The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Contributed by Tereasa Jacob
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Chapter 23-24
Summary

Summary—Chapter 23: The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter

In Dimmesdale’s sermon on Election Day, he says that the people of the colony will be chosen by God. He makes a “special reference to the New England which they [are] here planting in the wilderness.” Everyone feels that this sermon is the strongest the minister has ever delivered. There will be an evening feast at the town hall. When Dimmesdale sees Hester, he hesitates to come near her. However, he suddenly turns in the direction of the scaffold and ask Hester and Pearl to come with him. Despite Chillingworth’s efforts to stop them, they mount the scaffold. Dimmesdale says tht God has brought him there as the crowd looks on. Dimmesdale starts his confession as he leans on Hester for strength. He says he is “the one sinner of the world.” He soon rips open his ministerial garments to show his chest. There is a mark, although we don’t hear details on what it is. The narrator won’t tell us what it is, feeling it “irreverent to describe [the] revelation.” He then collapses. Chillingworth shouts, “Thou hast escaped me!”. Pearl kisses Dimmesdale, and Hester and Dimmesdale speak. When she asked whether she will see him again, he says that God must decide what punishments they will receive for their sin. He dies.

Summary—Chapter 24: Conclusion

The narrator describes the events following Dimmesdale’s death, telling us about what happened to major characters. It is reported that the people who witnessed the death were unable to come to a consensus on what they saw. The majority declare they saw a scarlet letter on his chest. They feel it probably came from magic practiced by Chillingworth, from inner remorse, or from the torture the minister inflicted on himself. There were other people who claim there was nothing at all on Dimmesdale’s chest. The narrator explains he thinks the people who claimed there was nothing to see were friends of the minister who only cared about protecting his name from scandal.

Chillingworth is left in despair, not having anything on which to focus his malicious energies. He leaves Pearl a large inheritance. Hester and Pearl disappear from the community soon after that. The legend of Hester’s scarlet letter becomes a firm part of local lore. Many years after this, Hester comes back to the community alone. She wants to live in the same tiny cottage and take up her charity work again. She still wears her scarlet letter. By the time she dies, it no longer has a stigma. Hester is buried next to Dimmesdale. They share a single headstone (black with a single scarlet “A”), but they’re not buried close enough together that “the dust of the two sleepers [could] meet, even in death.”

Analysis

We experience resolution and catharsis in the final scaffold scene. Dimmesdale confesses, Pearl has an acknowledged father, and Chillingworth is bereft of his chance to ever get the malicious revenge he had wanted to take on Dimmesdale. Remarkably, the Puritan elders who run the town have no ability to judge or punish Hester or Dimmesdale. This is because Dimmesdale dies, almost as if he is his own judge. All of the events of this section provide an intense commentary on the themes of identity, sin, and evil.

Despite all of Dimmesdale and Hester’s suffering, the Puritan order of the town goes back to normal after all of these events. Despite the fact that there are people who insist they saw a letter on Dimmesdale’s chest, there are others who insist that his confession wasn’t real but rather just an allegorical performance to provide a lesson to his parishioners. This is their way of denying reality so they can cling to the social order that is most convenient to them and will maintain their positions of power.

A reason why Chillingworth dies is that he no longer has his source of life and energy, which was the quest for revenge on Dimmesdale. He was a “leech” who no longer had anything to drain. It is clear that while it seems that the established social order has triumphed because Dimmesdale dies and he and Hester are not able to be together, it is only a short-lived victory. When Pearl finally has a father, she is fully “human”. Up until that time, people had generally seen her as only evidence of sin. She is finally free. Many years later when Hester and Pearl are in Europe, Pearl marries an aristocrat. This is not in England, but the European continent. This is significant because it England is closely connected to the Puritan society in New England. Pearl is able to find a new home without a dogmatic system of rules. As an aristocrat, her position is firm.

Hester is not able to achieve what Pearl does in escaping being seen as a symbol of something else. When Hester leaves Boston, her existence and the story of the scarlet letter become a sort of legend that people remember. Hester’s life has been dedicated to her child and humanity, and she throws herself into the needs of larger causes. Both Hester and Dimmesdale lose their private selves in many ways, and become emblematic of a more lasting story.

Hester’s scarlet letter takes on a more ambiguous meaning by the time she passes away. It’s true that it will always be a mark of guilt and sin, but it also creates a sense of authority in the community. In this novel, it’s often difficult to distinguish between righteousness and sin, identity and assigned symbolism, and love and hate. This is clear in the fate of several characters.

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