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"The Ocean" In The Threads of the Scarlet Letter, Richard Kopley suggests that the scene in The Scarlet Letter in which Chillingworth approaches the sleeping minister may have been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” (courtesy of University of Delaware Press)

Evidence for Hawthorne’s use of Poe in that novel [SL] is a clear pattern of parallels
between “The Tell-Tale Heart” and The Scarlet Letter. In Poe’s story, for seven nights at “about midnight” a young man “thrust[s]” his head inside the “chamber” of a sleeping “old man” with an “Evil Eye,” and opens a lantern “cautiously (for the hinges creaked)” and shines it upon this “Evil Eye” (Collected Works 3; 792-93).

In Hawthorne’s novel, an “old man”… with an “evil eye”—the physician Roger Chillingworth—seeks something “far worse than death” (1: 196): the violation of the guilty heart of the adulterous young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. In the critical tenth chapter of the The Scarlet Letter, “The Leech and His Patient,” Poe’s story is approximated by Hawthorne’s presentation of a related figurative event and a similarly related literal one. Initially, Hawthorne writes that Chillingworth, as he probes for Dimmesdale’s secret, “groped along as stealthily, with as cautious a tread, and as wary an outlook, as a thief entering a chamber where a man lies only half asleep,--or, it may be, broad awake” (1:130). Hawthorne adds, “In spite of his premeditated carefulness, the floor would now and then creak.” And just as Poe’s “old man” sense “the unperceived shadow” of “Death” (Collected Works 3: 794), so, too, does Dimmesdale “become vaguely aware” of “the shadow of [Chillingworth’s] presence” (1: 130). The figurative becomes literal when Chillingworth, this “old man” with an “evil eye,” actually enters “at noonday” the room of the sleeping young man, lays “his hand upon [the minister’s] bosom,” “thrust[s] aside the vestment,” and discovers the scarlet letter on Dimmesdale’s breast—the sign of the minister’s secret guilt (1:138). Chillingworth has trespassed, causing a spiritual exposure “far worse then [sic] death.” Poe’s intruder had taken a life; Hawthorne’s intruder thinks he has taken a soul. (30)

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