The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who has had an illegitimate child. Despite being publicly humiliated by wearing a large scarlet letter 'A' on her dress, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child's father, even as the vindictive newcomer Chillingworth becomes determined to make her confess. This story explores the themes of sexual liberation, sin, and vengeance.

Chapter 17 Summary

Brief Summary

Hester and Dimmesdale speak for the first time in seven years. They soon begin talking about the subject which interests them most. Dimmesdale asks Hester if she has found peace and shares that he has not found any. She tells him that he should be comforted by the regard of his parishioners, but he assures her that it only torments him more. Hester brings herself to tell Dimmesdale about Chillingworth, and the minister becomes extremely angry. He eventually calms down and gives Hester his forgiveness. They discuss what it is possible for him to do about it and Hester recommends leaving Boston. He is afraid to go alone, but Hester tells him that she is willing to accompany him.

Detailed Summary

Hester calls Dimmesdale's attention, and they speak for the first time in seven years. They begin by each questioning the other's existence since it had been so long and so isolated. They make a little small talk and then reach the subject that both of them want and need to discuss.

Dimmesdale asks Hester if she has found peace, and Hester asks the same, to which they both agree that neither has found anything but despair. Hester asks Dimmesdale if he finds any comfort in the high regard of his parishioners. He tells her that it just adds to his pain because it emphasizes his unworthiness and the torture of his burdened heart. Hester begins to tell him that part of his suffering is because of someone close to him, and as Dimmesdale begins to be upset, she understands how much Chillingworth has done to worsen Dimmesdale's torment. She also finally fully understands how much pain she has caused him, and that she still loves him. She tells him that Chillingworth was her husband, and Dimmesdale becomes extremely angry, saying that he cannot forgive Hester for what she has done.

This is more than Hester can bear, and she grabs Dimmesdale and holds on to him until he calms down and agrees that he can forgive her. Dimmesdale realizes that the two of them are in the same situation, and so neither can blame the other, but he does hold a lot of anger for Chillingworth. They sit together in silence, holding hands. Dimmesdale then begins to despair; he has no idea how he is going to deal with Chillingworth, especially since he believes that now that his identity is exposed, Chillingworth will expose Dimmesdale. He asks Hester what he should do. She recommends that he move from Boston, preferably back to Europe where his intellect and reputation would be appreciated. Dimmesdale feels too powerless and weak to make such a change alone. Hester, after a dramatic pause, tells him that he would not have to go alone.

Chapter 18 Summary

Brief Summary

They are both overjoyed by the suggestion, even though Dimmesdale is slightly shocked by it, since he would not have considered it a possibility. The sun shines on them both; Hester takes the "A" off her dress and lets her hair down. Dimmesdale is invigorated and they both appreciate the happiness that has come to them. Hester talks about Pearl, and expresses her desire for Dimmesdale to meet and love her. She calls Pearl to them, expecting love and happiness to spread.

Detailed Summary

In the moment that Hester offers to go with him, Dimmesdale is overjoyed and shocked. Since she has been isolated from the community, Hester has developed her own way of thinking about things, and at the very least has been freed from the constrictions of thought that are in place when one belongs to the Puritan faith. She is able to see things in a way that Dimmesdale, because he is tied to one way of thinking, is unable to consider.

Even though somewhat dismayed by the idea, Dimmesdale gains enthusiasm for it. He decides that since he is doomed, he might as well salvage what he can on earth before meeting his eternal judgment. He makes the decision to go. Hester is extremely excited, and they both are delighted by the prospect. They feel happiness like they have not felt in seven years. The sun shines and Dimmesdale feels more energetic and healthy than before. Hester lets her hair down and takes off the letter "A". Hester remembers Pearl and they agree that Dimmesdale must get to know her and love her and that Pearl will do the same. Dimmesdale is a bit more hesitant about the situation since he is not good with children, but he does remember two times when Pearl has shown affection for him. Hester is sure that Pearl and Dimmesdale will learn to love each other and calls Pearl to come to her. Pearl approaches her mother, but slowly, since she notices that the clergyman is still present.

Chapter 17-18 Analysis

Hester and Dimmesdale approach each other slowly, and somewhat uncomfortably because seeing each other makes their situation real and concrete. In their daily lives they can ignore their experience to come extent, but being face to face makes their entire history starkly clear and unavoidable. They admit to each other that neither has found peace, despite each looking for it in a different way. They discover that neither the esteem of a community, nor the isolation from it, can bring the relief from guilt that they are looking for. Dimmesdale describes his failure to be properly penitent and admits the falsehoods he has been maintaining. Hester tells him about Chillingworth and he momentarily moves his anger towards the physician to Hester herself, and Hester realizes that she still loves Dimmesdale. Both become completely honest with each other, and Dimmesdale forgives Hester for her wrongdoing because he feels the connection between them so strongly. They both become so swept up by their honesty toward each other and giving in to the anger they feel towards Chillingworth that they create a final delusion. They decide to leave Boston and flee to their homeland. In the energy created by uncovering the secrets that they had each harbored for so long, they feel there is a possibility to escape their inevitable conclusion and betray what ties them together. Hester takes off the "A" and lets down her hair, and the solution to their problems seems imminent. Sunshine floods the forest, and nature seemingly supports their plan. But the calmness that they feel is ephemeral because as Hester tells Chillingworth, it is not in her power to remove the "A"; it carries a fate all its own.

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