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This scene provides us with some critical information. Hester has just learned that her husband is alive, complicating her situation. She needs medical treatment, and he is a doctor; this is a clever technique that Hawthorne uses to get them together in the prison (as well as getting Chillingworth/Dimmesdale together later in the storm). Hester is afraid that the "potion" that he is mixing is a poison will kill them; he assures them that he has no interesting in doing them any harm; they discuss their past relationship, and both of them admit that there was no love in their relationship, that they both entered into marriage with their own agenda. This information is critical to understanding why Chillingworth seeks no revenge on Hester. Perhaps more importantly, though, it is during this interview that Chillingworth strikes a deal with Hester that may be the only thing she feels real personal guilt about. Chillingworth makes Hester swear that she will not reveal his identity. Although this seems harmless, it becomes horrible for her as she watches Chillingworth destroy Dimmesdale and honors her promise to say nothing.
It's a great scene that sets the stage for what is to follow in the next 7 years ...
While Hester Prynne stands on the scaffold in Chapter III, she is asked by Reverend Wilson to name the man who fathered her child. Responding in the negative, she gazes into the eyes of Reverend Dimmesdale, but while doing so, she hears 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.
This voice which Hester recognizes is the voice of her husband, returned from the dead. Because of this recognition, Hester, being returned to the prison, is in a very nervous state, terrified at the prospect of this new knowledge being discovered by the Puritan leaders.
When the jailer calls in a physician to attend to the distraught young woman who has had to endure such ignominy on the scaffold and within her own heart, this physician is the owner of the voice that Hester has recognized. Hester is "as still as death." Roger Chillingworth, as he calls himself, has been boarded in the prison while the town officials decide on a ransom with the Indians who have held him captive. While a captive, Chillingworth has learned much of medicinal herbs; with this knowledge and his knowledge of alchemy, he attends to the unsettled child, and then the mother. Naturally, Hester is apprehensive about having her child or herself imbibe anything conjured by Chillingworth.
Chillingworth tells her he would not be so "shallow" as to poison her. He wants her to live so that she will
'bear about thy doom with thee, in the eyes of men and women--in the eyes of him thou didst call husband--in the eyes of yonder child!'
As Hester sits on the bed, Chillingworth sits beside her in the only chair in the cell. He tells her that he should have foreseen "all this," for he was too old and misshapen for one of her young beauty. Hester retorts that she was honest with him, revealing that she had no love for him. True, Chillingworth replies, but he had hoped that the warmth that she brought to his heart would be enough for them both.
'I have greatly wrong thee,' murmured Hester.
'We have wronged each other,' answered he...
Chillingworth tells Hester that he seeks no vengeance against her, as the
'scale hangs fairly balanced. But, Hester, the man lives who has wronged us both! Who is he?'
When Hester refuses him, the physician reminds her that he is more prescient that others and will "see him tremble....Sooner or later, he must needs be mine!" At this threat, Hester covers her heart, lest it reveal anything. With dramatic irony, Chillingworth promises Hester that although the man bears no letter on his chest, he "will read it on his heart."
Let him live! Let him hide himself in outward honour, if he may! Not the less he shall be mine!
'Thy acts are like mercy,' said Hester...'But thy words interpret thee as a terror!
Chillingworth makes Hester promise not to reveal his identity because he does not wish to endure the "dishonour that besmirches the husband of a faithless woman"--Chillingworth does not wish to be known as a cuckold. As he smiles at Hester, she asks him (again with dramatic irony) if he is like the Black Man
that haunts the forest round about us. Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?
Eerily, Chillingworth tells Hester "Not thy soul...Not thine!"
This chapter has almost gothic horror to it. The reader is reminded of Poe's narrators who vows an insidious revenge as redress for "injuries."
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