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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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CHAPTER 12: THE MINISTER'S VIGIL

This chapter brings Dimmesdale to the scaffold to stand where Hester Prynne has stood, in a frank and open declaration that he is the man who belonged by her side seven years before. A frank and open declaration, yes. But one made in the middle of the night, when no one can see.

Another incomplete act of penance! But Dimmesdale is getting closer now. The old fastings and scourgings took place in the privacy of his bedroom. This vigil is in the market-place, downtown Boston, so to speak. Someone might come along.

Someone does come along, quite a few people, in fact, given the lateness of the hour. The first person to pass unsuspectingly by is Reverend John Wilson, on his way home from Governor Winthrop's deathbed.

Seeing the gleam from Wilson's lantern, Dimmesdale is seized by a mad impulse to jest with the old clergyman. "'Come up hither...' he nearly calls out, 'and pass a pleasant hour with me!'"

If Dimmesdale had spoken aloud, we can easily believe the sober, gray-haired Wilson would have dropped his lantern in astonishment, shocked as much by the uncharacteristic joke as by Dimmesdale's presence by the pillory.

And we are as surprised as Wilson would have been. We hardly know what to make of this lurid fit of playfulness, so much at odds with Dimmesdale's usual sad manner. Is the minister going mad at last? Or is this just a spell of gallows humor, the kind of mood that seizes people at moments of great danger and makes them laugh? We can't be sure yet. But we should note for future reference the unaccustomed energy that buoys Dimmesdale up when, as it seems, the devil is in him.


Meanwhile, more visitors intrude upon the minister's privacy. But this time, they are welcome. Hester and Pearl, also returning from Winthrop's bedside, mount the scaffold at Dimmesdale's pressing invitation.

The three figures, outlined against the night sky, make a dim, obscure picture, a shadow show of the real scene of confession which should take place in daylight. The shadow show is enough for Dimmesdale, giving him the first measure of peace he has known in years. (Like so many of us, the minister will settle for half-truths, where possible.) But it is not enough for Pearl.

Twice the child demands of the minister, will he take her hand and her mother's "tomorrow noontide"? On hearing Dimmesdale's reply-no, not in the light of this world-Pearl struggles to withdraw her hand from the minister's and run away.

NOTE: Once again, Pearl is operating on two levels. We can see her as a very normal child, an orphan whose persistent questions reflect a search for identity. Pearl has found a father or father-figure in Dimmesdale. And she resents what she correctly interprets as his rejection of her. A fleeting caress in the moonlight is not enough for Pearl. She wants to be acknowledged in broad daylight.

We can also see Pearl operating as a symbol, a flesh-and- blood counterpart to the scarlet letter. On this level, she has a mission to perform in Dimmesdale's life, just as she has in Hester's. She is a constant reminder to the minister of a deed not done, a truth not admitted.

Pearl's departure is halted by a meteor that floods the night sky with an unearthly light. The figures on the scaffold stand illuminated now, as if on the Day of Judgment-the minister with his hand over the A on his heart, Hester wearing her scarlet A; and Pearl, herself a symbol, between them-under a fiercely glowing A in the sky.

It is a perfect symbolic tableau, a set piece rather like medieval painting where each of the figures has an allegorical meaning. It is a perfect symbolic tableau, that is, if there is an A in the sky at all. Dimmesdale has read the dull red lines of the letter in the meteor's trail, but "another's guilt might have seen another symbol in it."

What is Hawthorne up to? Why does he give us a symbol, ring all the changes on it, and then say he doesn't mean it? (Or only half means it. The sexton, we note, also sees an A in the sky, but he interprets the letter as a sign that Winthrop has become an angel.)

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