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The Scarlet Letter | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


Why does Hester agree to leave Boston and run away to England with Dimmesdale toward the end of The Scarlet Letter?

Hester has two reasons for agreeing to run away to England with Dimmesdale in Chapter 18. First and most obviously, she loves him and believes that they can start a new life together as a family in England. She hopes that there they will be able to marry and live openly with their daughter. It is also an opportunity to lose the loneliness that has been her fate for seven years, a chance to join a society where they will be welcome. The forest, rather than the town, offers the hopeful prospect of a bright future—the brightness of which is reinforced by the sun shining on her. Second, Hester feels responsible for Dimmesdale's decline in health. After all, had she revealed Chillingworth's identity at once rather than keeping it a secret for seven years, Dimmesdale would not have let Chillingworth prey on him and sap his will and strength.

Why does Hester remove the scarlet letter in Chapter 18 when she and Dimmesdale are standing by the brook and not earlier in the book?

Hester likely takes the letter off at this point because it has outlived its usefulness. After all, she has accepted her own guilt for her affair and has finally told Dimmesdale about Chillingworth's true identity. She has promised to run away with Dimmesdale, too. With all these tasks done, she feels free to remove the letter. She feels a certain joy at the prospect of a happy future as well. Hester did not remove the letter earlier because she was conspiring with Chillingworth to hide his identity. She had not been truthful with Dimmesdale about Chillingworth's identity and motives, which meant she still felt she had to wear the badge of shame. The incident also occurs in the forest—the place where things that don't happen in town can occur. The forest is the realm of freedom and happiness, not the dour judgment and punishments associated with Puritan society. When Hester removes the letter and casts it away, she is also showered in sunlight, bringing in yet another positive symbol prominent in the book. There is foreshadowing in her failed attempt to cast the letter into the brook. Water symbolically washes away guilt and sin, but no water touches the scarlet letter here, indicating that the lovers' plans for the future are doomed.

In Chapter 20 of The Scarlet Letter, why does Dimmesdale act so strangely when he returns to town after being in the forest with Hester and Pearl?

The seemingly real possibility that Dimmesdale will escape from his torment—his own guilt and Chillingworth's torture—has upset the balance between conscience and will in his mind. Dimmesdale allows himself to give in to impulses he knows are sinful as he has only done once before in his life. As a result, familiar objects look odd; familiar people seem somehow "off." The church especially seems somehow different. Nothing external has changed of course; all the change is in Dimmesdale's mind. As the narrator says in Chapter 20, "The minister's own will, and Hester's will, and the fate that grew between them, had wrought this transformation." There may also be significance in Dimmesdale coming from the forest—the area that is so distinct from the town and the place where unusual things can happen. He has been transformed by his experience there. He has gained wisdom through his suffering. There is an irony in Dimmesdale returning to town with this cheering plan in mind. It marks yet another guilty secret he carries.

Why does Hawthorne interject a three-page discussion of colonial Puritan society in Chapter 21 of The Scarlet Letter?

In Chapter 21, "The New England Holiday," the narrator switches the point of view to the first-person plural as shown in this excerpt: "But we perhaps exaggerate the gray or sable tinge, which undoubtedly characterized the mood and manners of the age." Hawthorne then goes on to a present a long description of colonial society. This passage adds historical knowledge and context to the upcoming events and underscores the importance of Dimmesdale's upcoming sermon. In addition, use of the first-person plural suggests the royal "we"—monarchs traditionally speak in that form. This usage thus relates to the discussion of the celebrations at the courts of Elizabeth and James, used as a point of comparison to the Puritan holiday. The digression questions how the Puritans could have come so far from the joyous celebrations of the past when a sport of misrule operated, hierarchies were parodied, and social rules and social order were suspended. Hawthorne also describes the gaiety and colorful attire of a diverse crowd in the marketplace; there are native peoples and pirates as well as Puritans. The passage closes with the turbulent sea and the tempestuous wind unregulated by human law, a hint of the emotional upheaval that is to come.

Why is the scaffold in The Scarlet Letter the only place where Dimmesdale could successfully escape from Chillingworth?

First and foremost, the scaffold is the place where debts to society are paid. Dimmesdale must go there to own up to his actions and accept society's judgment. Second, as soon as Dimmesdale publicly admits his sin, he is no longer vulnerable to Chillingworth's torture. Chillingworth's evil can survive only as long as Dimmesdale is locked in secret sin; sin revealed makes Chillingworth powerless. Telling the truth takes away Chillingworth's hold on Dimmesdale. Public truth can set him free. Finally, the scaffold is the only place where Dimmesdale can escape from Chillingworth because the scaffold was the setting for Hester's initial humiliation. Further, it is the most public place in the village, the place where the largest number of people would hear Dimmesdale's confession. Therefore it provides the most suitable place for Dimmesdale to confess his sin and thus escape from Chillingworth's clutches.

