Notes to Ch 4, The Interview
The Scarlet Letter

Master Brackett, the jailer ...sl04.html#g01
is named, as deserves one who has a speaking role, and this increases the authenticity, since according to Caleb Snow's History of Boston, which Hawthorne read, there really was a jailer by that name. Even though Chillingworth had just arrived in Boston no more than an hour or two before, Brackett already believes him a respected physician. Perhaps that was because Chillingworth was assigned to live in the jail, and Brackett had talked with him. Or perhaps this reveals something about the lack of medical professionals in this settlement, or the credibility of patients in any kind of cure. More likely, Hawthorne is just compressing the timescale for dramatic purposes, as he does throughout. In any case, commonsensical, not unkindly, square Brackett had adopted the experienced law-enforcement position that maybe it would just be better to whip Hester.
like a possessed one ...sl04.html#g04
that is, possessed by Satan, the Devil, the Black Man. This kind of agitated, incoherent emotional loss of control of one's person was felt by many Puritans to be a mark that the Devil had taken control of a person's soul. (However, in order to be sure, they had to find other concrete evidence.) On another level, the intellectual theory behind the belief in witchcraft or devil possession is not so important when one realizes that these superstitions stood then for our modern faith in psychiatry and scientific control of the mind. Prayer, counseling, confinement, cold water baths, empirical medicines, even a stern talking to (but not execution, of course), might have been (or be) just as effective (or ineffective) therapy for these conditions, no matter what the unprovable theory behind the cause and cure--witchcraft or neurotic hysteria or brain chemistry. Note that Hawthorne also describes Hester's state more simply as "moral agony."
the child is yours...thine own hand ...sl04.html#g06
Hawthorne subtly has Chillingworth use both the formal "yours" and familiar "thine" in sequential sentences when talking to his wife, Hester. Chillingworth is conflicted--his first words to his wife are not about her but about his capitivity and medical skills. Notice that when Hester replies with "thee" he switches to the same himself, but he continues to call her "woman" and not "wife" of "him whom thou didst call thy husband". What right then does he have to feel injured? He states that "the scale hangs fairly balanced" between the two of them, but is it? He forces Hester to promise to conceal his identity as husband--why? (If he revealed it, reconciled with Hester, adopted Pearl and all returned to Amsterdam, would this be a great novel?) This sort of promise that the audience knows about but not the other characters is typical of a melodrama and not high literature. Even though it doesn't make the most logical sense, we are willing to suspend our disbelief in order to prolong the action. Motives of villains are not usually rational.
Another point to consider is that in this tiny settlement social problems were not usually dealt with by formal laws--divorce was not at all usual, and wives had hardly any legal rights, so the couple has a hard time finding a peaceable solution. The situation was, however, different by the time Hawthorne wrote, when industrialization and the metropolis allowed anonymity and freedom from the scrutiny and judgment of the neighbors in a small town, and more formal and impartial rules were required. It is of interest that in China today laws against adultery (usually by men) are being enforced because of the breakdown of the social structures that had prohibited this behavior.
I know not Lethe nor Nepenthe ...sl04.html#g11
reference to ancient Greek mythology--the river Lethe in Hades caused people to forget their previous lives, while Nepenthe seems to have been a Greek antidepressant. Chillingworth is saying he does not have those drugs in his medicine chest, though if he did they might work. Maybe he wouldn't give them to her, but he probably would--he's mad at Pearl's father, not so much Hester. The word "alchemy" here is used in the general sense of medieval science, not in the particular one of turning base metal into gold. Similar to Hawthorne's depiction of Chillingworth here, as a sort of scientist who intrudes immorally on nature, is his story "The Birthmark" (1843)
the scarlet letter...seemed to scorch ...sl04.html#g14
pieces of cloth don't do this, nor "seem" to do this, so Hawthorne must again be writing on another level, allegorically, symbolically, or metaphorically, or actually suggesting there might be some supernatural force in this ornament, from above or below. (UFO's had not been discovered yet.) Or perhaps it is just unusual and invested by all viewers with a sense of awe, projected by their own emotions and beliefs. Read into it what you will--you will get more out of it that way.
how thou hast fallen into the pit ...sl04.html#g16
the pit means Hell, punishment after death, or, if you prefer, the place one is going if one keeps on doing those bad things. In other words, Hester has not only violated the criminal law, but she has sinned, adultery being a violation of religious law, and the consequence is punishment not only in this world but in the next. Presumably there it will be worse than just having to wear a scarlet letter. "Bale-fire" is an old word for the big bonfire of wrapped logs upon which a dead body is burned, but here it also implies the fire of Hell as well as the burning brightness of the scarlet letter.
a young girl's fantasy ...sl04.html#g16
women married very young then, without the modern period of dating, courtship, engagement, and living together. How old do you think Hester was in 1642, probably still a teenager?
this wild outskirt of the world ...sl04.html#g26
it would seem strange for Chillingworth to describe Boston this way, since he is just returning from captivity in the woods. But in historical fact there was a strong opposition between the civilized Western world of Europe (whose paved streets he counted as home) and its raw colonial settlements (this was the first time he had seen Boston) on the one hand, and on the other hand the area just outside the town walls that was considered wilderness--though it was sparsely populated by Native Americans. There was some dispute about the origin of these other inhabitants--they might be lost tribes of Israel, they might be worshippers of the Devil, and they might be able to be converted to Christianity (i.e., Puritan Protestantism, not Catholicism). Here the first interpretation seems to be represented by the not hostile reception given by Bostonians to the Indian holding Chillingworth in ransom. But later in the book the wilderness appears to take on something of the home of the Devil--already we see a reference to the Black Man who "haunts the forest." (For the most famous example of this, see "Young Goodman Brown".) Yet the Reverend Eliot is later mentioned (he preached to Indians), so apparently there is a chance at redemption after all, and the settlers aim to make over this wilderness in the image of their own world. Incidentally, medicine as much as religion has often been the avenue for the conversion of "primitive" cultures to the modern Western one, so Chillingworth's occupation might have some additional significance here (though he states he learned more medicine in the wilderness than if he had a medical degree in the West--has he also made a Faustian contract with the Devil there?).
Chillingworth in our first close look at him is described as a stock villain, rather ugly and not very nice. For a bent and old fellow he always seems cold (chilling) and powerful--in body language he always stands taller, towering over the other characters (except at the very end). But he does in fact treat Hester rather well in spite of all, and takes a bit of the blame himself for their relationship problem. The question, however, will be whether he can do good by what he thinks is his justified attempt to discover the identity of the man who he thinks stole his marital property. Is he (a scientist, a husband, a man) justified in obsessively using evil (devilish) means to achieve what might be considered a good end (in society's eyes or just in fulfillment of a private theory or pride)? Is it really such a good idea to read so many books?

Summary. Hester and Pearl are returned to the jail cell after standing on the scaffold in shame. Pearl cries and Hester is in a state of nervous excitement. Hester's husband, who now calls himself Chillingworth, and is a physician, calms Pearl with a medicine and talks with Hester. They both admit wronging the other. Chillingworth wants to know who the father of Pearl is, but Hester continues to refuse to say. Chillingworth threatens to find out and in the meantime forces Hester to promise to keep his identity as husband secret.


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