Essential Quotes by Theme: Moral Cowardice

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Essential Passage 1: Chapter 4

“Thou knowest,” said Hester,—for, depressed as she was, she could not endure this last quiet stab at the token of her shame,—“thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any.”

“True,” replied he. “It was my folly! I have said it. But, up to that epoch of my life, I had lived in vain. The world had been so cheerless! My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one! It seemed not so wild a dream,—old as I was, and sombre as I was, and misshapen as I was,—that the simple bliss, which is scattered far and wide, for all mankind to gather up, might yet be mine. And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made there!”

“I have greatly wronged thee,” murmured Hester.

“We have wronged each other,” answered he. “Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay. Therefore, as a man who has not thought and philosophized in vain, I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between thee and me the scale hangs fairly balanced.”


Hester, remaining in the prison cell following her stint on the scaffold, is so upset that a physician is sent for. Having learned some medicine in Europe and even more during his stay with the Native Americans, Chillingworth answers the call. (He has been posing as a doctor.) This gives him the opportunity to confront his wife. After explaining his absence as being the result of a hostage situation, he absolves himself of guilt for leaving Hester alone to come to the New World by herself. Chillingworth then confesses his own errors. As a scholar in England, he had lived alone with his studies until middle age. Seeking to ease his loneliness with a wife, he chose the very young Hester and persuaded her to marry him. Knowing him to be a scholar, and evidently ready to leave the poverty of her home, Hester married him, despite the age difference and the separation of their social classes.

Hester is now honest with him, saying that she never loved him nor professed to. He agrees that she did not, but he wanted to love her as a true husband loves his wife. Hester confesses on her own part that she has done Chillingworth wrong, not just in committing adultery, but in marrying him without loving him. Chillingworth in turn admits his own error in marrying her. It was unnatural, he says, and seeks no revenge on her. His revenge, he reveals, is against the man who is the father of her child.

Essential Passage 2: Chapter 4

“Thy acts are like mercy,” said Hester, bewildered and appalled. “But thy words interpret thee as a terror!”

“One thing, thou that wast my wife, I would enjoin upon thee,” continued the scholar. “Thou hast kept the secret of thy paramour. Keep, likewise, mine! There are none in this land that know me. Breathe not, to any human soul, that thou didst ever call me husband! Here, on this wild outskirt of the earth, I shall pitch my tent; for, elsewhere a wanderer, and isolated from human interests, I find here a woman, a man, a child, amongst whom and myself there exist the closest ligaments. No matter whether of love or hate; no matter whether of right or wrong! Thou...

(This entire section contains 1700 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

and thine, Hester Prynne, belong to me. My home is where thou art, and where he is. But betray me not!”


Confronting Hester in her prison cell, under the guise of a physician, Chillingworth sets his plan of action. He has no desire to take his revenge on her, but he will do so on the man who cuckolded him. Hester has refused to reveal the identity of the father of her child; therefore, Chillingworth demands that she also keep his identity a secret. He does not hide his reason: he plans on bringing the wrongdoer to the light of the Puritan society, that he may be held accountable for his sins, as Hester has been for hers.

Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and the child, Pearl, have become on odd little family on the edge of the physical and moral wilderness. Chillingworth plans on keeping them all together, until moral justice can be done. Legally, he still controls both Hester and the child, regardless of Pearl’s parentage. If Hester presses him and reveals his identity to anyone, Chillingworth has no qualms about exacting justice.

