Summary: Chapter 19: The Child at the Brook-Side
Hester calls to Pearl to join her and Dimmesdale. From the other side of the brook, Pearl eyes her parents with suspicion. She refuses to come to her mother, pointing at the empty place on Hester’s chest where the scarlet letter used to be. Hester has to pin the letter back on and effect a transformation back into her old, sad self before Pearl will cross the creek. In her mother’s arms, Pearl kisses Hester and, seemingly out of spite, also kisses the scarlet letter. Hester tries to encourage Pearl to embrace Dimmesdale as well, although she does not tell her that the minister is her father. Pearl, aware that the adults seem to have made some sort of arrangement, asks, “Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?” Because Dimmesdale will not, Pearl rebuffs his subsequent kiss on the forehead. She runs to the brook and attempts to wash it off.
Summary: Chapter 20: The Minister in a Maze
As the minister returns to town, he can hardly believe the change in his fortunes. He and Hester have decided to go to Europe, since it offers more anonymity and a better environment for Dimmesdale’s fragile health. Through her charity work, Hester has become acquainted with the crew of a ship that is to depart for England in four days, and the couple plans to secure passage on this vessel. Tempted to announce to all he sees, “I am not the man for whom you take me! I left him yonder in the forest,” Dimmesdale now finds things that were once familiar, including himself, to seem strange.
As he passes one of the church elders on his way through town, the minister can barely control his urge to utter blasphemous statements. He then encounters an elderly woman who is looking for a small tidbit of spiritual comfort. To her he nearly blurts out a devastating “unanswerable argument against the immortality of the human soul,” but something stops him, and the widow totters away satisfied. He next ignores a young woman whom he has recently converted to the church because he fears that his strange state of mind will lead him to plant some corrupting germ in her innocent heart. Passing one of the sailors from the ship on which he plans to escape, Dimmesdale has the impulse to engage with him in a round of oaths; this comes only shortly after an encounter with a group of children, whom the minister nearly teaches some “wicked words.” Finally, Dimmesdale runs into Mistress Hibbins, who chuckles at him and offers herself as an escort the next time he visits the forest. This interchange disturbs Dimmesdale and suggests to him that he may have made a bargain with Mistress Hibbins’s master, the Devil.
When he reaches his house, Dimmesdale tells Chillingworth that he has no more need of the physician’s drugs. Chillingworth becomes wary but is afraid to ask Dimmesdale outright if the minister knows his real identity. Dimmesdale has already started to write the sermon he is expected to deliver in three days for Election Day (a religious as well as civil holiday that marks the opening of the year’s legislative session). In light of his new view of humanity, he now throws his former manuscript in the fire and writes a newer and better sermon.
Analysis: Chapters 19–20
Hester and Dimmesdale’s encounter serves to further complicate what is already a morally ambiguous situation. The sun shines on the couple when Hester removes the scarlet letter, suggesting that nature, God, or both favor their plan. Pearl, on the contrary, cannot accept this new, happier version of her mother. When she forces Hester to reattach the letter to her breast, Hester’s beauty immediately dissolves, “like fading sunshine,” making it seem as if Pearl is wrong to make her mother reassume her old identity. But the reader has already learned to associate Pearl with a special sort of insight, and thus it does not seem likely that Pearl errs here. Indeed, once Pearl rejoins her parents, it becomes apparent that she is right to be skeptical. She asks Dimmesdale to publicly acknowledge his relationship to her, and he refuses.
When added to the fact that the couple plans to flee to Europe, Pearl’s instinctual displeasure with the changes that have taken place in the forest suggests that Hester and Dimmesdale are not operating according to a newer, better moral code but are instead trying to find new ways to defy the same old social rules. The Puritans fled Europe out of the desire to live in a place where they would not need to hide their religious affiliations or fear the sanctions of others. Within the novel, they simply seem to have re-created the old order in the new world. Likewise, Hester and Dimmesdale are failing in their attempt to follow a higher truth. The most damning evidence of this is the fact that Dimmesdale is pleased that he will be able to stay in Boston long enough to preach the sermon for Election Day, a holiday that celebrates the forces that have tried to destroy the former lovers. Seemingly without irony, he finds it the appropriate conclusion to his career. The struggle between individual identity and social identity remains an important theme.
The thematic connection of sin with alienation and knowledge continues in these chapters. Dimmesdale returns to the village with a changed perspective. His experience in the wilderness has led him to question every aspect of his existence, and all of his usual behaviors are reversed. Dimmesdale walks a fine line between revelation and knowledge on the one hand, and destruction and evil on the other. His devilish impulses—to say that the human soul is mortal and that oaths and curses are the best response to a cruel world—might be revelations. They could also be insidious lies that will lead to his damnation.
When Dimmesdale ignores the young woman whom he encounters on the street, he clings to the values he ought, according to his newfound beliefs, to reject. Had he spoken to the young woman, he could have offered her a more realistic version of human experience. Instead, he allows her to remain part of a system he has come to accept as corrupt, because he still lazily believes that the church offers her a way to salvation. Moreover, Dimmesdale worries that encountering her now, after his time in the woods, would somehow contaminate her, but what he fails to acknowledge fully is that the contamination has already occurred. The text makes clear that he has used the young woman’s sexual attraction to him to win her over to the church.