The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne Summary and Analysis Chapter 20 - The Minister in a Maze

Summary

Dimmesdale leaves the forest first, almost believing what has transpired has been a dream. When he looks back, he sees Hester weighed down with sadness and Pearl dancing because he is gone. Turning over their plan in his mind, he believes that going to Europe is the better choice. He is not healthy enough to endure a life in the forest converting natives, and Europe offers more civilization and refinement. Furthermore, a vessel currently in the harbor is soon sailing for England, and Hester will discreetly secure their passage for a departure in four days. The timing of the voyage enables him to give the Election Sermon, an opportunity he can use to terminate his career "honorably."

Thus decided, Dimmesdale is a new man. He walks with great energy and sees everything differently. In fact, he sees things so differently that he almost becomes afraid for himself. Three times, he meets people of his congregation, and each time he is tempted to do something terrible. The venerable and upright deacon of his church is narrowly saved from Dimmesdale uttering blasphemy.

The eldest dame of the congregation — she who worshiped the minister — is almost treated to a sacrilegious argument against the soul's immortality. And, finally, a sweet, young virgin narrowly escapes a wicked look from her beloved minister. Finally, he barely refrains from teaching bad words to a group of children and trading curses with a sailor.

Mistress Hibbins invites Dimmesdale to the forest and tells him she admires the way he covers up his true feelings during the day. But she knows she will see him in the forest with the Black Man when midnight comes. Dimmesdale hurries home and, because he is agitated, Chillingworth offers to give him some medicine to calm him down. Dimmesdale lies to Chillingworth, telling him that though he knows his medicine is dispensed by a loving hand, he does not need it. Then he goes to his study and furiously writes his Election Sermon.

Analysis

This entire chapter — note the title — focuses on the spiritual battle warring within Dimmesdale. He has been transformed from the weak and dying man who went into the forest. Hawthorne here examines the nature of the fight and interjects his own comments at various points.

When Dimmesdale says that he will leave after his Election Day sermon so that he will be seen as leaving "no public duty unperformed," Hawthorne writes, "No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true." The formerly weak, pitiful Dimmesdale leaves the forest with a new sense of purpose and energy. His thinking has been transformed by his will and that of Hester.

As if possessed, Dimmesdale returns to the town, a man on fire. He is tempted several times by the irrational, wild, blasphemous, and — what Dimmesdale calls "involuntary" — desire to do wicked things to members of his congregation and perfect strangers. Even Mistress Hibbins recognizes him as a kindred spirit.

Dimmesdale is the "wretched minister! . . . Tempted by a dream of happiness, he had yielded himself, with deliberate choice, as he had never done before, to what he knew was deadly sin." This choice is taking him down the road to hell and reviving a multitude of sinful impulses from somewhere. Even his affair with Hester seven years before had not been "a deliberate choice" and hence, although a sin, not a deadly one.

Dimmesdale works with great passion on his Election Sermon, putting this new energy to good use. When Chillingworth says that his congregation may find their ill pastor gone the next year, Dimmesdale agrees. In fact he answers Chillingworth, "Yea, to another world" with "pious resignation." Hawthorne's delicious sense of irony is evident when the reader senses that Chillingworth and Dimmesdale are not talking about the same destinations. Why is Dimmesdale so able to lie to his tormenter? Mistress Hibbins would say it is because his soul has been sold. Whatever the reason, it is definitely providing inspiration for the minister's speech.

Glossary

vicissitude unpredictable changes or variations that keep occurring in life, fortune, etc.; shifting circumstances.

vexed distressed, afflicted, or plagued.

disquietude a disturbed or uneasy condition; restlessness; anxiety.

the Spanish Main the Caribbean.

Bristol a British seaport.

Election Sermon the speech given when a governor is installed. It is a great honor to be asked to give this speech.

irrefragable that cannot be refuted; indisputable; impossible to change.

mutability ability to be changed.

obeisance homage, deference.

buckramed having a covering of cloth made stiff with paste.

Ann Turner an alleged witch who supposedly helped in the poisoning in the previously mentioned Overbury case.

the new Jerusalem another name for Boston; also, a place for sinners who have been saved.

the King's own mint-mark here, a mark guaranteeing authenticity.

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