The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne Summary and Analysis Chapter 17 - The Pastor and His Parishioner

Summary

As Dimmesdale walks in the wilderness, returning from a visit with Apostle Eliot, he hears Hester's voice and is surprised by her presence. At first, he cannot tell whether she is a human or a ghost. In fact, they are both ghosts of their former selves, and their chill hands and hesitant words reveal the strangeness of this meeting.

Both Hester and Dimmesdale talk with each other about the past seven years, and Dimmesdale confesses his misery and unhappiness. While Hester consoles him and mentions people's reverence for him, the minister feels his guilt and hypocrisy even more. He compares his silence with her public confession and realizes how his hidden guilt is tormenting him.

Hester, realizing how deeply her silence has permitted Dimmesdale to be tortured by her husband, seizes the moment to reveal Chillingworth's secret. This torture has led to insanity and "that eternal alienation from the Good and True, of which madness is perhaps the earthly type." Hester also realizes that she still loves Dimmesdale, and she begs his forgiveness for her silence.

The minister reacts to this revelation with anger at first, blaming her for his torture and realizing why he intuitively recoiled from Chillingworth on their first encounter. Hester, who has silently borne the disdain and scorn of the community and who has lived these seven years without human sympathy, cannot bear Dimmesdale's condemnation, and she falls beside him and cries, "Thou shalt forgive me! Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!" She hugs him with great tenderness and feels such a compassion for his sorrow that her seven years of punishment seem to fall away.

Dimmesdale, for his part, forgives her and asks God to forgive them both. He believes that Chillingworth is the worst sinner of them all because he "violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of the human heart," unlike he and she, who "never did so." They are reluctant to leave this place in the forest because here they find a peace and harmony that they cannot feel in the Puritan community. Dimmesdale fears Chillingworth's course now that he, no doubt, knows "her purpose to reveal his true character," and he asks Hester to give him courage.

Hester's plan is for Dimmesdale to go deeper into the wilderness and live in natural freedom away from the eyes of Puritan society or to return to Europe, where he will be free of "these iron men and their opinions." But Dimmesdale feels he has not the strength to do either. While he falters, Hester encourages him, claiming that he can lead a powerful life for good and still fulfill his mission on earth. When the minister says he cannot do this alone, she tells him she will go with him.

Analysis

This chapter is pivotal in many respects: It advances the plot and characters by revealing Hester and Dimmesdale's feelings of the past seven years and the reawakening of their dormant love. Also in this chapter, Hawthorne reveals his philosophy on punishment and forgiveness: that deliberate, calculated acts of malice are far worse than sins of passion. In this way, Chillingworth is the worst of the three sinners. Finally, the author provides hope that his characters will find an escape, a way out of their earthly torment. He explores the conflict between natural law and Puritan law in their escape plans.

During the past seven years Dimmesdale has been continually tormented by the dichotomy between what he is and what people believe him to be. His parishioners are "hungry for the truth" and listen to his words as if "a tongue of Pentecost were speaking!" But as often as he has confessed his guilt to God, he has not told it to any other human being. He bears his shame alone. Hawthorne contrasts this with Hester's visible sign of her guilt, confession, and hope for redemption. While Hester tries to console the minister and persuade him that he has repented and left his sin behind, Dimmesdale knows that he can go no place without carrying his hidden guilt along.

Hester realizes that she still loves Dimmesdale, and she courageously tells him this, even as she reveals her silence concerning Chillingworth. Hawthorne contrasts their love — "which had a consecration of its own" — and Chillingworth's revenge and asks the reader which sin is worse. Who has violated God's law with sure and certain knowledge? And whose place is it to provide redemption and forgiveness? While Hester believes they can outrun "these iron men" with their rules, guilt, and punishment, Dimmesdale is not so sure. Two forms of moral law are at work here — the laws of God and nature and the laws interpreted and written by "these iron men." In the long run, can escaping the rules of man enable them also to do God's will?

Dimmesdale is reluctant to leave because he believes God has given him a post which he must not desert. This wilderness of God's world is in need of his gifts. Hester assures him that he can do God's will in another place — Europe — and it is only the Puritan laws that hold him in bondage. He can "Preach! Write! Act!" and live a true life in Europe instead of dying, as he seems to be doing here in the wilderness, with fear and shame by his side.

Hawthorne shows the relative strengths of his characters in this argument. Hester reaches within herself and uses the strength and inner courage she has relied on over her seven long and lonely years. In fact, for Hester, "the whole seven years of outlaw and ignominy had been little other than a preparation for this very hour." Deep inside, she knows they can leave the Puritan colony and still have a life of spiritual richness. They have paid for their sins and can still respect and uphold God's laws. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, lacks this perspective and Hester's courage, and several times he calls on her for strength.

Glossary

misanthropy distrust or hatred of people.

these iron men here, meaning the stern Puritan forefathers who make the rules.

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