The end is near. Or getting nearer. And the suspense is mounting.
Events in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter are accelerating. It’s been seven years since Hester Prynne sewed the scarlet A on her dress, seven years since Roger Chillingworth began his disguised torment of the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, and almost seven years since the birth of Arthur and Hester’s elf-like child Pearl.
The community has reached the point of almost-acceptance of Hester, and she’s just pulled the A from her dress and tossed it in the forest. Dimmesdale encounters Hester in the forest and decides to throw over everything and flee with her and Pearl to Europe; there’s even a ship anchored in the harbor that could take them.
Pearl, playing on the other side of the forest brook from where her parents are talking, seems oblivious, until Hester calls to her to come. Pearl sees the minister and stays on her side of the brook. What she is reacting even more strongly to is the absence of the A on her mother’s dress. She absolutely refuses to come until Hester points to the A lying on the ground and once again places it on her dress. Pearl, the living reminder of both love and sin, once again reminds her parents of the reality of their situation.
The forest and the brook are significant aspects of the scene. The forest is a dark, hidden, primeval place; in fact, it’s the place where some of the people from the town meet and dance for pagan rituals. It is the only place where Arthur and Hester can openly talk of their love and make plans to escape and live freely where they won’t be known. But the symbol Pearl is on the other side of the brook, and she is a mirror of their sin and the fact that they will never really escape it. In fact, there are several interesting descriptions of Pearl seeing herself reflected in the surface of the water.
Arthur seems unaffected by Pearl’s coldness towards him. He returns to the town, utterly set on this new course of awareness and action, and it’s as if he’s seeing the town and its people for the first time. Hawthorne tells us that the minister, tempted by the dream of happiness, “had yielded himself, with deliberate choice, as he had never done before, to what he knew was deadly sin.” Once he had yielded, the “infectious poison of that sin” permeated his entire moral being.
Chillingworth, in his villainous guise as the good doctor, confidante, and friend to the minister, arrives in the minister’s study. He senses something has changed with his long-suffering victim, and then he knows something has changed when Dimmesdale refuses, for the first time, the doctor’s treatment. We leave the minister the end of chapter 20 with his prepared sermon tossed in the fire and him feverishly writing a new one.
Hawthorne has quickened the story’s pace. He’s heightening the suspense – the lovers are planning to flee, the villain knows something has gone awry in his plans, and the child is manipulating her parents. Events are rushing together, and we sense an explosion is coming. We have hints of what it might be, but Hawthorne is not finished with us yet. The climax is near, but not quite yet.