Notes to Ch 20, The Minister in a Maze
The Scarlet Letter

this indistinctness and duplicity ...sl20.html#g02
Dimmesdale has not been doing his own thinking so far, letting Hester do it for him. Thus his thoughts are indistinct. Shortly we will see that a conflict will open between his inner and his outer personality, accounting for the description of duplicity (two faces) here. We have to analyze this idea in more detail.
Hawthorne describes two aspects of Dimmesdale--the pious minister who accuses himself of sin, and the pious minister who inspires others by his preaching. It is correct that his decision to escape with Hester causes a conflict to erupt in his personality, physically, mentally, and morally, in what amounts to an identity crisis--he becomes a new man (maybe not what he expected at all, and as we see, not necessarily a better one).
Bristol ...sl20.html#g02
British seaport. Most ships traveled between New England and England, and not directly to European ports. Spanish Main was the Caribbean area dominated by the Spanish.
a self-enlisted Sister of Charity ...sl20.html#g02
The meaning here is that Hester is not formally a member of a religious or nursing order of nuns. Sister of Mercy is used here as a generic term. The Puritans did not have separate groups of nuns and monks as the Roman Catholics. Nursing was usually done by volunteers from the church, as a pastoral duty, but there was no separate formal group for nursing. The founding of non-religious nursing in the United States did not come until a decade or so after this story. Hester was not associated with a church in this duty, but apparently has taken on the job voluntarily. Part of her job, Hawthorne notes here, would be to visit ships to make sure they were not introducing disease--this was too common in this day. It seems strange that if she was the town nurse and Chillingworth the town doctor, they would not have worked together at many bedsides.
to preach the Election Sermon ...sl20.html#g03
The Election Sermon, to formally install the governor of the colony, elected just before, was always on a Wednesday, fifty days after Easter Sunday (and thus having an association with Pentecost, fifty days after the start of Passover). As Hawthorne, notes, it was a great honor for a minister to be chosen to preach the sermon, which generally spoke of important matters for the colony. Hawthorne, a Democrat and a supporter of democracy, points out this election ceremony as a good institution, in contrast to the later revocation of the charter, when the governor was appointed.
Why does Hawthorne here say that the fact that Dimmesdale is gratified and honored shows him to be pitiably weak? One important fact is that a minister must have repented of all sin before administering the Holy Sacrament, a fundament pastoral duty. If he is not true to God in this respect, how can we believe that everything else this leader has to say about politics or religion is truthful? Dimmesdale is overcome by pride, but should be thinking of confession, love, and repentance instead. Since he does not realize this consciously yet, his unconscious will force its way to the surface.
The "revolution" in "the sphere of thought and feeling," "the total change of dynasty and moral code," we see in a moment, reflect not the true democracy and freedom of the new colony, but rather an inadequate rebellion away from it. (Hawthorne does not specify exactly what moral code Dimmesdale has adopted in contrast to an old code, but from the picture we get of the minister's behavior it does not sound like one that the author encourages us to follow. Although these other actors might indeed be hypocritical, this is no way of showing it, since it disrepects them.)
Another possibility here for the term "dynasty" (and the term "King's mint-mark" later) is that King Charles I was overthrown by the Puritans in the same year this is supposed to take place, and so might have been something that the Boston Puritans were thinking about. One wonders if this is a subtle flashback to Hawthorne's referring in the introduction to his overthrow and decapitation as Surveyor of the Custom House by the change in administration in Washington.
No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true. ...sl20.html#g03
This sentence has widely been copied and quoted as an aphorism. But we should think about it more, in this context. Does Dimmesdale get bewildered when preaching in church? No, he preaches eloquently and truthfully--but his listeners do not believe him, or believe what they want to hear instead. Is that his fault, because of duplicity? And in his private life, as a religious man in relation to his God, he is all too honest as well. He manages to cope somehow for seven years this way, keeping the two faces separate. It is only now that Dimmesdale has this meeting and new plan with Hester that he undergoes a crisis. But is the crisis a bewilderment as to which is the true personality? Is not each personality a true one, but the difficulty instead that he is not satisifed, his unconscious mind cannot be satisifed, until he has but one identity, one that embodies both truths? It is not a matter of logical, rational truth, but of emotional, artistic truth.
