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The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Chapter 20 | The Minister In a Maze

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of chapter 20 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter | Chapter 20 : The Minister in a Maze | Summary



Dimmesdale thinks about their escape plan: in four days they will depart on a ship bound for England. The day before they are to leave, Dimmesdale plans to resign his position right after his Election Sermon. As Dimmesdale walks back to town, everything seems different to him. However, we can see by his strange actions that the change is within him, not externally caused: he wants to say and do wicked things to a deacon, an old woman, a young woman, and a group of children. Mistress Hibbins talks to Dimmesdale about meeting in the forest, and he wonders if he has sold his soul to the Devil. Back at his home, Dimmesdale refuses the medicine that Chillingworth offers. When he is alone, Dimmesdale throws his sermon in the fire and starts a new one.


The chapter's title—"The Minister in a Maze"—reinforces the feeling that something is amiss. At the outset of the chapter, Dimmesdale is hopeful and cheered by the prospect of delivering the Election Sermon, which "formed an honorable epoch in the life of a New England clergyman." He is pleased by the idea that he will have done his duty to the end. Yet the narrator intrudes with disquieting comments. Dimmesdale's resolve to deliver the sermon is not something noble but a sign of "a subtle disease" that was destroying his character. "No man," he observes, "can wear one face" in private and another in public "without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true." The maze in which Dimmesdale finds himself is of his own making.

Dimmesdale is uncharacteristically full of energy when he leaves Hester and Pearl and returns to town at a sprightly pace. He is not quite himself as his wicked urgings reveal. His happiness at the prospect of running off with Hester glosses over the fact that in doing so, they are committing themselves to a life of sin. After all, she is still married. One act of adultery will be replaced by a lifetime of it. If they pose as a couple in their new life, Dimmesdale is once again turning his back on public truth. How will his heart feel then?

The chapter leaves the reader with a mystery. What was in the sermon that Dimmesdale burned? What was in the new sermon he wrote throughout the night "with earnest haste and ecstasy"?

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