Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter Chapter 17

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 17

The Pastor and His Parishioner

  • Hester and Dimmesdale's encounter in the woods seems so out-of-this-world to both of them that they have to ask one another whether they're each still alive.
  • Dimmesdale at last touches Hester's hand, which reassures both of them.
  • They make small talk until Dimmesdale asks Hester if she has found peace.
  • She doesn't answer but looks at the scarlet letter, then asks him if he has found peace.
  • Nope. In fact, he's miserable.
  • Well, does he at least find comfort in the good that he does as a minister?
  • Nope. He feels only misery.
  • In fact, he's afraid that any good he does is an illusion, since there's so much evil in his heart.
  • Satan's probably getting a pretty good chuckle out of that.
  • He's wrong, Hester says: it's clear from his words that he's repented.
  • But penance and penitence aren't any good; he's a hypocrite.
  • He's just glad that he can look in the eye of somebody who can see him for who he is.
  • It would be even better if he could have friend, or even an enemy, who recognizes what he has become.
  • But he does have a friend—Hester.
  • And he also has an enemy, who lives with him under his own roof.
  • As Dimmesdale stands there essentially with his mouth hanging open, Hester realizes that she's really messed things up by keeping Chillingworth's secret.
  • Guilt isn't going to cure Dimmesdale; it's going to corrupt him.
  • It's time for the big reveal: Hester confesses, Dimmesdale vows he'll never forgive her; she says that he will, and then they hug it out. (Seriously.)
  • Anyway, Dimmesdale finally says Chillingworth's heart is way blacker than theirs because he violated the sanctity of the human heart in cold blood. At least he and Hester never did that.
  • So, is Chillingworth going to reveal their secret now?
  • Hester doesn't think so. She thinks he'll seek his revenge in another way.
  • In any case, they both manage to agree that the two men can't keep living together.
  • Dimmesdale asks Hester to tell him what he should do.
  • How about leave the settlement? He can be free if he leaves and goes into the wilderness.
  • Um, anyone else think that sounds like a bad idea?
  • Luckily, she has another suggestion: head back to Europe, where no one's ever even heard of Chillingworth.
  • Dimmesdale says he can't run away. He will do what he can as a minister in this village, despite his fallen nature.
  • Hester continues to urge him to go, to "exchange this false life" for a "true one."
  • No, he says. He's too tired to leave, and he doesn't want to go alone into the world.
  • Wait, who said anything about alone?

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