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CHAPTER 17: THE PASTOR AND HIS PARISHIONER
After carefully setting the scene in "A Forest Walk," Hawthorne brings us to the long-awaited meeting of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. It is a reunion that will span the next three chapters and provide the most dramatic and heart-rending moments of the novel.
Seven years have passed since the lovers have met in private, years that have taken a frightful toll on the minister, even as they have strengthened and disciplined Hester.
Not surprisingly, the two find a kind of unreality in the moment. They see each other through a mist that only clears with the chill touch of Dimmesdale's hand on Hester's.
Hawthorne tells us that it took a lot of small talk-remarks about the weather and so on-before Hester and Dimmesdale could open up to each other. But small talk is not what we hear. Only questions and answers of stunning simplicity: "'Art thou in life?'" "'Hast thou found peace?'"
Perhaps we can learn something about the characters' state of mind by looking at those questions, one at a time.
"'Art thou in life?'" "'And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live?'" Hester may mean something rather different by this first question than Dimmesdale does. The minister has been far too wrapped up in himself to keep tabs on Hester. He has seen her only once in recent years, the night of his vigil on the scaffold, when she appeared like an image summoned by this thought. He really does not know whether she is still alive.
Hester, on the other hand, has had good reason to be anxious about the minister's health. She has just seen him collapsed upon a bed of forest leaves. Her question really means, does Dimmesdale still have the strength to live.
"'Hast thou found peace?'" Hester believes this second question deserves only a dreary smile and a passing nod to the scarlet letter-that emblem of torture-on her breast. But Dimmesdale seizes the occasion to relieve himself, at some length and to the only possible listener, of the agony that has been eating away at his heart.
He is weary unto death of his false position, he tells Hester. He is doubtful of the efficacy of his work and bitter in his soul at the contrast between what he is and what he seems. "'Of penance, I have had enough! Of penitence, there has been none!'" he says, rather neatly expressing the difference between the futile acts of contrition he has taken up and the real change of heart he has never yet experienced. (Dimmesdale is an orator with a gift for the nicely turned phrase.)