Summary: Chapter 17: The Pastor and His Parishioner
In the forest, Hester and Dimmesdale are finally able to escape both the public eye and Chillingworth. They join hands and sit in a secluded spot near a brook. Hester tells Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband. This news causes a “dark transfiguration” in Dimmesdale, and he begins to condemn Hester, blaming her for his suffering. Hester, unable to bear his harsh words, pulls him to her chest and buries his face in the scarlet letter as she begs his pardon. Dimmesdale eventually forgives her, realizing that Chillingworth is a worse sinner than either of them. The minister now worries that Chillingworth, who knows of Hester’s intention to reveal his secret, will expose them publicly. Hester tells the minister not to worry. She insists, though, that Dimmesdale free himself from the old man’s power. The former lovers plot to steal away on a ship to Europe, where they can live with Pearl as a family.
Summary: Chapter 18: A Flood of Sunshine
The scarlet letter was [Hester’s] 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.
The decision to move to Europe energizes both Dimmesdale and Hester. Dimmesdale declares that he can feel joy once again, and Hester throws the scarlet letter from her chest. Having cast off her “stigma,” Hester regains some of her former, passionate beauty, and she lets down her hair and smiles. Sunlight, which, as Pearl has pointed out, stays away from her mother as though it fears her scarlet letter, suddenly brightens the forest. Hester speaks to Dimmesdale about Pearl and is ecstatic that father and daughter will be able to know one another. She calls their daughter, who has been playing among the forest creatures, to join them. Pearl approaches warily.
Analysis: Chapters 17–18
The encounter in the forest is the first time the reader sees Hester and Dimmesdale in an intimate setting. Hester is moved to call the minister by his first name, and the two join hands. They refer to the initial days of their romance as a “consecration,” which suggests that they see their “sin” as having been no more than the fulfillment of a natural law. Up to this point, the narrator withheld any sentimental and tender aspects of the couple’s relationship from the reader, which enabled him to focus on issues of punishment and social order. Now that the reader has had time to develop a strong feeling about this society’s way of dealing with its problems, the narrator begins to complicate his treatment of sin as a theme.
In previous chapters, the narrative has begun a subtle reevaluation of what constitutes sin. Hester and Chillingworth have discussed blame and responsibility, Mistress Hibbins has been introduced, and the narrator has provided commentary throughout on the hypocrisy of various figures. Here, though, Dimmesdale posits a hierarchy of sin, as he directly proclaims that Chillingworth’s vengefulness is far worse than any adultery. This is the first official recognition in the text of any sort of alternative to the Puritan order, be it natural or intellectual.
Because of her alienation from society, Hester has taken an “estranged point of view [toward] human institutions.” She has been able to think for herself, thanks to the scarlet letter and its dose of “Shame, Despair [and] Solitude.” She seems to have developed an understanding of a sort of “natural law,” and it is according to her instinctive principles that she decides that she, Dimmesdale, and Pearl should flee to Europe. A distinction is made between “sin” and “evil.” Sin, as represented by Hester’s past, constitutes an injury against the social and moral order but not against other human beings directly. Although it leads to alienation, it also leads to knowledge. It is a breaking of the rules for the sake of happiness. Evil, on the other hand, can be found in the hearts of those like Chillingworth, who seek no one’s happiness—not even their own—and desire only the injury of others.
Dimmesdale reacts with “joy” to the planned escape, but it is unclear whether they have made the right decision or are entering into further sin. Because their two sets of principles differ drastically, Pearl’s analysis of Hester and Dimmesdale is important in these chapters. Uncontaminated by society, Pearl is strongly associated with the natural world and therefore with truth. Hester believes that Pearl will provide the cement for her illegitimate relationship with Dimmesdale because, as their child, she naturally connects them. Yet, when Hester beckons Pearl to come to her, the child does not recognize her own mother. With her hair down and the letter gone, Hester doubtlessly looks different, and Pearl may read her mother’s abandonment of the scarlet letter as an omen of her own abandonment.
As Pearl is the one character in the narrative who has access to “truth,” her unwillingness to respond to her mother suggests that there is something wrong with Hester and Dimmesdale’s plan. One could view the couple’s planned escape to Europe as a defeat—they have succumbed to the society that polices them and to the “sin” that has constantly threatened to overtake them.