"To compromise - even to sin! - and then to forgive oneself and
move on: this is the true stuff of manhood that life teaches those
who last long enough. To compromise, and to learn to live with what
you cannot rise above; there is no man who draws nigh his autumn
and finds himself completely innocent."
Dear Most Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale,
I have just finished reading your strange
and somber story for the second time. Being hardly out of my boyhood
upon the first reading, I had not the wherewithal to judge rightly
the parable of your living and dying. I remember it as unsettling and
possessing a harsh beauty, and the strangeness and dignity of your
drama has yet stayed with me; it is this dim but stark remembrance
principally which moved me to read again the sad tale of yourself and
Hester Prynne some twenty years later. Indeed we read as children so
that anon when we read as adults, we do so with greater understanding.
Now a man in my own time, I read your story with different eyes and
as such it breaks my heart.
Arthur, that you had been able to appreciate
the false subtleties of the world and move past sulking youth into
manhood! Bred to a harder thing than earthly happiness, you preferred
to leave this world and meet a merciful God in spiritual triumph. For
make no doubt about it, I consider your redemptive death to be triumphant
and transcendent. As you made your way to the scaffold hand in hand
with Hester and Pearl on Election Day, I knew in my heart what you
would do and I stood with you. Let the Puritan crowd think what they
may! If they have not pity on a flawed and frail man who yet loves,
then may God have mercy on them!
Yet I do not hold your moment of redemption
to be your best hour. To live and die a martyr for the edification
of your earthly flock does not serve you best as a man of flesh and
blood! Was this not your mortal flaw? This ethereal flight of mind
which was all spirit and no more visceral instinct? Do you not owe
much to others who are neither deity nor laity? Hester Prynne, who
stood defiantly her hour on the scaffold and endured the contempt of
the world, proved a woman of proud and unbending strength; it surprises
me not that you in your weakness and her held in common the most tender
sympathies, opposites so often attracting in affairs of the heart.
But Arthur, are you not a man, lover, father, as well as priest? Hath
you not obligations there as well? You who were so powerful a minister
and so lowly a husband! Look at Hester! Look at her strength!
Nay, I will not taunt you, seeing that
you strove mightily even unto death. We all play out our lives with
what strength and courage has been vested in our natures and who am
I to say that I could have done better in your place. No, I do not
dare say such a thing! Yet I hold that strangely happy moment when
you and Hester finally sat together in the solitude of the woods next
to the sadly murmuring brook holding hands to be the hope, a possible
future. That is where the redemption lies in my mind, and let the healthy
and natural bond between man and woman take precedence over the sickly
law of God and the degenerate race of mankind! If it is within man's
power to forgive himself, then let him do so. But let no man feel guilt
if he stand not convicted in his own heart. In this you sinned not
in joining with Hester out of wedlock but in abandoning her and showing
yourself to be false.
Tell me rightly, Arthur: Did you sin when
you laid with Hester? Do you honestly feel it in your heart to have
been a sin? Did you not love her? If the dull and feckless multitude
cannot understand that even a man of God can love and perchance sin,
then let them be damned! Go into the land of the savages humbled and
wounded perhaps - even wounded unto death! - but go by all means! Go
hither into the forest with Hester and Pearl and make a new and better
life. To stay in town with Chillingsworth and the rest is folly and
no healthy thing. Take unto heart thine own words: "We are not,
Hester, the worst sinners in the world." Peace and pardon! And
if God wilt not pardon thee, pardon thyself! Verily 'tis enough, I
tell thee Arthur! Courage!
I had forgotten how much yours is a story
of love. Think upon the severe aspect of Hester grown spinster and
dry after your death and contrast that image with her in the full flush
of maidenhood when you first beheld her. Do you not see your heavy
responsibility in this unfortunate transformation? Forget not this,
Arthur: Woman is weak and needs man (your God hath even made her so!),
as a solid rock upon which to tether her existence in the tempest of
life - as a plant stretches towards the warming sun or as a baby needs
its parent's love. We adults are not so different from children as
we think, although we have persuaded ourselves otherwise in our "wisdom." It
was precisely when you and Hester turned healthy love into overweening
guilt that you both began to die.
What matter that Hester lasted longer than
you, living out her death with the best behind her? To be already an
old woman, though she be still young in years, with all her soft maidenly
smiles turned forever to stern Puritan frowns. That is not how I will
remember Hester Prynne, sitting in her solitary cottage with her needlepoint
listening to the woes of others in the grey garb of sterile spinsterhood.
I will remember her as she was that glorious afternoon in the woods
when she let down her radiant red hair as the yellow sunlight beat
down upon her and she felt joy in being a living breathing woman again
- when Hester suddenly remembered she was beautiful and that a man
still loved her! The joy must have been infectious, Arthur, as your
sickly heart beat with healthy emotion for the first time in years
at the side of this woman who had sacrificed everything for you! Was
it so hard then, to let yourself be happy?
Your macerating sickness could have found
its natural remedy in Hester and new life if only you had the strength
and the courage to live. To compromise - even to sin! - and then to
forgive oneself and move on: this is the true stuff of manhood that
life teaches those who last long enough. To compromise, and to learn
to live with what you cannot rise above; there is no man who draws
nigh his autumn and finds himself completely innocent.
Yet you never graduated to manhood. And,
in consequence, it was but a long and grey dying for Hester. She might
console herself with the remembrance of your soul's redemption or Pearl's
own happiness, but that is a cold substitute for a living man of flesh
and blood with whom to share busy days and loving nights. What do women
care for martyrdom and heroics, they being the playthings of the vanity
of men's minds? Whither your duty to Hester? What meaning and warmth
could you add to her life that could prompt her to give up the crimson
letter? In this you have also sinned greatly, Arthur.
I only hope that if thrust into a similar
position, I could do better than thee. I pray that I might have the
courage to claim the woman as mine own. True love is the rarest flower
we will find in life, the closest we may come to divinity. To forsake
it out of pride or prejudice is well nigh blasphemy! To let it wither
and die out of neglect is absolute tragedy! Yet it happens all the
time, as we both know.
Yours was a moment of glory on the scaffold,
Arthur. But it seems to me a mournful victory, sealed in death and
symbolic of all the sadness and tragedy of this failed world. It hath
the ring of truth, reminding me uncomfortably much of my own life.
Perhaps that is why I judge you harshly in this affair. There is that
verity of which you spoke, the mingling of love and hate; and the more
we understand of one another the less we forgive. In forgiving you,
maybe I can more easily forgive myself.
May you rest in peace in your heavenly
abode Rev. Dimmesdale, enjoying that grace of your God which evaded
you during your time on earth.
Most Respectfully Yours,
Newport Beach, California
June 14, 1997