The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Chapter 18 | A Flood of Sunshine

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of chapter 18 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter | Chapter 18 : A Flood of Sunshine | Summary

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Summary

Dimmesdale is shocked at Hester's boldness but also hopeful and happy that his misery will end with their escape. The narrator explains that being alone for so long has made Hester strong, while hidden guilt has made Dimmesdale weak. Nonetheless, Dimmesdale gathers his courage and resolves to run away with Hester.

Delighted, Hester unpins the scarlet letter from her dress and tosses it away. It lands on the bank of the stream. With a deep sigh and a wide smile, Hester completes her transformation by taking off her cap and letting her long, luxurious hair flow freely. Suddenly all her beauty and youth return. The sun breaks through the trees and shines down on the couple.

Hester tells Dimmesdale that he must finally meet Pearl so their family can be united. Hester calls to Pearl, who is playing happily in the forest with "wild things," including red berries, birds, squirrels, and a fox. The narrator backs down from his claim that Pearl is playing with a wolf, saying it is not likely to be true. Hearing her mother call to her, Pearl approaches slowly.

Analysis

Hester and Dimmesdale's decision to escape dials up the suspense. Will they make it out of Boston before their secret sin is revealed? Will Pearl accept Dimmesdale? Will Chillingworth, bent on revenge, try to stop their escape?

This chapter is pivotal to the development of the plot. This is the first time that Hester and Dimmesdale have been alone together, the first time they have a close conversation. Therefore, this scene helps develop the love story. To run away with each other and live happily ever after, they must be in love—or at least feel strong affection for each other.

The chapter is also heavy with symbolism. Most obvious is the scarlet letter. By removing the letter and throwing it away, Hester is symbolically rejecting the Puritans' judgment of her affair with Dimmesdale and the guilt she has felt as a result. The second symbol is the sunlight breaking through the thick leaves in the forest. The sunshine is a symbol of happiness and hope, so the sun shining down on Hester and Dimmesdale shows they are being blessed. The third symbol is Hester's hair: by releasing it, she is revealing her youth and vitality. But a close look at these symbols foreshadows that Hester and Dimmesdale's plan is doomed to failure: water traditionally washes away sin and guilt, as seen in baptism ceremonies. The fact that the scarlet letter lands on the side of the stream and so is not carried away by the water suggests that Hester's sin and guilt cannot be discarded easily.

This chapter further develops the theme of personal and public truth. Although Hester is never truly sorry for falling in love with Dimmesdale, she nevertheless fully accepts her guilt. By wearing the scarlet letter long after she could have removed it, Hester boldly displays her sin and guilt for the world to see. Learning from her "shame, despair, and solitude," she has become strong. Dimmesdale, in contrast, has grown weaker by concealing the truth, so Hester must take the lead in their plan to run away.

The detail at the end of the chapter about Pearl playing with a wolf suggests that she, like her mother, has the wildness and sacred knowledge found in nature.

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