Why does Pearl willingly kiss Dimmesdale at the end of The Scarlet Letter when she had not been willing to kiss him before?

At the brook, Pearl had washed off Dimmesdale's kiss perhaps because instinctively she sensed that he had still not publicly acknowledged the truth. Now that he has been truthful in public, she embraces him willingly as her father. She accepts him because he has told the truth to the entire town. The kiss is a symbol of her forgiveness. The act of kissing him also changes Pearl. When Pearl accepts her father's public admission of guilt, she is no longer a mystical being such as an imp. Instead she becomes a human with the potential to grow into a loving, caring woman. The kiss marks "a pledge that she will grow up amid human joy and sorrow." She will no longer "do battle with the world" but will instead "be a woman in it."

In Chapters 23 and 24 of The Scarlet Letter, why doesn't Hawthorne directly state and describe exactly what is on Dimmesdale's chest?

The chapter in which the minister confesses is titled "The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter," suggesting that something was indeed there. Still, by not explaining what is on Dimmesdale's chest, Hawthorne maintains the atmosphere of mystery and the sense of the marvelous. The different responses that people have to what they saw (or think they saw) are based on their own feelings about Dimmesdale and their ideas about what they expected to see on his chest. Whether just punishment, a sign of Chillingworth's evildoing, or a wound self-inflicted due to sympathy for Hester's plight remains unsettled by the narrator. The reader must draw his or her own conclusions.

Does The Scarlet Letter support the narrator's statement that the book's moral or lesson is "Be true"?

Ostensibly the moral "Be true!" suggests that one must be honest to oneself and to the world to lead an authentic life. That moral seems to be borne out by the suffering of Dimmesdale, who tormented himself with guilt over his unwillingness to publicly acknowledge his part in Hester's sin. It also seems to be supported by Hester's story, as she appears to have accepted her sin and punishment and gains greater peace of mind than the minister. The full statement of this moral undercuts this lofty meaning, however. While "Be true! Be true!" may seem to wholeheartedly endorse complete honesty, the remainder of the passage is less forthright. The moral counsels that one does not have to actually show "your worst" to the world but merely "some trait whereby the worst may be inferred." The moralist who wrote this seems to be hedging a bit. If one can get away with not exactly showing the worst, how "true" is one being?

How does Chapter 24 of The Scarlet Letter tie together ideas and themes that have been present throughout the book?

First, the conclusion returns to the material presented in "The Custom-House" essay. Hawthorne mentions Surveyor Pue to remind readers of the letter A and the manuscript that he claimed to have found in a dusty corner of the Custom-House—a fiction, it is important to remember. Second, Hawthorne wraps up the symbolism of the scarlet letter by referring to what people did and did not think they saw on Dimmesdale's chest. He also presents the moral, provides information about the fates of Hester and Pearl, and describes the burial site of Dimmesdale and Hester, tying together the various plot strands and reinforcing the themes. Pearl begins a new life. Hester continues to do penitence but gains a new place in society as a wise counselor. The discussion of what Dimmesdale did or did not show and the account of Hester's return focus attention once more on the scarlet letter, pointing to the very end of the novel.

How does the meaning of the scarlet letter than Hester wears on her chest change over the years? Is the change in meaning appropriate? Why or why not?

Initially, the A stood for adultery, Hester's punishment for her crime of passion. As such, it is a mark of shame and scorn. However, as the years pass, the meaning of the A changes due to Hester's great service to the community. The scarlet letter next comes to stand for the word able and to be a welcome sign. This is a fitting interpretation of the letter because of the selfless way in which Hester helps the villagers. The change in meaning is also fitting because of the way Hester conducts her life, following high moral standards and showing great integrity. By the end of the book, however, the meaning shifts once again as the Native Americans look at the A and think that it marks Hester as a person "of high dignity among her people." This change in meaning is accurate as Hester's mark of shame has become a mark of admiration and pride. She has indeed come to be respected by her people. In the "Custom-House" essay, the narrator adds another meaning to the letter, saying that Hester "gained from many people the reverence due to an angel," and Dimmesdale in the forest meeting with Hester calls her an angel as well. While this meaning is not connected directly to the letter, the characterization of Hester in these terms is unmistakable.

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