Summary and Analysis Chapter 16



For several days Hester tries unsuccessfully to intercept Dimmesdale on one of his frequent walks along the shore or through the woods. When she hears that he will be returning from a trip, she goes with Pearl into the forest, hoping to meet the minister on his return home. As she and Pearl walk along the narrow path through the dense woods, flickering gleams of sunshine break through the heavy gray clouds above them. Pearl suggests the sunshine is running away from Hester because of the A on her bosom. In contrast, Pearl, being a child without any such letter, runs and "catches" a patch of light; then, as Hester approaches, the sunshine disappears.

Pearl asks Hester to tell her about the Black Man. She has heard stories about him and questions Hester about her dealings with him and whether the scarlet letter is his mark. Under Pearl's questioning, Hester confesses, "Once in my life I met the Black Man! . . . This scarlet letter is his mark!"

Having reached the depths of the forest, Hester and Pearl sit on a heap of moss beside a brook. Just then footsteps are heard on the path, and Hester sends Pearl away, but not before the girl asks whether it is the Black Man approaching and whether Dimmesdale holds his hand over his heart to cover the Black Man's sign. Before Hester can answer, Dimmesdale comes upon them. The minister looks haggard and feeble and moves listlessly as though he has no purpose or desire to live. He holds his hand over his heart.


This chapter and the four chapters that follow contain the longest section of continuous dramatic action in the book. Although the novel covers seven years, fully one-fifth of its total words are concentrated here, during the action of this single, crucial day. This particular chapter serves primarily to set the stage for the confession to follow. It is also rich in atmosphere and symbolism. The chilly gloom of the forest almost perfectly reflects Hester's state of mind and the mood of the following scene. Nearly every element mentioned in the chapter carries some symbolic significance.

The narrow footpath through the dense forest is suggestive of the "moral wilderness" Hester has been forced to follow for the past seven years. The story of the Black Man and his mark is described as a "common superstition," yet for Hester, the Black Man and his mark have a special, personal meaning. Here Hawthorne connects the letter with the Black Man and eventually with Dimmesdale's burden, and he does so mainly through their conversations.

Hawthorne spends part of this chapter connecting Pearl with nature and the wilderness around them. The brook is suggestive of Pearl, "inasmuch as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as mysterious, and had flowed through scenes shadowed as heavily with gloom." Pearl, being a product of passion, seems to speak to nature and understand its wildness and beauty. She sees how the sunshine loves her yet disappears for Hester. Added to this insight is the idea that Hester hopes Pearl will never have to wear a scarlet letter, or symbol of a "sinful" act. Pearl has not yet had a grief that will fill her with compassion and sympathy, humanizing her as Hester has been humanized.

In coming conversations between Hester and the minister, the symbols of nature, natural law, and humanity will be placed next to the more artificial laws of Puritan society as Hawthorne develops the conflict between them.


Apostle Eliot the Rev. John Eliot who preached to Native Americans near Boston.

scintillating sparkling, bright, witty.

scrofula a tuberculosis of the lymph glands in the neck.