Essential Passage 3: Chapter 12

It was an obscure night of early May. An unvaried pall of cloud muffled the whole expanse of sky from zenith to horizon. If the same multitude which had stood as eye-witnesses while Hester Prynne sustained her punishment could now have been summoned forth, they would have discerned no face above the platform, nor hardly the outline of a human shape, in the dark gray of the midnight. But the town was all asleep. There was no peril of discovery. The minister might stand there, if it so pleased him, until morning should redden in the east, without other risk than that the dank and chill night-air would creep into his frame, and stiffen his joints with rheumatism, and clog his throat with catarrh and cough; thereby defrauding the expectant audience of to-morrow’s prayer and sermon. No eye could see him, save that ever-wakeful one which had seen him in his closet, wielding the bloody scourge. Why, then, had he come hither? Was it but the mockery of penitence? A mockery, indeed, but in which his soul trifled with itself! A mockery at which angels blushed and wept, while fiends rejoiced, with jeering laughter! He had been driven hither by the impulse of that Remorse which dogged him everywhere, and whose own sister and closely linked companion was that Cowardice which invariably drew him back, with her tremulous gripe, just when the other impulse had hurried him to the verge of a disclosure. Poor, miserable man! what right had infirmity like his to burden itself with crime? Crime is for the iron-nerved, who have their choice either to endure it, or, if it press too hard, to exert their fierce and savage strength for a good purpose, and fling it off at once! This feeble and most sensitive of spirits could do neither, yet continually did one thing or another, which intertwined, in the same inextricable knot, the agony of heaven-defying guilt and vain repentance.


Arthur Dimmesdale, the beloved young pastor of Boston, has not been able to work up the courage to confess himself to be the father of Pearl, Hester Prynne’s illegitimate daughter. Having preached on the occasion of Hester’s release from prison and her punishment on the scaffold, he had almost begged her to identify him, not having the strength of will to do so himself. Yet Hester refused. The responsibility for confession rests with the sinner. Dimmesdale, anxious for his reputation among the Puritans of Boston, is physically tearing himself apart with guilt. He thinks that perhaps by standing where Hester stood on the scaffold, he can get some kind of relief. In the dead of night, he comes to stand guilty, though no one sees. He calls out to some passersby, hoping that they will see him there, thus giving him an opportunity to speak. But he remains invisible.

Analysis of Essential Passages

Hawthorne wished to portray the Puritans as rigid and unforgiving yet also hypocritical in their self-righteousness. In doing so, he shows that this hypocrisy is engendered through moral cowardice, the fear of confessing one’s sins in the presence of other sinners. This hypocrisy comes as the main characters hide their true selves, not just from each other but also from themselves.

For Hester, the moral cowardice lies mostly in her marriage to Chillingworth, despite the fact that she was not in love with him. Through her revelations in her conversation with Chillingworth in the jail cell, she is presented as a completely different person in America than she was in England. The noticeable strength of will, despite her succumbing to temptation with Dimmesdale, is absent in her marriage to Chillingworth. Although she frequently thinks of the trials of the life she is forced to live, she has accepted the consequences. In her later plans to run away with Dimmesdale, escaping the life of the scarlet letter, she reveals that indeed “the scarlet letter has not done its office.” 

In Chillingworth’s case, his cowardice was in his fulfillment of marriage as a self-absorbed act. He had little thought for Hester, nor did he especially care if she was happy. In Boston, he sees that she is already being punished, so there is no pleasure in his doing so. He reserves that “happiness” in tormenting Dimmesdale. His revenge, taken through psychological manipulations and abuse, reveals his weakness in resisting the temptation of hate.

The most obvious display of moral cowardice, however, is in Arthur Dimmesdale. His refusal not only to confess his complicity but also to be the one to stand up and present himself for what he is shows the weakest kind of character possible. Hiding behind the false reputation that he has worked for in the community, Dimmesdale is content to let Hester alone face the consequences. Although he will occasionally stand up for her, as in the instance when the magistrates were contemplating removing Pearl from her care, all in all, he has allowed Hester to be the stronger person: Hester even planned their escape.

In the final chapter, Hawthorne presents the moral that he is trying to relate in the novel: “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred.” Avoid hypocrisy, throw off moral cowardice, and be transparent. Perfection is not granted to man, so do not fear that which shows you as imperfect as the next person.


Essential Quotes by Character: Hester Prynne