Summary and Analysis
Chapter 21 - The New England Holiday
Hester and Pearl go to the marketplace to watch the procession and celebration as elected officials assume their offices. Hester thinks about leaving Boston with Dimmesdale and having a life as a woman once again. While she meditates on her future, Pearl, agitated by the crowd and celebration, dances as she waits for the procession. She alone senses Hester's excitement; to other observers, Hester appears to watch the procession passively.
Pearl continues to ask Hester precocious questions. She wants to know about the procession and asks whether the minister will acknowledge them as he did on the midnight scaffold. Hester quiets her and tells her she must not call out to Dimmesdale.
The captain of the Bristol-bound ship sees Hester and tells her that they will have company on their trip to Europe: Roger Chillingworth.
Chapter 21 is the first of several chapters that constitute the third scaffold scene and that lead to the climax of the novel. In these chapters, Hawthorne again brings together his main characters and, in these few pages, illustrates the major conflicts in the light of day and in a very public place.
One of the first issues addressed is the difference in public and private behavior. Hawthorne uses pointed satire when he comments that, on this most festive day, the people "compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single holiday, they appeared scarcely more grave than most other communities at a period of general affliction." Even Hester serves as a solitary example of the difference between the gloom of Puritan outward life and the excitement she feels within. She must show little joy and certainly no indication that she plans to leave the colony with Pearl and Dimmesdale. At the same time, she is exulting in the fact that soon she will no longer have to wear the scarlet letter, that it will be flung to the bottom of the ocean. For a few hours more, however, she must endure her badge of shame until they are safely away.
Pearl's comments are also important in this chapter because they point to the doom facing Dimmesdale unless he publicly repents. She prophetically describes the minister as a "strange, sad man . . . with his hand always over his heart!" She does not understand why the minister cannot acknowledge her or her mother "here, in the sunny day." The reader sees Hawthorne's message: No matter how far away the three may sail or how long they may live, Dimmesdale can never be at peace with Hester or his tortured conscience if he does not confess his part in their sin.
This idea is further demonstrated when Hester discovers that Chillingworth also plans to leave on the ship to Bristol. Perhaps Dimmesdale will be able to outrun his conscience in this life or his Creator's knowledge in the next. It appears, however, that Chillingworth does not plan to allow him escape from punishment wherever he goes on the face of the earth.
plebian inhabitants commoners.
draught of the cup of wormwood and aloes symbolically, a cup of bitter herbs; here, representing what Hester feels inside behind her composed face.
Elizabethan epoch the late 1500s, named for Elizabeth I and called the Golden Age in arts and literature.
Cornwall and Devonshire two counties in southwestern England.
aqua-vitae literally, water of life. Here, a strong liquor such as whiskey.
depredations robbing, plundering, laying waste.
probity uprightness in one's dealings; integrity; honesty.
scurvy or ship-fever a disease caused by lack of vitamin C.
mien a way of looking; appearance.