"Thou must dwell no longer with this man," said Hester, slowly and firmly. "Thy heart must be no longer under his evil eye!"

"It were far worse than death!" replied the minister. "But how to avoid it? What choice remains to me? Shall I lie down again on these withered leaves, where I cast myself when thou didst tell me what he was? Must I sink down there, and die at once?"
(Nathaniel Hawthorne,The Scarlet Letter)

There is ‘were’ instead of ‘was’ after it. Is the sentence a kind of subjunctive?

1 Answer 1


It is indeed subjunctive. Hawthorne is emulating the diction of the 17th century, when the subjunctive was still very much alive. For instance:

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly.
     —Macbeth, I,7

Today we would say

If this were [over and] done [with] once it has been done, it would be good to do it quickly.

Similarly, we would translate Dimmesdale's reply as

"It would be far worse than death!"

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