Summary and Analysis
Chapter 12 - The Minister's Vigil
After leaving the house, Dimmesdale walks to the scaffold where, seven years earlier, Hester Prynne stood, wearing her sign of shame and holding Pearl. Now, in the damp, cool air of the cloudy May night, Dimmesdale mounts the steps while the town sleeps. Realizing the mockery of his being able to stand there now, safe and unseen, where he should have stood seven years ago before the townspeople, Dimmesdale is overcome by a self-hatred so terrible that it causes him to cry aloud into the night.
Hester and Pearl, who are returning from Governor Winthrop's deathbed, mount the scaffold, and the three of them stand hand-in-hand, Hester and Dimmesdale linked by Pearl. Twice, Pearl asks Dimmesdale if he will stand there with them at noon the next day; the minister says he will stand there with them on "the great judgment day." As he speaks, a strange light in the sky illuminates the scaffold and its surroundings. Looking up, Dimmesdale seems to see in the sky a dull red light in the shape of an immense letter A. At the same instant, Dimmesdale is aware that Pearl is pointing toward Roger Chillingworth who stands nearby, grimly smiling up at the three people on the scaffold. Overcome with terror, Dimmesdale asks Hester about the true identity of Chillingworth. Remembering her promise to Chillingworth, Hester remains silent.
After the next morning's sermon, the sexton startles the minister by returning one of his gloves, which was found on the scaffold. ("Satan dropped it there, I take it, intending a scurrilous jest against your reverence.") The sexton also asks about the great red letter A that appeared in the sky the past night.
This chapter, the second of three crucial scaffold scenes, appears exactly in the middle of the novel. Again, Hawthorne gathers all of his major characters in one place — this time in a chapter so foreboding, so convincing in its psychology, and so rich in its symbolism that it is unquestionably one of the most powerful in the novel.
In his description of Dimmesdale's actions while alone on the scaffold, Hawthorne demonstrates his mastery of psychological realism. The sudden changes in mood that take place in the minister's tired mind, the self-condemnation for his cowardice, the near-insanity of his scream, and his impulse to speak to Mr. Wilson all are developed convincingly. The first scaffold scene took place during the noon hours and concentrated on Hester's guilt and punishment. This second scene, occurring at the midnight hours, puts both "sinners" on the scaffold and concentrates on Dimmesdale's guilt and punishment. All the major characters of the first scene are again present. The town, although present, sleeps or is otherwise unaware of the action.
Previously, we have seen Dimmesdale's conscious mind attempting to reason through the problem of his concealed guilt. In contrast, in this chapter, we see the tortured workings of his subconscious mind, which is the real source of his agony. When Dimmesdale is forced by Pearl's repeated question to bring the issue into the open, his fear of confession still dominates his subconscious desire to confess. Just as the town was asleep earlier and there was "no peril of discovery," now he backs off once again. His two refusals to publicly acknowledge his relationship with Hester and Pearl suggest, perhaps, Peter's first two denials of Christ.
Hawthorne's flair for Gothic detail is demonstrated in the appearance of a spectacular, weird light and the startling revelation of the diabolical Roger Chillingworth, who is standing near the scaffold. However, although both details have the effect of supernatural occurrences, Hawthorne is careful to give a natural explanation for each of them. The light, Hawthorne says, "was doubtless caused by one of those meteors, which the night-watcher may so often observe, burning out to waste."
Of course, the meteor seemed otherwise to those who saw it: "Nothing was more common, in those days, than to interpret all meteoric appearances . . . as so many revelations from a supernatural source." And the question of whether the ominous red A appeared at all is ambiguous. Although the sexton refers to the letter, Hawthorne suggests that the A may have appeared only in Dimmesdale's imagination: "We impute it . . . solely to the disease in his own eye and heart, that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter." Hawthorne also indicates that the meaning is in the mind of the beholder: The sexton sees it as an A for angel because Governor Winthrop had recently become an angel. Similarly, Chillingworth's appearance, although it suggests his knowledge of Dimmesdale's whereabouts, is logically explained by his having attended the dying Governor Winthrop.
As in the first scaffold scene, this chapter abounds in both major and minor symbols: the scaffold itself; Dimmesdale's standing on it; the three potential observers representing Church, State, and the World of Evil; the "electric chain" of Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale; Pearl's appeal to Dimmesdale; the revealing light from the heavens; and the variation on the letter A.
scourge a whip used for flogging.
expiation atonement; to pay a penalty for something.
Geneva cloak a black cloak that Calvinist ministers wore.
cope a vestmentworn by priests for certain ceremonies. Here, anything that covers like a cope, a canopy over, or the sky.
scurrilous vulgar, indecent, abusive.
Governor Winthrop John Winthrop (1588-1649), first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.