The Scarlet Letter Summary and Analysis

Chapters 17-20

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Chapter Seventeen: The Pastor and his Parishioner

Summary

Hester calls out to Dimmesdale and starts talking to him. He tells her that he feels like a cheat whenever he preaches to his congregation, and he longs for a friend who knows his secret. Hester offers to be his friend, but she tells him that he is living with an enemy.

She reveals the fact that Chillingworth is her former husband, at which Dimmesdale first appears angry but then sinks down into the ground. He tells Hester that he cannot forgive her for not telling him. Hester, after seven years of desperately wanting forgiveness, puts her arms around Dimmesdale and pleads with him to forgive her, which he finally does.

He begs her to tell him what to do now that he cannot live with Chillingworth any longer. Hester advises Dimmesdale to leave the settlement and go into the wilderness where he can live in peace. He declines the very thought, but she presses him to then take a new name and go to Europe. Dimmesdale says, "thou tellest of running a race to a man whose knees are tottering beneath him!"

Analysis

Hester reveals that Chillingworth is her husband, and it is clear that Dimmesdale has crossed the point of no return. He has withheld confession long enough to have to die for his sin, as though he has traded his own soul, his own daughter, his own love all in order to preserve a semblance of self-preservation. And in return, he has lost his self-respect and will to live. Had Dimmesdale confessed earlier, there might have been the possibility not only for redemption, but also to start anew by leaving town with Hester and his daughter. He believes the possibility still exists, but the crush of shame and guilt now deny him the option.

It is telling here that Dimmesdale, at first a portrait of unyielding stringency, ultimately forgives Hester. She, after all, has committed a terrible crime by not telling him that Chillingworth was her husband, but we sense that Dimmesdale takes responsibility for this as well. If he had had the courage to confess his sins, then he never would have fallen into the power of such evil. Finally, Dimmesdale is beginning to make amends, and he is coming to believe that he is the root of much evil, which means to him that upon his death, he will open up a path to a new life for everyone else.

Chapter Eighteen: A Flood of Sunshine

Summary

Dimmesdale allows himself to be overcome by Hester's arguments for leaving, and he resolves to go with her. He is happy once he makes the decision to go, and he feels that a burden of guilt has been lifted from his shoulders. Hester, in a moment of passion, says, "Let us not look back." She then undoes the scarlet letter and tosses it from her, watching it land only a few feet from the stream which would have carried it away.

Hester tells Dimmesdale that he must get to know Pearl so that he can love her the way she does. She calls Pearl, who is standing in a ray of sunshine. The narrator then compares Pearl to a nymph and calls her a wild spirit. He tells that the animals were not afraid of her, and even a wolf allowed her to pat its head. Pearl has decorated herself with wild flowers, both in her hair and on her clothing. When she sees the minister she approaches slowly.

Analysis

The image of the forest as the wild place where can passion can flow returns in this chapter. Thus Hawthorne writes about Hester, "She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness ... as vast ... as the untamed forest." Boston, trying to keep a civilized community over against the wild, remains bordered on three sides by the forest, making the wild and its amorality a constant threat to the Puritan society. The townspeople truly believed in the evil of the woods—knowing the godless nature of the wild—and thus retained their insularity in their desire to preserve their settlement’s values. But it is in the woods that people find forgiveness for their sins inside the community, as Hester and Dimmesdale discover in their nighttime meeting.

In line with this forest imagery, Hawthorne compares Hester's passion to the movement of a brook's water and its seeming sadness (a metaphor that has recurred throughout the novel). The idea of a sad brook, slowly going into the forest, indicates that Hester is lost and does not know where she will end up. In this chapter she makes the decision to follow the brook deeper into the wilderness. In the woods, she is invigorated, brought to a new sense of life, so much so that she lets her hair down and throws away the scarlet letter.

Notice the title of the chapter, and its repetition of the sunshine motif that we discussed earlier. The sun, of course, is an obvious symbol for redemption and life, but it was blocked earlier by a desire to hide the truth—namely, Dimmesdale's place as Pearl's father. In this chapter, however, Hester finally disposes of the scarlet letter, and Dimmesdale takes his place as Pearl's father, welcoming her with love. The sunshine breaks through the darkness of lies, shame and ignorance, and for a brief moment light shines on this newly reconciled, peaceful family.

