesdale’s church. ‘
‘You say truly,’ replied the other; ‘I am a stranger, and
have been a wanderer, sorely against my will. I have met
with grievous mishaps by sea and land, and have been long
held in bonds among the heathen-folk to the southward;
and am now brought hither by this Indian to be redeemed
out of my captivity. Will it please you, therefore, to tell
me of Hester Prynne’s—have I her name rightly? —of this
woman’s offences, and what has brought her to yonder
‘Truly, friend; and methinks it must gladden your
heart, after your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness,’ said the townsman, ‘to find yourself at length in a land
where iniquity is searched out and punished in the sight of
rulers and people, as here in our godly New England.
Yonder woman, Sir, you must know, was the wife of a
certain learned man, English by birth, but who had long
ago dwelt in Amsterdam, whence some good time agone
he was minded to cross over and cast in his lot with us of
the Massachusetts. To this purpose he sent his wife before
him, remaining himself to look after some necessary affairs.
Marry, good Sir, in some two years, or less, that the
woman has been a dweller here in Boston, no tidings have
come of this learned gentleman, Master Prynne; and his
young wife, look you, being left to her own
‘Ah!—aha!—I conceive you,’ said the stranger with a
bitter smile. ‘So learned a man as you speak of should have
learned this too in his books. And who, by your favour,
Sir, may be the father of yonder babe—it is some three or
four months old, I should judge—which Mistress Prynne
is holding in her arms?’
‘Of a truth, friend, that matter remaineth a riddle; and
the Daniel who shall expound it is yet a-wanting,’
answered the townsman. ‘Madame Hester absolutely
refuseth to speak, and the magistrates have laid their heads together in vain. Peradventure the guilty one stands
looking on at this sad spectacle, unknown of man, and
forgetting that God sees him. ‘
‘The learned man,’ observed the stranger with another
smile, ‘should come himself to look into the mystery. ‘
‘It behoves him well if he be still in life,’ responded the
townsman. ‘Now, good Sir, our Massachusetts magistracy,
bethinking themselves that this woman is youthful and
fair, and doubtless was strongly tempted to her fall, and
that, moreover, as is most likely, her husband may be at
the bottom of the sea, they have not been bold to put in
force the extremity of our righteous law against her. The
penalty thereof is death. But in their great mercy and
tenderness of heart they have doomed Mistress Prynne to
stand only a space of three hours on the platform of the
pillory, and then and thereafter, for the remainder of her
natural life to wear a mark of shame upon her bosom. ‘
‘A wise sentence,’ remarked the stranger, gravely,
bowing his head. ‘Thus she will be a living sermon against
sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her
tombstone. It irks me, nevertheless, that the partner of her
iniquity should not at least, stand on the scaffold by her
side. But he will be known—he will be known!—he will
be known!’ He bowed courteously to the communicative
townsman, and whispering a few words to his Indian
attendant, they both made their way through the crowd.
While this passed, Hester Prynne had been standing on
her pedestal, still with a fixed gaze towards the stranger—
so fixed a gaze that, at moments of intense absorption, all
other objects in the visible world seemed to vanish,
leaving only him and her. Such an interview, perhaps,
would have been more terrible than even to meet him as
she now did, with the hot mid-day sun burning down
upon her face, and lighting up its shame; with the scarlet
token of infamy on her breast; with the sin-born infant in
her arms; with a whole people, drawn forth as to a festival,
staring at the features that should have been seen only in
the quiet gleam of the fireside, in the happy shadow of a
home, or beneath a matronly veil at church. Dreadful as it
was, she was conscious of a shelter in the presence of these
thousand witnesses. It was better to stand thus, with so
many betwixt him and her, than to greet him face to
face—they two alone. She fled for refuge, as it were, to
the public exposure, and dreaded the moment when its
protection should be withdrawn from her. Involved in
these thoughts, she scarcely heard a voice behind her until it had repeated her name more than once, in a loud and
solemn tone, audible to the whole multitude.
‘Hearken unto me, Hester Prynne!’ said the voice.
It has already been noticed that directly over the
platform on which Hester Prynne stood was a kind of
balcony, or open gallery, appended to the meeting-house.
