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Late in the novel, when Reverend Dimmesdale returns from the forest and his important encounter with Hester, he walks through the town a changed man, shocking the townsfolk with his uncharacteristic energy and flippant attitude. Only Mistress Hibbins, a witch and the sister of Governor Bellingham, perceives this as a positive thing, believing that Dimmesdale has had some sort of meeting with the devil in the woods. When Dimmesdale indicates that this is not the case, she responds:
“Ha, ha, ha!” cackled the old witch-lady, still nodding her high headdress at the minister. “Well, well, we must needs talk thus in the daytime! You carry it off like an old hand! But at midnight, and in the forest, we shall have other talk together!”
Mistress Hibbins, as the sister of Governor Bellingham, represents the evil that often operates alongside the rest of society. Here, she is inviting Dimmesdale to join her in the evil doings of the forest at midnight. Hawthorne’s treatment of Hibbins is interesting because he establishes her as a witch of some sort, but doesn’t make her a very scandalous character. She seems to be more of an accepted part of Boston life than someone to be feared or reviled. Considering the nature of the Salem Witch Trials that will follow in later years, the reader can’t help but be a little surprised at this portrayal.
She passed on with her aged stateliness, but often turning back her head and smiling at him, like one willing to recognize a secret intimacy of connection.
The fact that she is “stately” underscores her place in Boston society. Instead of an appearance that terrifies or reflects her corrupted nature, she is held in at least some degree of awe and respect.
But Dimmesdale is not fooled. Despite his fallen nature, he recognizes Hibbins for what she is. The following quotation reveals how she causes him to worry about his own spiritual fate and also how she is perceived by the Godly:
“Have I then sold myself,” thought the minister, “to the fiend whom, if men say true, this yellow-starched and velveted old hag has chosen for her prince and master!”
These quotations reveal that Mistress Hibbins has some power in their society, which perhaps reflects on the judgment of the people of Boston. If they behave thus with Hibbins, then how should their condemnation of Hester, who is certainly no witch, be perceived?
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