The Scarlet Letter Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis

Hester and Dimmesdale cross paths on the road. They sit together on a patch of moss in the woods, where they engage in simple small talk until they feel strong enough to tackle the big issues. Finally, the minister asks Hester, "Hast thou found peace?" She smiles drearily. Neither of them have found peace, and Dimmesdale suspects that he never will. His good work in the church has only made him more miserable, because he thinks it makes him a hypocrite. He wishes he could wear a scarlet letter on his clothes like Hester does. None of the people who claim to adore him know who he really is.

Hester reminds Dimmesdale that he isn't alone in his suffering. These seven years, she has borne the burden of their secret, and she understands his guilt and pain. In spite of her degradation in the eyes of the public, she has never fallen out of love with him. She feels that she must be truthful with him now: Chillingworth is her former husband, and she has allowed Dimmesdale to live with the enemy. She begs his forgiveness, and he in turn begs her to save him from Chillingworth.

Hester's plan is simple: leave Boston. Get on a boat and sail to Europe. Dimmesdale doesn't think he has the strength for it, but Hester insists.
Hawthorne has been dropping hints about the letter Dimmesdale has carved into his chest, but none quite so clear as when the minister himself speaks of Hester's scarlet letter and says, "Mine burns in secret!" From this, we can safely assume that the wound is infected and will cause his death.
Dimmesdale uses the idiom "in cold blood" to describe Chillingworth's actions against him.
When Hester and Dimmesdale meet on the path, they're described as two spirits. "Each a ghost, and awe-stricken at the other ghost." Their ghostly figures appear stripped of all life and vitality, making them mere shadows of their former selves. Though Hester attempts to revive them both, this effort is ultimately unsuccessful.
Light and Dark. In the previous chapter, Hawthorne established that the sunlight "does not love" Hester. This builds on the motif of light and dark, which has been subtly woven through the entire novel but hasn't been brought to the forefront that often. Here, the darkness of the forest in which Hester and Dimmesdale walk stands in stark contrast to the bright sunlight that shined on Pearl. This darkness represents the danger and the sin in their lives, whereas the light represents goodness and virtue.
Guilt. Though Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale are both guilty of the crime of adultery, their experiences of that guilt are very different. Hester has borne half of it in public (in the shape of the scarlet letter) and half of it in private (in her knowledge of Dimmesdale's identity), whereas Dimmesdale has lived with his guilt almost entirely in secret, feeling misunderstood by everyone around him. This chapter is notable for including what may be the only act of forgiveness in the novel: Dimmesdale forgiving Hester for keeping Chillingworth's identity a secret. No other sin has been forgiven.
Peace. For Hester and Dimmesdale, "peace" means "peace of mind." It means both forgiving yourself and accepting the fact that others might not be able to forgive you. Neither of them can do that, in large part because they've never repented for all their sins. Both of them have kept the identity of Pearl's father a secret, and neither of them can achieve peace until his name is revealed.