Summary and Analysis
Chapter 18 - A Flood of Sunshine
The minister takes courage from Hester's strength and resolves to leave the Puritan colony, but not alone. He reasons that if he is doomed irrevocably, why not be allowed the solace of a "condemned culprit before his execution?" Hester agrees with him and casts off the scarlet letter. She takes off her cap and lets down her full, rich, luxuriant hair. Nature reflects on her passionate action by allowing sunshine to burst forth.
Now Hester wants Dimmesdale to know Pearl. He is reluctant at first, but she assures him Pearl will love him. While the child slowly comes toward them, all of nature seems to tag along as her playmate and kindred spirit.
This chapter is a variation on the preceding one and develops more fully Hawthorne's contrast between God's laws as interpreted through nature and God's laws as interpreted by man. Dimmesdale is sorely tempted by the idea of fleeing. He is the chief proponent of the religious tenets in this Puritan community (see "The Puritan Setting of The Scarlet Letter" in the Critical Essays). Because the Puritans believe that God allows redemption only for the elect and that salvation is attained solely through faith and the gift of divine grace, Dimmesdale rationalizes that he is a doomed soul and is momentarily attracted to "the solace allowed to the condemned culprit before his execution." He feels he is already a condemned.
By removing the symbols of Puritan law (the scarlet letter) and Puritan society (the formal cap that confined her hair), Hester is transformed from the dull, drab, gray "fallen woman" into the passionate, voluptuous human who follows natural law and expresses her love for Dimmesdale. Nature shows its support for her actions as the sunshine follows her. Dimmesdale relies on her to redeem him and believes she can provide the mercy and forgiveness he has not felt at the hands of God. Taking off the scarlet letter, Hester seems to release them both from an earthly prison. But there is one last hurdle to cross: the meeting between Pearl and Dimmesdale.
In this chapter, Hawthorne's descriptions of Pearl reinforce her mysterious and ethereal nature. She is so closely linked with nature that here, in the forest, the sunlight plays with her, and forest creatures (a partridge, a squirrel, a fox, and a wolf) approach her and recognize "a kindred wildness in the human child." Even the flowers respond to her and, as she passes, seem to say, "Adorn thyself with me, thou beautiful child, adorn thyself with me!" Pearl is "gentler here (in the forest) than in the grassy margined streets of the settlement, or in her mother's cottage," reinforcing that she is in accord with the natural world and not the man-made world. If Hester and Dimmesdale are to pass the test of natural law, they must meet with Pearl's approval. That Pearl advances "slowly; for she saw the clergyman" does not bode well for the reunited lovers.
effluence a flowing forth or outward.
anemones and columbines flowers of the buttercup family.
nymph-child a young maiden; here, Pearl.
dryad a nymph living in the forest among the trees.