Summary and Analysis
Chapter 23 - The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter
At the end of Dimmesdale's Election Day sermon, the crowd emerges from the church, inspired by powerful words they have just heard from a man whom they feel is soon to die. This moment is the most brilliant and triumphant in Dimmesdale's public life. As the procession of dignitaries marches to a banquet at the town hall, the feelings of the crowd are expressed in a spontaneous shout of tribute to Dimmesdale. "Never, on New England soil, has stood the man so honored by his mortal brethren, as the preacher!" But the shout dies to a murmur as the people see Dimmesdale totter feebly and nervously in the procession. His face has taken on a deathly pallor, and he can scarcely walk. Several people attempt to help him, but the minister repels them until he comes to the scaffold where Hester stands holding Pearl by the hand. There Dimmesdale pauses.
As the minister turns to the scaffold, he calls Hester and Pearl to his side. Suddenly, Chillingworth appears and attempts to stop Dimmesdale, but the minister scorns the old physician and cries out to Hester to help him get up to the scaffold. The crowd watches in astonishment as the minister, leaning on Hester and holding Pearl's hand, ascends the scaffold steps. Chillingworth's face darkens as he realizes that nowhere else but on the scaffold can Dimmesdale escape him.
The minister tells Hester that he is dying and must acknowledge his shame. Then he turns to the crowd and cries out his guilt. He steps in front of Hester and Pearl and declares that on his breast he bears the sign of his sin. He tears the ministerial band from his breast and, for a moment, stands flushed with triumph before the horrified crowd. Then he sinks down upon the scaffold.
Hester lifts Dimmesdale's head and cradles it against her bosom. Chillingworth, meanwhile, kneels down and, in a tone of defeat, repeats, over and over, "Thou hast escaped me!" The minister asks God's forgiveness for Chillingworth's sin; then he turns to Pearl and asks for a kiss. Pearl kisses him and weeps.
Dimmesdale, obviously dying now, tells Hester farewell. She asks whether they will spend eternity together. In answer, he recalls their sin and says he fears that eternal happiness is not a state for which they can hope. The minister leaves the matter to God, whose mercy he has seen in the afflictions leading to his public confession. His dying words are "Praised be his name! His will be done! Farewell!"
Hawthorne brings all the principal characters together at a third scaffold scene in this chapter, which begins with the triumph of Dimmesdale's sermon and ends with his death.
Dimmesdale's sermon is a personal triumph. In fact, Hawthorne ironically compares him to an angel who had "shaken his bright wings over the people" and "shed down a shower of golden truths upon them." This final irony between his public and private lives is revealed when he confesses his sin on the scaffold to all of the people who think of him as a saint. He gives up everything: his child, his love, his life, and his honor. The relationship to God that he has been preaching about cannot be based on a lie. God sees everything, and Dimmesdale, no matter how hard he has tried, cannot outrun the truth that his conscience and his mind believe. Sailing to Europe will not bring him beyond the reach of God's knowledge.
Not only does Dimmesdale confess, but he must do so alone. Although Hester helps him to the scaffold where she was punished seven years before, she cannot help him make his peace with God. The Church, in the form of Mr. Wilson, and the State, symbolized by Governor Bellingham, both try to hold Dimmesdale up as he approaches the scaffold, but he repels them and goes on alone. He does turn to Hester prior to his death and ask for her strength, guided by God. Having escaped the clutches of Chillingworth, he turns to Hester with "an expression of doubt and anxiety in his eyes."
Before actually confessing, he asks her, "Is this not better than what we dreamed of in the forest?" He is asking Hester to confirm the righteousness of this act and explains to her: "For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order . . . Let me now do the will which He hath made plain before my sight." Although Dimmesdale may still doubt his choice and requires Hester's strength, in the end, he leaves his fate to God, trusting that His mercy will be more certain in death than Chillingworth's relentless torment is in life.
Given that he is dying, Dimmesdale asks Hester whether confession is better than fleeing. She has lived for seven long years with the torment of her neighbors and the shame of her scarlet letter. She hurriedly answers him that perhaps the three of them dying together would be preferable, but if Dimmesdale dies alone what will she have? She will have no love, no life other than the loneliness she has already has, and a daughter who will have no father.
Pearl is given the most wonderful gift: a life that is filled with love and happiness. When her father finally publicly acknowledges her, she kisses him and weeps an actual tear. As Hawthorne says, "the spell is broken." There is hope that Pearl will grow up, be able to interact with other human beings, find love, and live a long and happy life.
Chillingworth loses his victory in two ways. First, he no longer has Dimmesdale to torment, and second, he receives Dimmesdale's blessing. Even as he is dying, the minister manages to retain his reverence and his kindness by asking God's forgiveness for Chillingworth. As Hester noted in her husband's changed appearance earlier, revenge is never a positive motive and generally consumes its possessor.
the utterance of oracles the telling of wise predictions about the future.
auditors hearers or listeners.
pathos the emotion of compassion.
transitory stay a very brief stay, as in this life compared to an eternal one.
zenith the point directly overhead.
apotheosized elevated to the status of God, glorified, exalted.
fathomless too deep to be measured; incomprehensible.