Chapter Thirteen: Another View of Hester
Hester's reputation has changed over the seven years since she had Pearl. Her devotion to serving the sick and needy has given her access into almost every home, and people now interpret the A as meaning "Able" rather than "Adultery." The narrator goes so far as to state that "the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun's bosom."
Hester's appearance has also changed over the years, but for the worse. Rather than having her youthful good looks, she now seems more like a shell of a human being. Her "rich and luxuriant" hair either has been cut off or remains hidden under a cap. But she "might at any moment become a woman again, if there were only the magic touch to effect the transfiguration."
Rather than living in passion and feeling, Hester spends most of her time devoted to thought. Indeed, "had little Pearl never come to her from the spiritual world ... she might have come down to us in history, hand in hand with Ann[e] Hutchinson, as the foundress of a religious sect."
Hester resolves to help Dimmesdale by rescuing him from Roger Chillingworth. She has grown strong enough as a woman to see that her previous pact with Chillingworth, in which she promised not to reveal who he really is, was the wrong decision. She therefore decides to meet him, and soon thereafter she finds him in the woods collecting medicinal herbs.
Now that Hester has not only publicly confessed but also has taken responsibility for her actions, the town seems to follow her lead and begins to forgive her. Indeed, now the scarlet letter begs reevaluation, and it comes to stand for “Able.” Hester's own psyche mirrors this general change in opinion. For one thing, she has suddenly become more active in her desires to protect Dimmesdale from Chillingworth. Seeing her husband leeching the life force out of the minister, she seems willing to commit adultery once more, albeit in a different form now, one that involves betraying her husband in order to save her past lover. She is willing to risk punishment again in order to save Dimmesdale's life. At the same time, Hawthorne notes that Hester has begun to lose her impulsive, passionate sensibility and turn more towards thought, logic, and reasoned action. In learning to understand and take responsibility for her feelings, it seems, she has found a maturity which escapes even the most dutiful townspeople.
Of course, it is far too late for Hester to derail Dimmesdale's imminent, tragic fate. Tragedy is often sparked by a protagonist's “tragic flaw,” some problem of character that accounts for the person’s demise. In this case, Dimmesdale had his opportunity for redemption and freedom, but by refusing to stand alongside Hester on the scaffold, in refusing to confess his sins of his own will, he soon will be driven to confess them on his deathbed. Hester cannot free him from Chillingworth, but she can make him see the truth before Dimmesdale is forced to reckon with his own demons before the town.
Chapter Fourteen: Hester and the Physician
Hester sends Pearl away for a moment and approaches Chillingworth. He tells her that the council thinks she may be allowed to remove the scarlet letter in due time, to which she replies that no earthly power can decide such a thing. Hester then notices the changes that have taken place in Chillingworth over the past seven years. She sees that he has gone from a soft-spoken scholar to a fierce man. He "was a striking evidence of man's faculty of transforming himself into a devil."
Hester then tells Chillingworth that she plans to reveal his true identity to Dimmesdale. He is unmoved by this, telling her that nothing he or she does can alter the way things now stand. She pleads with Chillingworth to pardon Dimmesdale for what happened so that he can let go of his revenge. Chillingworth replies, "Let the black flower blossom as it may."
Chillingworth has tried in vain to drain Dimmesdale's soul for his own purposes, and we get the clearest indication here, as Hester looks into his eyes and sees nothing but blackness and evil. Chillingworth is completely unable to forgive or pardon, and he senses with latent rage that events are beginning to happen independently of his purposes. Chillingworth, in his way, has sold his own soul to the devil, essentially disowning it, in the hopes of appropriating Dimmesdale’s vitality.
Hester sees this at once, but it is Chillingworth's final verdict that the "black flower" will continue to blossom that reveals his allegiance to evil. Chillingworth suggests that Hester's one act of adultery has spawned evil that will last forever, first through Pearl, and now in Chillingworth's relentless attempts to punish her and Dimmesdale. Hester accepts her role in the sin, but she cannot accept this perpetuity of evil. She actually will be vindicated upon Dimmesdale's confession, when the black flower will lose its power and slowly shrivel, giving way to new, unfettered life.
Chapter Fifteen: Hester and Pearl
During her mother's conversation with Roger Chillingworth, Pearl has managed to play by herself. Her last act is to make the symbol of the scarlet letter out of seaweed and put it on her chest. Her mother asks her if she knows what the letter means, but Pearl only knows it is the letter A.
Hester then asks Pearl if she knows why her mother wears the letter. Pearl answers that "It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart!" Pearl then demands that her mother tell her what the A stands for and why the minister keeps putting his hand over his heart. Hester lies about the letter for the first time ever, saying that she wears it for the gold thread.
Hester's refusal to tell Pearl the true meaning of the letter is symbolic of Pearl's role in the novel. Pearl has often been compared to a living version of the scarlet letter. Thus, until she is told what the letter really means, she is unable to know herself. Her role as a living scarlet letter is to announce to the whole world who the guilty parties are, something she has unwittingly done throughout the novel.
The failure of Hester to fully reveal her secret to Pearl creates a conflict that will have to be resolved before the novel ends. Pearl's persistence in asking what the letter means shows that she is starting to complete her assigned role in the story. She started to complete this role by demanding that Dimmesdale hold her hand on the scaffold, and she will likely be the one to finally reveal Dimmesdale's secret.
Chapter Sixteen: A Forest Walk
Hester takes Pearl on a walk into the woods because she has heard that Dimmesdale will be walking along the forest path. She needs to meet him in order to warn him about who Chillingworth really is. While entering the woods, the sunlight spots start to disappear as Hester approaches them. Pearl tells her that she can still catch the sunlight since she does not yet wear a letter. She then runs and catches a beam of sunlight, which disappears as soon as Hester tries to put her hand into it.
Pearl asks her mother to tell her a story about the Black Man, who is said to haunt the forest. The Black Man is a myth about the devil, and the story says that he carries a large book and pen with which people write their names in blood. The Black Man then puts his mark on the person.
Hester, tired of Pearl asking about the scarlet letter, tells her that the letter is the mark of the Black Man, which she received after meeting the Black Man once before. Dimmesdale then starts coming down the forest path, and Pearl sees him. She asks her mother if he covers his heart because he has a mark on his chest as well. She further asks why he does not wear his mark on the outside of his clothing like her mother does.
The image of sunlight returns once more in this chapter, as Hester tries to catch a beam of sunlight for Pearl. Earlier in the novel, Hester stated that she could never offer Pearl sunlight—she had no more for her child. But now she has come full circle, enough to want to give her child light, and even enough to want to show off her child in an approving light. Yet, she cannot catch the light; the child is still without a true father. Pearl is still not at peace. At the same time, we see that Hester, by confessing and taking responsibility for her sin, has been able to heal.
When Pearl asks why Dimmesdale does not wear his letter on the outside of his clothes and keeps reaching for his heart, again we see that she senses the truth. Pearl asks this question repeatedly throughout the story, and Hester's failure to answer tends to lead to escalating rage in her daughter. But now, we sense that Pearl actually knows why, just as Hester seems unwilling to fight any more against hiding them. As long as Dimmesdale hides the truth from Pearl, his scarlet letter will burn deeper into his skin. He has traded the love of a child for his own self-preservation. Hester, by choosing her child over the superficial acceptance of the town, has earned the right to cast off the letter, something she now disdains, for she has grown fond of it, perhaps because it afforded her not only freedom from the guilt of sin but a kind of freedom from the mores of an overly stringent society.