The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Contributed by Tereasa Jacob
Chapter 15-16

Summary—Chapter 15: Hester and Pearl

Hester tries to find Pearl when Chillingworth walks away. She hates Chillingworth, even though he is her husband. She feels this is a sin. Hester knows now that any belief she ever had that she was happy with Chillingworth was an illusion. Pearl has been playing in the beach’s tide pools. She puts green eelgrass in an “A” shape on her chest, and imagines she is a mermaid. Hester asks Pearl whether she knows what the “A” means. They talk about the meaning of the “A”. Pearl shows how strangely perceptive she is when she shares her thought that the letter must be connected to Dimmesdale, as he so often clutches his chest with his hand. Hester soon realizes that Pearl could not possibly understand what the “A” means, and she realizes it would be better not to go into explanations. Pearl wants to find out the meaning, though, and she continues asking Hester about why Dimmesdale holds his heart and what the letter really signifies.

Summary—Chapter 16: A Forest Walk

Hester knows that Dimmesdale will be going to a Native American settlement and then traveling through the forest afterwards. She and Pearl go into the forest to wait for him there. She is thinking about telling him who Chillingworth really is. Pearl plays and has fun in the sunshine. The sun doesn’t seem to shine on Hester. Pearl pesters Hester to tell her more about the scarlet letter and how the “Black Man” is connected to it. Pearl heard a woman from the community talking about Mistress Hibbins’ witchcraft, and how someone said that Hester’s scarlet letter is the mark of the Devil. Hester and Pearl are sitting beside a brook when Pearl catches a glimpse of Dimmesdale. At first she does not recognize him, and she wonders aloud whether it could be the “Black Man”. Hester wants to talk to Dimmesdale privately, so she tells Pearl to go and play. She assures Pearl it is just Dimmesdale, not the “Black Man”. Pearl wonders whether the “Black Man” has left a mark on Dimmesdale, and that’s why he has to clutch his heart so often.


Unwilling to explain adultery to her daughter, Hester decides to simply tell Pearl that the scarlet letter is indeed a mark of the “Black Man”. A major theme in this novel is uncertainty about the nature of evil. Confusion about what evil is and what or who is evil is signified by Pearl’s momentarily thinking that Dimmesdale might be the “Black Man” as he approaches in the forest. Hester now has insight into the fact that sin can result from other sin, but not in the way Puritan society generally thinks. She perceives that Chillingworth’s selfishness in manipulating her into marrying him was what led to her eventual sin with Dimmesdale. For Hester, sin has been a result of feelings of loneliness and hurt resulting from another person’s selfishness. This shows that the sources of sin can vary from situation to situation and person to person.

In these chapters, we largely inhabit an enchanted world. Pearl plays the part of the strangely wise and perceptive child. She has been able to discern that there is a link between Dimmesdale’s illness and her mother’s scarlet letter. Even though both the minister’s illness and Hester’s letter are centered on the same part of the body (the chest), the town fathers and townspeople have failed to notice this. Pearl has, however. Puritan perspectives on the world are lacking and one-dimensional. The Puritans are experts at willful blindness: they can easily and simply close their eyes to whatever doesn’t fit into their world view. Pearl created the green “A” on her own chest to see her mother’s reaction, in the hope of gaining more insight into what her mother’s letter means.

We remember that Mistress Hibbins, the governor’s sister, is a witch (although the community refuses to acknowledge that). The fact that she is much more of a sinner than Hester but is able to hide behind her social position and the Puritan desire not to see anything that doesn’t fit into their view of the world, is a reflection on the novel’s complex picture of evil and sin. An interesting facet of the novel is the fact that Mistress Hibbins often appears in the background of scenes in which Hester and Pearl face distress. Mistress Hibbins is also symbolic of Puritan society’s covert acceptance of malevolence. Mistress Hibbins is tolerated because she has a high position in the social order, while Hester has been cast out.

The forest is richly symbolic in this novel. Situated in between a Native American settlement and the Puritan town, it is symbolic of a space between hypocritical “order” and wildness. The forest is a place of balance and healing. The natural and wild nature of the forest are reflected in the fact that Mistress Hibbins’ activities take place there at night. Pearl and Hester also spend time in the forest, and it’s where Hester chooses to meet and speak with Dimmesdale. Hester is able to find privacy and peace of mind there. The sunlight in the forest signifies the importance of truth. While we see that the sunlight shines on Pearl, it strangely seems to avoid Hester. This seems to indicate that at this point, Hester will not be able to fully explore the truth she wants to convey to the minister.

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