The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Chapter 17 | The Pastor and His Parishioner

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of chapter 17 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter | Chapter 17 : The Pastor and His Parishioner | Summary

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Summary

Hester and Dimmesdale awkwardly discuss their shared unhappiness. Dimmesdale wants someone to know that he is a sinner, even if that person is his enemy. Hester reveals that Chillingworth is her husband. Shocked and dismayed, Dimmesdale laments his failure to recognize Chillingworth's evil and then blames Hester. She asks his forgiveness for not revealing the secret earlier. At first Dimmesdale refuses to forgive her, but he gives in and calls Chillingworth a worse sinner than he is. Hester urges Dimmesdale to leave Boston and to make a new life for himself. Dimmesdale is afraid that Chillingworth will reveal his secret and says that he is not strong enough to make the trip alone. Hester says, "Thou shalt not go alone!"

Analysis

Dimmesdale has become even weaker as Hester has become stronger. The weakness in his character that Hawthorne hints at in the beginning of the story is evident here, as Dimmesdale leans on Hester to save him when he should be saving her by revealing the truth.

Hester asks Dimmesdale whether or not there is "not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of Roger Chillingworth?" Dimmesdale replies, "Yes, Hester; but only under the fallen leaves!" The fallen leaves are a symbol of the fall of humanity through original sin, a central idea in the Puritan religion. Puritan children would be taught this with their first textbook, The New England Primer. The colonists believed in universal literacy, as an inability to read was Satan's attempt to keep people from the Bible. They passed a law as early as 1642 that required children be taught to read. The first pages of the books, which taught through alphabet rhymes, read: "A In Adam's Fall, We sinned all." Adam brought sin to humankind; Hester is a "fallen" woman for her affair.

Hester fully owns up to her guilt, so her salvation lies in the truth. An argument could be made that she even flaunts her guilt as she embroiders the A with gold thread and insists on wearing it after she could have removed it. Dimmesdale, in contrast, continues to hide his guilt. The actions of these two characters show the theme of personal and public truth.

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