But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness. . . . The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.

These are the narrator’s reflections at the beginning of Chapter 18, “A Flood of Sunshine.” The quotation concerns the theme of sin and knowledge that is so central to The Scarlet Letter. Over the course of their first significant conversation in many years, Hester and Dimmesdale decide to run away to Europe together. The minister is still in a state of shock, but Hester accepts their decision with relative equanimity.

One result of her “sin” has been her profound alienation from society—she has been forced into the role of philosopher. Although the narrator tries to claim that her speculations have led her “amiss,” it is clear from his tone that he admires her intellectual bravery. It is deeply ironic, too, that it is her punishment, which was intended to help her atone and to make her an example for the community, that has led her into a “moral wilderness” devoid of “rule or guidance.” Finally, this passage is a good example of the eloquent, high-flown yet measured style that the narrator frequently adopts when considering the moral or philosophical ramifications of a situation.