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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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CHAPTER 20: THE MINISTER IN A MAZE

Dimmesdale returns home from the forest to the settlement. As we watch him go, we are struck by the change in the man. The minister who went to the woods was weak to the point of death. The minister who returns is nothing short of frenzied. In fact, he seems a little mad.

Dimmesdale's journey home is a progress fraught with peril, for at every step, he is tempted to do some outrageous thing or other: preach heresy to his deacon, corrupt an innocent girl, teach dirty words to children, exchange lusty oaths with a sailor.

The minister is terrified and amazed at himself. What, he wonders, has happened to him?

What, indeed?


You may take a modern, psychological view of Dimmesdale's case. You may decide he's simply been living too long under a rigid form of self-restraint. Seeing Hester was like lifting the lid off a boiling pot. It isn't surprising that the man is letting off steam. If you take this view, you will probably be somewhat indulgent toward Dimmesdale. After all, some of the actions he envisions are really only schoolboy pranks.

On the other hand, you may see Dimmesdale's crisis in religious or moral terms. If so, you will probably accept Hawthorne's statement of the case. Dimmesdale, having chosen what he knew to be sin, is becoming every minute more of a sinner. The minister is on a roller coaster ride in hell. Having once mounted the infernal machine, he careens onward, powerless to get off.

This latter interpretation receives some support from Dimmesdale's encounter with Mistress Hibbins. Devil's familiar that Hibbins is, she now recognizes in Dimmesdale a kindred spirit. A little bird has told her, apparently, that the minister has signed his name in the Black Man's ironbound book.

Now, we have learned to trust Mistress Hibbins' opinion. Long ago, in front of the Governor's mansion, she spotted in Hester a likely candidate for the wild forest dance. And sure enough once Hester got to the forest, her demure appearance vanished. Her hair tumbled down and a wild light shone in her eyes.

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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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