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The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Chapter 8 | The Elf-Child and the Minister

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of chapter 8 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter | Chapter 8 : The Elf-Child and the Minister | Summary



The men present are Governor Bellingham, Reverend Wilson, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth. Dimmesdale is ill. Hester insists that she not lose custody of her daughter. To determine Hester's fitness as a mother, Wilson asks Pearl who made her. The answer, of course, is God, which Pearl knows from her catechism. However, because Pearl is a mischievous child, she answers that she was plucked from the rosebush outside the prison. Horrified at her blasphemy, Bellingham decides that Hester is indeed an unfit mother and Pearl should be removed from her care immediately. Hester protests that Pearl is both her happiness and her pain—"she is the scarlet letter," Hester says—and begs Dimmesdale to help her persuade the others to let her keep her child.

Dimmesdale confirms that God made the child, the result of "its father's guilt and its mother's shame," and persuades the others to let Hester keep Pearl.

Chillingworth says that analyzing Pearl's nature might enable him to determine the identity of her father, but Wilson says it should be left to God to determine when the man's identity is revealed. Hester and Pearl leave, and the narrator recounts a story he heard: Mistress Hibbins, a witch, poked her head in the window and invited Hester to come to a meeting of the other witches in the forest that night. Hester refused because she had been allowed to keep Pearl. The narrator then backtracks and says the story of the meeting may not be true.


Sunlight and shadow or night are two important symbols in this chapter and in the book as a whole. Both reinforce the themes of personal and public truth. Dimmesdale stands in the shadow during the meeting, just as he conceals his sin. Hester stands in the sunlight as she reveals her sin to the public. By taking Dimmesdale's hand, Pearl is symbolically recognizing that he is her father. Dimmesdale, however, is far from ready to admit that he was Hester's lover and Pearl is their daughter.

Dimmesdale appears to be a model Puritan, righteous and moral, but the reality is very different. For instance, Dimmesdale says that Pearl reminds Hester "at every moment of her fall," but both Pearl and Hester remind Dimmesdale of his fall. Hester and Dimmesdale share a personal truth of error; only Hester has accepted that truth publicly, however.

Hawthorne first described Chillingworth as having a look of "calm intelligence." Now he has changed, becoming uglier and more misshapen. His obsession with revenge is making him become evil, another of the novel's themes.

This is Hester's second major conflict with Puritan authority. Hester is an excellent mother and has taught Pearl all about religion, as we saw in Chapter 6. Pearl is a rebellious child and refuses to give the desired answer to the question about where she came from. As a Puritan, Bellingham would place the salvation of Pearl's soul over the value of Hester's love. By refusing to give up her child, Hester is once again placing love over religion as she did when she fell in love with Dimmesdale and committed adultery. The conflicts between religion and love, the state and the individual, are among the novel's main themes.

Dimmesdale's ill health, introduced in this chapter, is an example of foreshadowing. It hints that Dimmesdale is involved in Hester's disgrace and that the guilt he feels is causing his health to suffer.

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