Chapter Nineteen: The Child at the Brookside

Summary

Hester watches as Pearl walks up to the stream and stops on the other side, still standing in a ray of sunlight. Dimmesdale is anxious that Pearl should cross the stream, and he asks Hester to make her hurry. Pearl starts screaming and convulsing and points to Hester's chest, where the scarlet letter had been removed. Hester finally has to get up and cross the stream, reattach the letter, and put her hair back under her hat.

Hester then drags Pearl up to where Dimmesdale is sitting. Pearl again asks if the minister will always keep his hand over his heart and if he will walk into town with them. Dimmesdale gives her a kiss on the forehead, but Pearl runs away and washes the kiss off in the stream.

Analysis

Why does Pearl demand that her mother put the scarlet letter back on her breast? Pearl cannot imagine her mother without the letter; it may be a centering emblem of security. Pearl also seems to see herself as the living embodiment of the letter, and to throw it away would be to throw her away—remember that to Pearl it is not a badge of shame so much as a badge of love. At the same time, perhaps Pearl realizes that all is still not well: Dimmesdale must suffer for his failure to confess, and the letter on Hester's breast may become the only living memory of her father. Pearl also could be preserving the only memorial her mother will have of him.

Pearl, as Hawthorne pointed out, is the “moral blossom” at the center of the story. She seems to be the intermediary, in a sense, between the town's values and Hester and Dimmesdale's passion for each other. Indeed, she is at once the product of their lust and the punisher of it, for she demands that Dimmesdale take responsibility for it. Pearl is not content for her father to embrace her in the woods and return to his town as the revered minister. Instead, she wants to be held out on the scaffold as his child and wants to celebrate the letter on his chest as much as she loves the one on her mother’s. She is a child of two scarlet letters, but Dimmesdale has not revealed his, and her mother comes dangerously close to disposing of hers. Pearl, as the “moral blossom,” will not have it. Until her parents have brought her out of shame, she will not set them free.

Chapter Twenty: The Minister in a Maze

Summary

Dimmesdale returns to town thoroughly aware of having a new perception of life. He has much more energy than when he left only two days earlier, and everything looks different to him. Three times in a row he is approached by various people, and he struggles not to utter blasphemy. He is even tempted to teach dirty words to a group of small Puritan children.

Mistress Hibbins overhears him complain that he is haunted and tempted. She stops and asks Dimmesdale when he will be returning to the forest—so that she may join him. He tells her he is never going back, to which she replies that at midnight they will soon be together in the forest. She then departs, leaving Dimmesdale terrified of what he has done with Hester.

Dimmesdale finally returns home and enters his study. Chillingworth enters and offers to make some medicine for Dimmesdale so that he will have enough energy to write his Election Sermon. The Election Sermon is meant to be the highlight of the clergyman's career to date, and it is an extremely important speech. Dimmesdale declines the offer and instead orders some food, which he eats "with ravenous appetite." He then sits down and starts writing his sermon, continuing all through the night and even well into the morning.

Analysis

Dimmesdale's confusion and changed spirit are clearly results of his passionate bonding with Hester in the woods. Still, the evil thoughts that he keeps having are difficult to explain. It is likely that Hester has infected him with her passion to the point that he is willing to break with the Puritanical strictness and start "living" in the romantic sense. But he naturally assumes that the devil is at work instead, and asks, "Did I make a contract with him in the forest, and sign it with my blood?" This reference to the Black Man, from whom Hester has claimed to have received her letter, is a fulfillment of Pearl's questions in the earlier pages.

We do not know yet what Dimmesdale's Election Sermon consists of, but we might have some ideas. It could reflect his new learning about the importance of confession and responsibility for sin, with or without including his own confession of adultery, or he could use the sermon as a chance for personal redemption. In either case, we sense that Dimmesdale is already doomed, for he has led his congregation astray too long. We see the climax on its way. Dimmesdale, more than Hester, is set up as a martyr who must die in order to teach the town about not only the sin of hypocrisy, but also the sin of denying one's heart to preserve appearances. This is the common problem of restrictive regimes, their forced denial of true feeling in the name of a supposedly greater good. Now it is up to Dimmesdale to reveal that the good for which the Puritans strive can, in the hands of a strict regime, be distorted; a regime that aims for good might inadvertently yield the darkest evil.