The Scarlet Letter Essential Quotes by Theme: Moral Cowardice
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Essential Quotes by Theme: Moral Cowardice

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 philosophised 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 Indians, 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, 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 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 wreak 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 forth the wrongdoer to the light of the Puritan society, that he may be held accountable for his sins, as Hester has been for hers....

(The entire section is 1,790 words.)