Summary: Chapter 21: The New England Holiday
Echoing the novel’s beginning, the narrator describes another public gathering in the marketplace. But this time the purpose is to celebrate the installation of a new governor, not to punish Hester Prynne. The celebration is relatively sober, but the townspeople’s “Elizabethan” love of splendor lends an air of pageantry to the goings-on. As they wait in the marketplace among an assorted group of townsfolk, Native Americans, and sailors from the ship that is to take Hester and Dimmesdale to Europe, Pearl asks Hester whether the strange minister who does not want to acknowledge them in public will hold out his hands to her as he did at the brook.
Lost in her thoughts and largely ignored by the crowd, Hester is imagining herself defiantly escaping from her long years of dreariness and isolation. Her sense of anticipation is shattered, however, when one of the sailors casually reveals that Chillingworth will be joining them on their passage because the ship needs a doctor and Chillingworth has told the captain that he is a member of Hester’s party. Hester looks up to see Chillingworth standing across the marketplace, smirking at her.
Summary: Chapter 22: The Procession
“Mother,” said [Pearl], “was that the same minister that kissed me by the brook?” “Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!” whispered [Hester]. “We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest.”
The majestic procession passes through the marketplace. A company of armored soldiers is followed by a group of the town fathers, whose stolid and dour characters are prominently displayed. Hester is disheartened to see the richness and power of Puritan tradition displayed with such pomp. She and other onlookers notice that Dimmesdale, who follows the town leaders, looks healthier and more energetic than he has in some time. Although only a few days have passed since he kissed her forehead next to the forest brook, Pearl barely recognizes the minister. She tells Hester that she is tempted to approach the man and bestow a kiss of her own, and Hester scolds her. Dimmesdale’s apparent vigor saddens Hester because it makes him seem remote. She begins to question the wisdom of their plans.
Mistress Hibbins, very elaborately dressed, comes to talk to Hester about Dimmesdale. Saying that she knows those who serve the Black Man, Mistress Hibbins refers to what she calls the minister’s “mark” and declares that it will soon, like Hester’s, be plain to all. Suggesting that the Devil is Pearl’s real father, Mistress Hibbins invites the child to go on a witch’s ride with her at some point in the future. The narrator interrupts his narration of the celebration to note that Mistress Hibbins will soon be executed as a witch.
After the old woman leaves, Hester takes her place at the foot of the scaffold to listen to Dimmesdale’s sermon, which has commenced inside the meetinghouse. Pearl, who has been wandering around the marketplace, returns to give her mother a message from the ship’s master—Chillingworth says he will make the arrangements for bringing Dimmesdale on board, so Hester should attend only to herself and her child. While Hester worries about this new development, she suddenly realizes that everyone around her—both those who are familiar with her scarlet letter and those who are not—is staring at her.
Analysis: Chapters 21–22
These chapters set the stage for the dramatic resolution of the plot. Tension is created by the text’s establishment of a number of conflicts between outward appearances and inward states. We await the inevitable collision and collapse of external and internal, public and private. In her final hours of wearing the scarlet letter, Hester has begun to anticipate her imminent freedom from shame, yet the crowd is quick to remind her that the letter has not yet lost its power of public proclamation. Their transfixed stares emphasize the badge’s persistent visibility, even though, by this point in time, one would no longer expect it to draw much attention. Such gazes continue to exert great force over Hester, and her feelings of escape from them prove premature.
Meanwhile, Dimmesdale’s outer appearance of health, though it may accurately reflect his joy at the thought of his plan with Hester, fails to convey the shadow of past suffering that surely continues to haunt him. While he prepares to pronounce one of the most powerful sermons of his life, his holy words issue from an inner state of what the Puritan elders would consider sin. All of the primary characters in the book, save perhaps Pearl, maintain a secret, something they are hiding as they stand in the public realm of the marketplace. The revelation of these secrets will bring the plot to its climactic explosion.
The pageantry that marks the Election Day festivities provides an appropriate backdrop for the plot’s suspense-building events. The loud music, the costumes, and the display of power are all reminders of the hypocrisy at the heart of Puritan society. The Puritans came from and shunned Elizabethan England, a culture that loved and yearned for ostentatious opulence. It seems that the Puritans’ repression of their own desires for extravagant displays may have only intensified the power images have over them. The exceptionally straightforward revelry serves to highlight the fact that the desire for splendor has always existed. In effect, the Puritans have re-created the aesthetic of the society from which they tried to escape.
Hester, the sailors, and the Native Americans are meaningful symbols of subversion. Because the sailors are perceived as facing grave terrors on the open sea, society tends to overlook their eccentric behavior, and they can carry on in active defiance of convention. The presence of the Native Americans, who are positioned at an even greater distance from mainstream colonist society, adds more weight to the novel’s social critique. Unaware of the story behind the scarlet letter, they think its wearer is a person of great importance. Their reaction highlights the arbitrary nature of this important sign.
Yet, these figures of subversion in the marketplace ultimately serve to suggest the absence of any true alternatives. To the Puritans, the holiday display, the sailors, and the Native Americans constitute the exceptions that prove the rule of Puritan social order. The return of the action to the novel’s initial setting—the public space before the scaffold where Hester originally received her punishment—foreshadows the fact that Hester’s physical and moral emancipation will be thwarted. As Hester stands apart from her fellow Bostonians—no one wants to stand too close to her—she once more becomes an example to keep others in line. Unable to exercise her free will as a human being, Hester stands no chance for escape. Chillingworth and the town elders are part of a larger, self-serving evil that can overcome any challenges by assigning them new meanings to fit its own purposes. Dimmesdale, too, becomes once more a part of this dominant order; hence Hester’s sense that he seems “remote.” Dimmesdale, like the other townspeople, reminds Hester that resistance is futile.