The Scarlet Letter (Chapter 5, page 1 of 10)


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Chapter 5

Hester Prynne's term of confinement was now at an end. Her
prison-door was thrown open, and she came forth into the
sunshine, which, falling on all alike, seemed, to her sick and
morbid heart, as if meant for no other purpose than to reveal
the scarlet letter on her breast. Perhaps there was a more real
torture in her first unattended footsteps from the threshold of
the prison than even in the procession and spectacle that have
been described, where she was made the common infamy, at which
all mankind was summoned to point its finger. Then, she was
supported by an unnatural tension of the nerves, and by all the
combative energy of her character, which enabled her to convert
the scene into a kind of lurid triumph. It was, moreover, a
separate and insulated event, to occur but once in her lifetime,
and to meet which, therefore, reckless of economy, she might
call up the vital strength that would have sufficed for many
quiet years.

The very law that condemned her--a giant of stern
features but with vigour to support, as well as to annihilate,
in his iron arm--had held her up through the terrible ordeal of
her ignominy. But now, with this unattended walk from her prison
door, began the daily custom; and she must either sustain and
carry it forward by the ordinary resources of her nature, or
sink beneath it. She could no longer borrow from the future to
help her through the present grief. Tomorrow would bring its own
trial with it; so would the next day, and so would the next:
each its own trial, and yet the very same that was now so
unutterably grievous to be borne. The days of the far-off future
would toil onward, still with the same burden for her to take
up, and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the
accumulating days and added years would pile up their misery
upon the heap of shame. Throughout them all, giving up her
individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the
preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might
vivify and embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful
passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her,
with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast--at her, the child
of honourable parents--at her, the mother of a babe that would
hereafter be a woman--at her, who had once been innocent--as the
figure, the body, the reality of sin. And over her grave, the
infamy that she must carry thither would be her only monument.

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