It was the place whence proclamations were wont to be
made, amidst an assemblage of the magistracy, with all the
ceremonial that attended such public observances in those
days. Here, to witness the scene which we are describing,
sat Governor Bellingham himself with four sergeants about
his chair, bearing halberds, as a guard of honour. He wore
a dark feather in his hat, a border of embroidery on his
cloak, and a black velvet tunic beneath—a gentleman
advanced in years, with a hard experience written in his
wrinkles. He was not ill-fitted to be the head and
representative of a community which owed its origin and
progress, and its present state of development, not to the
impulses of youth, but to the stern and tempered energies
of manhood and the sombre sagacity of age; accomplishing
so much, precisely because it imagined and hoped so little.
The other eminent characters by whom the chief ruler was
surrounded were distinguished by a dignity of mien,
belonging to a period when the forms of authority were felt to possess the sacredness of Divine institutions. They
were, doubtless, good men, just and sage. But, out of the
whole human family, it would not have been easy to select
the same number of wise and virtuous persons, who
should he less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring
woman’s heart, and disentangling its mesh of good and
evil, than the sages of rigid aspect towards whom Hester
Prynne now turned her face. She seemed conscious,
indeed, that whatever sympathy she might expect lay in
the larger and warmer heart of the multitude; for, as she
lifted her eyes towards the balcony, the unhappy woman
grew pale, and trembled.
The voice which had called her attention was that of
the reverend and famous John Wilson, the eldest
clergyman of Boston, a great scholar, like most of his
contemporaries in the profession, and withal a man of kind
and genial spirit. This last attribute, however, had been less
carefully developed than his intellectual gifts, and was, in
truth, rather a matter of shame than self-congratulation
with him. There he stood, with a border of grizzled locks
beneath his skull-cap, while his grey eyes, accustomed to
the shaded light of his study, were winking, like those of
Hester’s infant, in the unadulterated sunshine. He looked
like the darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed to old volumes of sermons, and had no more right than one
of those portraits would have to step forth, as he now did,
and meddle with a question of human guilt, passion, and
‘Hester Prynne,’ said the clergyman, ‘I have striven
with my young brother here, under whose preaching of
the Word you have been privileged to sit’—here Mr.
Wilson laid his hand on the shoulder of a pale young man
beside him—‘I have sought, I say, to persuade this godly
youth, that he should deal with you, here in the face of
Heaven, and before these wise and upright rulers, and in
hearing of all the people, as touching the vileness and
blackness of your sin. Knowing your natural temper better
than I, he could the better judge what arguments to use,
whether of tenderness or terror, such as might prevail over
your hardness and obstinacy, insomuch that you should no
longer hide the name of him who tempted you to this
grievous fall. But he opposes to me—with a young man’s
over-softness, albeit wise beyond his years—that it were
wronging the very nature of woman to force her to lay
open her heart’s secrets in such broad daylight, and in
presence of so great a multitude. Truly, as I sought to
convince him, the shame lay in the commission of the sin,
and not in the showing of it forth. What say you to it, once again, brother Dimmesdale? Must it be thou, or I,
that shall deal with this poor sinner’s soul?’
There was a murmur among the dignified and reverend
occupants of the balcony; and Governor Bellingham gave
expression to its purport, speaking in an authoritative
voice, although tempered with respect towards the
youthful clergyman whom he addressed:
‘Good Master Dimmesdale,’ said he, ‘the responsibility
of this woman’s soul lies greatly with you. It behoves you;
therefore, to exhort her to repentance and to confession,
as a proof and consequence thereof. ‘
The directness of this appeal drew the eyes of the
whole crowd upon the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale—
young clergyman, who had come from one of the great
English universities, bringing all the learning of the age
into our wild forest land. His eloquence and religious
fervour had already given the earnest of high eminence in
his profession. He was a person of very striking aspect,
with a white, lofty, and impending brow; large, brown,
melancholy eyes, and a mouth which, unless when he
forcibly compressed it, was apt to be tremulous, expressing
both nervous sensibility and a vast power of self restraint.
Notwithstanding his high native gifts and scholar-like
attainments, there was an air about this young minister— an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look—as of a
being who felt himself quite astray, and at a loss in the
pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in
some seclusion of his own. Therefore, so far as his duties
would permit, he trod in the shadowy by-paths, and thus
kept himself simple and childlike, coming forth, when
occasion was, with a freshness, and fragrance, and dewy
purity of thought, which, as many people said, affected
them like tile speech of an angel.
