What does Chillingworth say to Hester in Chapter 14 of The Scarlet Letter when Hester asks him for forgiveness to Dimmesdale, and why does he say what he does?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Weaving itself into Hawthorne's thorough meditation upon the dark workings of Puritanism, there is in The Scarlet Letter the examination of the theme of public and private identity. In Chapter XX, Hawthorne concludes about this conflict of identity,

No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

This duality of identity is at the heart of Chapter XIV as Hester initially sends Pearl to amuse herself, and the child plays with a "visionary little maid" in a pool of water where Pearl "beheld her own white feet," symbolizing the adult conflicts to come further in the narrative. As Hester approaches Roger Chillingworth in her resolve to meet with the man who was her husband and plea for the release of him whom the physician has so tightly in his grip, Chillingworth tells her that the magistrates have debated whether or not Hester is to be allowed to remove the A from her bosom. Calmly, Hester responds that "the badge" would fall off on its own were she worthy of its removal. This badge no longer causes Hester as much pain as before because it now identifies her at times as an "Angel"; at other times as an "Able" person, both roles that Hester plays in her dealings with members of her congregation. So, Hester's identity, both public and private, the same. However, this is not the case for Dimmesdale, nor for Chillingworth; consequently, both men suffer. Dimmesdale suffers because of his hyprocrisy and the misery he has caused others, and he is ridden with guilt which he must hide in his role as minister. Chillingworth suffers because he has overstepped the human role in violating the human heart of the minister by obtaining its secrets; the physician has become a fiend in his punitive motives and blind revenge, yet he argues that he is not so, but has merely taken the position of a fiend in learning Dimmesdale's secret guilt and avenging himself. 

Now that he knows the secret he has sought, Hester argues, Chillingworth can release the tortured minister from his grip. But, the old leech refuses to leave Dimmesdale alone, contending that they are destined to play out their roles: "It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may!"

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