The Scarlet Letter Chapter 20 Summary and Analysis

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 20 Summary and Analysis

Dimmesdale takes his leave of Hester and Pearl. He tries to focus on the plan: there's a boat docked in Boston harbor that plans to leave in four days, and Hester, who knows the captain because of her charity work, will secure them passage across the Atlantic. Dimmesdale need only have faith in the plan and be strong until they can leave. Unfortunately, he still has duties as the minister, and before he can leave he must deliver the Election Sermon. This does not bother him at first, because he feels invigorated by his meeting with Hester. He walks faster. Breathes easier. Seems full of life.

Dimmesdale thinks he's a changed man. He repudiates his past weakness and cowardice, distancing himself from the man he used to be. When he speaks with the deacon, the minister struggles to hold his tongue and refrain from saying vile, sinful things. When he speaks with an old widow, he cannot remember any lines of scripture and doesn't remember what he whispers in her ear. When he sees a young, beautiful member of his flock in the street, he thinks of shooting her an evil glance and then following it with a snide remark. Instead, he covers his face with his cloak.

When Dimmesdale feels the urge to teach a group of children some curse words, he starts rethinking his plan to leave with Hester. Just then, Mistress Hibbins happens to walk by, wearing a velvet gown and an elaborate headdress. She has heard of his visit to the forest (though not of Hester's plan), and she assumes that he was communing with the Black Man or Devil. She offers to accompany him on his next visit. He refuses, of course, but this only amuses her.

Following his meeting with Mistress Hibbins, Dimmesdale becomes convinced that Hester's plan is actually a deal with the Devil. He rushes home, where he finds a half-written sermon still sitting on his desk. Seeing it, he realizes that he has been tempted by the Devil and come back a changed man, wiser than before. As if on cue, Chillingworth enters the room, asking Dimmesdale about his travels and his health. Surprisingly, the minister refuses the medicines offered by Chillingworth. This leads the physician to realize that he has been identified as an enemy. Neither of them directly address the issue, however. Chillingworth leaves, and Dimmesdale sits down to eat and write a new sermon.

Allusions
 
Moses. A Biblical figure famed for parting the Red Sea and leading the Jews out of Egypt, where they were enslaved for centuries. Hawthorne alludes to Moses to underscore how important Moses' words are to Dimmesdale.
 
Sir Thomas Overbury (1581 - 1613). For more information about Sir Thomas Overbury, see Chapter 9 Analysis: Allusions.
 
Anne Turner (1576 - 1615). Anne Turner was the widow of a respected English doctor. She hid behind this veil of respectability while hiding her sinful ways, which included running a "house of ill-repute" (a hotel where couples, married and unmarried, could have their affairs in private). Turner's business made it easy for her to procure various poisons, including those which reportedly killed Sir Thomas Overbury. For her part in the murder, Turner was tried, convicted, and hanged.
 
Metaphor
 
Chillingworth uses a metaphor when he says a good man's prayers "are the current gold of the New Jerusalem." This equates prayer with a kind of spiritual wealth that enriches the faithful as a whole.
 
Simile
 
Hawthorne describes one young maiden as being just as "pair and pure as a lily that had bloomed in Paradise." This simile emphasizes her holiness and presumed virginity.
 
Themes
 
Change. Dimmesdale undergoes a remarkable change at the beginning of this chapter. His decision to sail to Europe with Hester fills him with renewed vigor, making it possible for him to walk through Boston without having to stop and catch his breath. His change isn't merely physical, however. He's flooded with thoughts and desires (to use curse words, to laugh at his colleagues) he never would've allowed himself to have before. Unfortunately, this change is temporary. He begins to interpret the change as the work of the Devil, and so he regresses to his former self. In the end, Dimmesdale doesn't change at all, except to become more determined to die for his sins.