Hawthorne goes off on another track immediately, attributing (and having Dimmesdale himself attribute) the minister's psychotic behavior in this chapter to some influence of the Devil, caused by Arthur's agreeing to escape with Hester. Another view might be that this plan has only brought on an underlying crisis, and that the Devil has nothing to do with it. The plan to escape in itself would not be evil--it would only be evil to refuse to repent, to live in hypocrisy, and to fail to take care of Hester and Pearl. In other words, he must assume his true identity as a gifted minister, a lover, and a father--and have this identity confirmed by his society and his family. This is a difficult job, and the pastor is tempted here to give it all up and try to make his own escape--but he cannot.
the celestial city ...sl20.html#g07
Heaven, ironically. For another ironical or satirical look at complacent religious people, see "The Celestial Rail-road".
gravestones ...sl20.html#g07
Our copy-text has "gravestones" while the Library of America text (based on the Centenary Edition) hyphenates the word as "grave-stones." Both mean the same and are alternate spellings. Each spelling is found several times in Hawthorne's writings. In "Chippings with a Chisel," 1838, he hyphenates the word.
church-member ...sl20.html#g08
Both our copy-text and the Library of America text hyphenate this word at the end of the line. We choose to represent it as a hyphenated word here. We cannot find any other use of "churchmember" in Hawthorne's works, while "Old News" uses the hyphenated form once. The meaning is the same, and spelling and hyphenation practices were not so fixed at the time of this edition as they are now.
Anne Turner, Sir Thomas Overbury ...sl20.html#g11
Previously Chillingworth was associated with Overbury and Turner (a court woman and alleged witch who allegedly aided in the poisoning). Now Mistress Ann Hibbins is said to be part of this same devilish gang in old England and to have brought it to Boston along with the "famous yellow starch" (not apparently a poison but just one of her inventions) and ruff. The touch adds a bit of authenticity and mystery to our drama, neatly tying poisoning as with Chillingworth to witchcraft through Hibbins or agents in the wilderness of the Devil or Black Man. Again we see the theme of the meaning of the wilderness and the mission of the Puritans. Many of the Native Americans at this point had been converted by Roman Catholic Jesuit priests from Canada, but to the Puritans that would have been just as bad as the Black Man.
the Apostle Eliot ...sl20.html#g13
Dimmesdale apparently took the liberal side of Eliot in trying to convert the Indians, though he is never shown as having any direct relation with them--at most he might have been a scholar to help with translation.
the New Jerusalem ...sl20.html#g27
We encountered New Jerusalem in Chapter 9. Chillingworth must be talking with a great deal of irony. Now he knows that Dimmesdale is aware of his real identity and his plan. He says that Dimmesdale will not escape, and that prayers will not save him. The New Jerusalem is not for people who do good works or preach with eloquence, but for saved sinners. The pastor cannot be saved unless he repents, and Chillingworth sees no sign that he is ready to do so.
There might also be a play on words here, that preaching is so valued in this new Boston, the New Jerusalem of New England. The irony is that the preaching is hypocrisy, so the mint-mark does not guarantee that the coin is not counterfeit.
There is also some word play about the other world, which could be interpreted as either Heaven or Europe.
a vast, immeasurable tract of written space behind him! ...sl20.html#g28
One has to think that Hawthorne when writing this book felt much the same--a burst of inspiration that allowed him to bring together many old ideas and renew them, and a fast work pace so his writing kept up with his thoughts, and allowed him to write a large enough novel (up to the end he was worried that it might not be long enough for a novel, and if it turned out to be a long story it would have to be published with others, as his previous collections were--it might be that Hawthorne wrote up to here and finished the remaining chapter in a later burst.) We have to wonder if Hawthorne also was undergoing an identity crisis as a man and here found the same solution as did Dimmesdale, to write out his thoughts and make them a work of art. This bridges the gap between him and the reader and allows him to go through the intimacy crisis that would be next in his life stages. But for Dimmesdale it seems to be a recognition that he can never escape with Hester, and must fulfil his fate as a clergyman, and inspire good for New England. This point seems to be the resolution of his crisis, and his sermon and scaffold scenes are acted out almost automatically.

Summary. From here until the end of the book we expect you to write your own summaries, following the models of preceding chapters. E-mail to your summary (after reading the chapter carefully). You will get in return e-mail similar summaries made by others, which you may then compare with your own to see if you have understood the chapter. Use "Ch. 20 SL Summary" as the Subject: line.


Suggested MLA citations to this web page, HTML code and text.
Use as in ?Help? page citation guide.

Eldred, Eric. <cite>Notes to Ch. 20, The Scarlet Letter.</cite> <br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;1999. 23 Sep. 1999. <br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; &lt;<a href=""></a>&gt;

(<a href="">Eldred</a>)

Eldred, Eric. Notes to Ch. 20, The Scarlet Letter. 1999. 23 Sep. 1999.


Please send your own contributions or corrections:
Last updated: Tue Sep 28 23:47:07 EDT 1999
©Copyright 1999 Eric Eldred - see license
From Eldritch Press's Nathaniel Hawthorne Home Page -