Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter Chapter 20

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 20

The Minister in a Maze 

  • As Dimmesdale heads back to town, he glances back at Hester and Pearl, half-expecting that he just imagined the whole thing.
  • Nope. Still there.
  • He thinks about how they wanted to return to the Old World, and remember that there's actually a ship in the harbor at that exact moment, just waiting to sail for Bristol, England.
  • Hester has met the captain and crew, so she should be able to secure passage for two adults and a child.
  • They'll sail in four days, which will give Dimmesdale just enough time to leave his career on a high note by preaching his final sermon, the Election Sermon.
  • (Quick Brain Snack: the "Election Sermon" was a sermon that basically meditated on the religious and civil duties of elected officials (and those who elect them) as allegedly laid out in the Bible. Pretty important stuff in a mid-17th century Puritan community.)

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  • When Dimmesdale gets back to town, though, he feels… weird.
  • When he meets a deacon in the church, he almost blurts out some really blasphemous things.
  • He even—prepare yourself—thinks about arguing against the immortality of the soul.
  • Gasp!
  • And when he meets a new church member, he totally blows her off—making her wonder what she's done wrong.
  • Oh, and he's tempted to teach some naughty words to some Puritan children playing by the road.
  • He wonders if he is mad. Did he make a contract with the devil in the forest?
  • Eh, we've all been there. Right?
  • Just then, he passes the witch-lady Mistress Hibbins.
  • She gives him a knowing smile and tell him to let her know next time he heads off into the woods, and she'll come along too.
  • In fact, why doesn't join her at midnight in the forest, i.e., come to one of her fun witch parties?
  • Now Dimmesdale is getting pretty nervous, wondering if he actually has sold his soul to the devil.
  • Uh, actually, yes: the narrator says that deliberately choosing to sin is pretty much like dealing with the devil.
  • "Wicked mortals" have a lot in common with "perverted spirits" (20.17).
  • Back at his house, Dimmesdale is studying the Election Sermon (which he obviously wrote pre-encounter in the woods, since we'd hate to see what he came up with post-encounter), when Chillingworth comes in.
  • Does he need medicinal strength for his sermon?
  • Nope. In fact, he doesn't need any more of Chillingworth's drugs.
  • Chillingworth mulls this over for a bit, and Dimmesdale starts to worry that he knows about the moment in the woods.
  • He doesn't. But he does realize that Dimmesdale knows Chillingworth has it in for him. After a little back-and-forth about the medicine, Chillingworth finally leaves.
  • Alone, Dimmesdale throws his Election Sermon in the fire and pulls an all-nighter writing a new one.

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