Back in her prison cell, Hester is in a state of nervous frenzy, and Pearl writhes in painful convulsions. That evening, when Roger Chillingworth enters Hester's prison cell, she fears his intentions, but he gives Pearl a draught of medicine that eases the child's pain almost immediately, and she falls asleep. After he persuades Hester to drink a sedative to calm her frayed nerves, the two sit and talk intimately and sympathetically, each of them accepting a measure of blame for Hester's adulterous affair.
Chillingworth, the injured husband, seeks no revenge against Hester, but he is determined to discover the father of Pearl. Although this unidentified man doesn't wear a scarlet A on his clothes as Hester does, Chillingworth vows that he will "read it on his heart." He then makes Hester promise not to reveal his identity. Hester takes an oath to keep Chillingworth's identity a secret, although she expresses the fear that her vow of silence may prove the ruin of her soul.
Unlike the previous chapter, Hawthorne does not summarize or discuss the actions of his characters, nor does he tell the readers what to think. Instead, he puts Hester and Chillingworth together and lets the reader learn about their attitudes and their relationship to each other through their dialogue. By juxtaposing heavily prosaic chapters, like Chapter 3, with ones dominated by the characters' dialogue, Hawthorne creates a pattern in the novel that heightens the dramatic content of the dialogic chapters.
Chapter 4 is especially important to understanding Chillingworth. Hawthorne gives a view of what he has been as well as what he is to become. Throughout the novel, he is referred to as a scholar, a man most interested in studying — reading about — human behavior. Unfortunately, however, Chillingworth hints that in his pursuit of scholarship, he has failed both Hester and himself. He admits to her, "I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay." We can initially sympathize with this lonely scholar who has been robbed of his wife, but we also can see the element of his future self-destruction in his grim determination to discover the man who has offended him. In fact, as Hester and Chillingworth continue their conversation, we see the development of Chillingworth as one of the novel's symbols of evil.
Of Hester, we learn that she has never pretended to love her husband but that she deeply loves the man whom Chillingworth has vowed to punish. Ironically, it is Hester's concern for Dimmesdale, more than her sense of obligation to her marriage, that persuades her to promise never to reveal that Chillingworth is her husband. This promise will make both Hester and Dimmesdale suffer greatly later in the book.
Indian sagamores chiefs or subchiefs in the Abnakis culture.
stripes [Archaic] welts on the skin caused by whipping.
alchemy the ancient system of chemistry and philosophy having the aim of changing base metals into gold.
simples [Archaic] medicines from herbs or plants.
leech .[Archaic] a doctor. In Hawthorne's time, blood-sucking leeches were used to effect a cure by removing blood.
Lethe the river of forgetfulness, flowing through Hades, whose water produces loss of memory in those who drink of it.
Nepenthe a drug supposed by the ancient Greeks to cause forgetfulness of sorrow.
Paracelsus (1493-1541) The most famous medieval alchemist; he was Swiss.
bale-fire an outdoor fire; bonfire; here, a beacon fire.
Black Man the devil who "haunts the forest."