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CHAPTER 16: A Forest Walk
Hester is anxious to tell Dimmesdale about Chillingworth's true identity. She decides, however, not to go to his residence, where she might see Chillingworth. She waits for a chance to meet him on one of his solitary walks. She often takes Pearl in the forest, hoping to find Dimmesdale. One day, Pearl notices that the sunshine comes and goes due to heavy clouds. Pearl playfully says that the sunshine is trying to run away from her mother's scarlet letter.
Pearl also questions her mother about the Black Man who supposedly stalks the forest tempting people. She has heard that Hester's scarlet letter is a mark of the Black Man. When Pearl questions her mother about it, Hester finally admits to her child that she once met the devil and "this scarlet letter is his mark!" Pearl then questions why Dimmesdale, who always clutches his heart, does not wear his scarlet letter on the outside.
Pearl and Hester sit beside a babbling brook and listen to its sounds. The quiet is interrupted by the footsteps of the approaching Dimmesdale. Hester sends Pearl away to play nearby after assuring the child that it is not the Black Man coming. Dimmesdale enters, walking with a cane and appearing feeble, tired, and listless; his hand clutches his heart.
This chapter, set in the forest, sets the mood and the tone for Hester's confession. She is eager to reveal the secret about Chillingworth to Dimmesdale, but she wants to make certain that no one is around to overhear. As a result, she begins to take Pearl to the forest, hoping to find him there on a solitary walk.
Pearl's reference to the sunshine avoiding Hester because of the scarlet letter is again telling of the child's intelligence beyond her age. It also symbolically indicates that Hester's life is dark and solemn -- void of sunshine, joy, mirth, and warmth. Pearl, on the other hand, can easily catch the sunshine and seems to absorb its warmth. Like the brook, Pearl also sings, but hers is a happy song.
Pearl questions her mother about the Black Man (Satan) and asks if he has put the scarlet letter on her chest. When her mother admits that he has, Pearl wisely asks why Dimmesdale does not wear a scarlet letter on the outside instead of always holding his hand at his heart. Ironically, when the minister approaches, he is indeed clutching his heart.
It is important to note the symbolism of the forest in this chapter.
The damp darkness suggests Hester's dreary life, devoid of happiness.
The narrow forest path reflects the austere road that Hester has had to
tread in her life. The melancholic sound of the brook reflects her sadness.
Ironically, there are two men in the forest, both of whom are responsible
for Hester's temptation and sin; the Black Man, or Satan, is her symbolic
tempter and Dimmesdale is the real one.