Such was the young man whom the Reverend Mr.
Wilson and the Governor had introduced so openly to the
public notice, bidding him speak, in the hearing of all
men, to that mystery of a woman’s soul, so sacred even in
its pollution. The trying nature of his position drove the
blood from his cheek, and made his lips tremulous.
‘Speak to the woman, my brother,’ said Mr. Wilson. ‘It
is of moment to her soul, and, therefore, as the worshipful
Governor says, momentous to thine own, ill whose charge
hers is. Exhort her to confess the truth!’
The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale bent his head, silent
prayer, as it seemed, and then came forward.
‘Hester Prynne,’ said he, leaning over the balcony and
looking down steadfastly into her eyes, ‘thou hearest what
this good man says, and seest the accountability under which I labour. If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace,
and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made
more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the
name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer! Be not
silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for,
believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a
high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of
shame, yet better were it so than to hide a guilty heart
through life. What can thy silence do for him, except it
tempt him—yea, compel him, as it were—to add
hypocrisy to sin? Heaven hath granted thee an open
ignominy, that thereby thou mayest work out an open
triumph over the evil within thee and the sorrow without.
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!’
The young pastor’s voice was tremulously sweet, rich,
deep, and broken. The feeling that it so evidently
manifested, rather than the direct purport of the words,
caused it to vibrate within all hearts, and brought the
listeners into one accord of sympathy. Even the poor baby
at Hester’s bosom was affected by the same influence, for
it directed its hitherto vacant gaze towards Mr.
Dimmesdale, and held up its little arms with a half-pleased, half-plaintive murmur. So powerful seemed the minister’s
appeal that the people could not believe but that Hester
Prynne would speak out the guilty name, or else that the
guilty one himself in whatever high or lowly place he
stood, would be drawn forth by an inward and inevitable
necessity, and compelled to ascend the scaffold.
Hester shook her head.
‘Woman, transgress not beyond the limits of Heaven’s
mercy!’ cried the Reverend Mr. Wilson, more harshly
than before. ‘That little babe hath been gifted with a
voice, to second and confirm the counsel which thou hast
heard. Speak out the name! That, and thy repentance, may
avail to take the scarlet letter off thy breast. ‘
‘Never,’ replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr.
Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the
younger clergyman. ‘It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot
take it off. And would that I might endure his agony as
well as mine!’
‘Speak, woman!’ said another voice, coldly and sternly,
proceeding from the crowd about the scaffold, ‘Speak; and
give your child a father!’
‘I will not speak!’ answered Hester, turning pale as
death, but responding to this voice, which she too surely recognised. ‘And my child must seek a heavenly father; she
shall never know an earthly one!’
‘She will not speak!’ murmured Mr. Dimmesdale, who,
leaning over the balcony, with his hand upon his heart,
had awaited the result of his appeal. He now drew back
with a long respiration. ‘Wondrous strength arid
generosity of a woman’s heart! She will not speak!’
Discerning the impracticable state of the poor culprit’s
mind, the elder clergyman, who had carefully prepared
himself for the occasion, addressed to the multitude a
discourse on sin, in all its branches, but with continual
reference to the ignominious letter. So forcibly did he
dwell upon this symbol, for the hour or more during
which is periods were rolling over the people’s heads, that
it assumed new terrors in their imagination, and seemed to
derive its scarlet hue from the flames of the infernal pit.
Hester Prynne, meanwhile, kept her place upon the
pedestal of shame, with glazed eyes, and an air of weary
indifference. She had borne that morning all that nature
could endure; and as her temperament was not of the
order that escapes from too intense suffering by a swoon,
her spirit could only shelter itself beneath a stony crust of
insensibility, while the faculties of animal life remained
entire. In this state, the voice of the preacher thundered remorselessly, but unavailingly, upon her ears. The infant,
during the latter portion of her ordeal, pierced the air with
its wailings and screams; she strove to hush it
mechanically, but seemed scarcely to sympathise with its
trouble. With the same hard demeanour, she was led back
to prison, and vanished from the public gaze within its
iron-clamped portal. It was whispered by those who
peered after her that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam
along the dark passage-way of the interior.