Chapter Twenty-one: The New England Holiday
Hester and Pearl go into the town and enter the marketplace, which is teeming with people. The holiday is to celebrate the election of a new Governor, and festivities are planned for one of the few non-Sundays when everyone stops working.
A group of sailors is also in the town, planning to leave the next day. Hester and Dimmesdale have worked out a plan to escape on their ship. But Roger Chillingworth talks to the ship's captain, who then comes over to Hester. He tells her that he is adding Chillingworth to the crew for the voyage, since he can always use another physician. Hester barely reacts in her outward expression, but after the captain goes she sees Chillingworth smiling at her.
Chillingworth prevents the lovers from absconding together, which may not be quite as good to him as if he had been able to mete his final revenge on the ship. But Chillingworth's victory serves a number of plot devices and thematic purposes. For one, it prevents Dimmesdale from getting away without public shame. If he could simply leave, he never would have to truly confront the full scope of his sin, not just the adultery, but also his hypocritical failure to take responsibility for an act he repeatedly condemned to his congregation. Chillingworth, then, is actually setting Dimmesdale free, for the reverend will finally now confess before his congregation and gain the redemption that comes with death.
In preventing Hester from leaving alone with Dimmesdale, he is preserving the status quo for just a little longer, where he remains in control. He has become the embodiment of the Devil in the sense that he is seeking to gain access to Dimmesdale’s body, infect it, and ultimately take it as his own.
It is clear that Chillingworth now despises Hester, despite any early idea of returning to her in marriage. It may be more accurate, however, to call this hate a form of self-loathing. The initial mistake, marrying a woman who did not love him, is finally reaching its tentacles back around him.
Chapter Twenty-two: The Procession
A large parade of soldiers and magistrates goes through the town. Dimmesdale, towards the end of the procession, appears to have far more energy than ever before. Pearl tells her mother that she wants to ask him to kiss her in broad daylight, at which point Hester tells Pearl to hush.
Mistress Hibbins comes up to Hester and tells her that she knows Dimmesdale and Hester met in the woods. She indicates that she knows about Dimmesdale having received the badge of sin and knows that he is hiding it. She then says that the Black Man has "a way of ordering matters so that the mark shall be disclosed in open daylight to the eyes of all the world."
Hester takes Pearl and goes to stand near the foot of the scaffold in order to listen to Dimmesdale's speech. Pearl then takes off and runs around playing. The ship's captain gets Pearl to come to him, and he gives her a message. Pearl returns to her mother and tells her that Chillingworth has told the captain that he will make sure Dimmesdale gets on board, and that Hester only has to worry about herself and Pearl.
Hester is crushed by this new information. She stands still. She is soon surrounded by many people who are trying to get a glimpse of the scarlet letter on her breast.
It is, of course, the supposed witch who can see the truth. In this case, Mistress Hibbins claims she already knows the extent of Hester and Dimmesdale's crimes. In the forest, it seems, there is no need for confession, because people live with their actions and take responsibility for them, whereas in town, there are rules and therefore sins, with so much fear and shame attached to sin that people deny the sins in the hopes of preserving their appearances among others.
Hester's location, directly next to the scaffold, is the strongest indicator that the climactic revelations will occur in this hallowed place where sins are revealed and punished. Soon Dimmesdale will join her, but no longer as the Reverend Minister with the power to condemn and guide, but simply as a man hoping for forgiveness. Reverend Dimmesdale has a terrible time, it seems, shedding his identity as spiritual leader and moral compass of the community. But, in a defiant act, he will transfer the role of “moral blossom” to Pearl.
Chapter Twenty-three: Revelation of the Scarlet Letter
Dimmesdale finishes his sermon, and the crowd erupts in loud applause. It marks the highest point of Dimmesdale's life. Dimmesdale then loses the energy which had sustained him ever since meeting Hester in the forest. He slowly walks over to the scaffold and pillory.
When he arrives, he calls out, "Hester, come hither! Come, my little Pearl!" Pearl immediately runs over to him and hugs his knees. Roger Chillingworth grabs his arm and demands that he stop, but Dimmesdale laughs him off and says that he will now escape Chillingworth’s evil influence.
Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold calling Hester, who slowly comes over to him. Chillingworth bitterly tells Dimmesdale that there is no place on earth he could have escaped to, except on the scaffold, where he would have been safe. Hester is terrified that all three of them will die after this spectacle.
The crowd is bewildered by the actions of the minister. He tells them that he should have stood with Hester seven years earlier. Dimmesdale then indicates that he has secretly worn the badge of the scarlet letter the whole time, without anyone knowing it. At that, "he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed!"
Dimmesdale then sinks down to his knees and asks Pearl to kiss him now. She does, and "a spell was broken ... her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world. Towards her mother, too, Pearl's errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled." Dimmesdale then dies on the scaffold.
All is revealed and redeemed in Dimmesdale's final act of confession upon the scaffold. He reveals the scarlet letter that he has imprinted in his own flesh, finally shedding light on his own sin, on his own shame that he could hardly bear. In doing so, he sets Hester and Pearl free, and he dies knowing that morality will live in the body of his young child. Chillingworth, meanwhile, is sabotaged, having lost the body on which he has preyed, and having lost a soul which he believed would never reveal its goodness. As a result, Chillingworth's potency vanishes as well, and it is no surprise that he dies soon after.
Of all the characters, Pearl probably changes most from this revelation. She has gone from a child of lust and shame to a child of passion to a child of love and morality (in the confession of imperfection), now basking in the sunlight of truth and in the unconditional love among mother, father, and child. We will learn that Pearl goes on to have a beautiful, happy life, in which she marries and keeps her mother close to her heart, without the ill effects of her torturous early life. She is now our moral compass, pointing towards truth, for it is truth, worn not as a badge of shame, but as a badge of acknowledgment of the realities of human imperfections in spite of human dignity, that will ward off the evil of the puritanical culture of shame.
Chapter Twenty-four: Conclusion
Soon after Dimmesdale dies, Roger Chillingworth also passes away. He leaves all of his estate to Pearl, who immediately becomes the wealthiest heiress in the New World. Hester and Pearl then disappear for several years. Hester returns to live the rest of her life in her cottage, and she becomes famous throughout the community for her help with the poor and sick. The narrator infers that Pearl is happily married and living overseas in Europe. Hester eventually dies and is buried in the cemetery at the site of the King's Chapel.
The conclusion seems almost unnecessary, since the story seemed to end in the previous chapter, but romantic audiences have an interest in following the characters beyond the climactic scene. Poetic justice is occurring here: Chillingworth dies with nothing more to do, and perhaps he found redemption for his vengeance in bequeathing his property to Pearl. Indeed, he found it in his heart to claim her as his own child, perhaps in recognition that he owed a debt to the spirit of Dimmesdale and that Pearl was never a devil’s child. Pearl has the successful and happy life she would have had if she had been Chillingworth’s legitimate child.
As for Hester, perhaps she feels the need to repay her debt of sin by helping the poor and the sick, but more likely she has turned even more fully to living a Christian life of offering help to those who society sets low in its hierarchy. Realizing that she will not find love again after the death of Dimmesdale and in the wake of so much notoriety, she decides to turn her sunshine upon those who most need it. After all, she now has a new lease on life, with the opportunity to live outside the stringency of society; she can continue to seek peace sincerely, in and from her own heart. She dies alone, but we sense that she has lived a full life, able to ascend to heaven knowing that she has fulfilled not only her duties, but also her love, ensuring that her daughter will continue her legacy of love, truth, and honor.