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CHAPTER 12: The Minister's Vigil
Dimmesdale reaches the scaffold and climbs to where Hester has stood with Pearl some years ago. The dark night offers him enough cover to remain unseen, but he involuntarily lets out a scream of pain and torture. He immediately covers his face, fearing disclosure. Governor Bellingham and his sister, Mistress Hibbins are awakened by the noise. They look out their windows, but fail to see Dimmesdale on the scaffold due to the darkness. Relieved that there has been no public exposure, Dimmesdale spies Rev. Wilson walking past with a lantern. He has an urge to speak out to him, but once again cowardice prevents him from confession. His words remain unspoken as Rev. Wilson walks away.
Dimmesdale begins to imagine how, standing on the scaffold and exposed to the cold wind, he might be discovered in a frozen state the next morning with his shame revealed to all. His vision brings a laugh to his lips, and there is an immediate response from Pearl, whose laughter he recognizes. He invites Hester and Pearl to join him on to the scaffold.
The three of them remain standing on the platform holding hands, with Pearl in the middle. United with his family, Dimmesdale has a peaceful moment; but it is broken when Pearl asks him if he would stand with them again on the next noon. Dimmesdale replies in the negative and states that they will all stand together on the Day of Judgment. An offended Pearl breaks free of his hold.
Just then a flash of meteoric light brightens the sky; when Dimmesdale looks upward, he perceives the shape of a scarlet letter "A" illuminated in the darkness. He also notices Roger Chillingworth standing near the platform. An evil scowl covers the doctor's face, making him resemble Satan.
Dimmesdale confesses his fear of Chillingworth and asks Hester if she knows his true identity. Hester wants to tell him the truth, but she remembers her oath to Chillingworth and remains silent. Chillingworth comes nearer and convinces Dimmesdale to return home with him.
The next day is Sunday, and Dimmesdale delivers one of his best sermons. Ironically, as he descends from the pulpit, the sexton gives him his glove, which he found on the scaffold. The sexton interprets the misplaced glove as Satan's mischief, never doubting Dimmesdale. The sexton also mentions the scarlet letter seen in the sky the previous night; like the others in the congregation, he thinks that it stood for Angel, symbolic of Governor Winthrop who has just passed away.
This powerful chapter contains the climax of the novel, for it clearly reveals the relationship between Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl. It is also filled with irony.
In his misery, Dimmesdale is mysteriously drawn to the scaffold where Hester previously stood seven years ago. Because he feels certain that the darkness of night will hide him from view, he mounts the scaffold. As he stands there suffering his shame and hating himself, he lets out a loud and involuntary scream. Although it wakes the Governor and his sister, the darkness hides him from their view.
Dimmesdale then spies Rev. Wilson and longs to openly confess his sin to him. The words, however, again stick in his throat, and he remains silent. Instead, he laughs out loud at the preposterous image that he has of himself, frozen on the scaffold with his sin revealed to all. His laughter is answered by Pearl, who is ironically passing by the scaffold with her mother. Dimmesdale asks them both to join him. He holds their hands and has one peaceful moment. Pearl, however, interrupts his peace by asking if he will stand with them in the light of day. Dimmesdale refused to stand with them and reveal his guilt seven years ago; he still refuses to do so.
As soon as Dimmesdale admits his cowardice to Pearl, a meteor ironically appears in the sky to light the darkness. The illuminated scarlet "A" in the nighttime sky reveals that Roger Chillingworth has been watching the scaffold scene.
Symbolism plays a major role in this chapter. The scaffold is the symbol of public acknowledgment of sin; Dimmesdale finally stands there, but only in the cover of darkness. When he is afraid that he will be recognized after screaming, he hides his face. Three people look out on the scaffold and do not see him.
It is significant that the three unknowing observers are Rev. Wilson (the Church), the Governor (the State), and Mistress Hibbins (the dark side of life). The letter "A" takes on new symbolism in the chapter. It flashes across the sky as a meteor while Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold. The "A" now becomes a visual symbol for the minister as well as for Hester. The irony is that other people who see the meteor believe that the "A" stands for Angel and refers to the recently deceased Governor Winthrop.
It is important to note that this scaffold chapter is the second of
three and occurs right in the middle of the novel. At the first one, Hester,
clutching her baby, stood alone, but Dimmesdale and Chillingworth were
both in the crowd watching her. At this second one, Dimmesdale stands
with Hester and Pearl, but only under the cover of night; ironically,
Chillingworth again watches the scaffold scene. It is easy to surmise
what will happen at the third scaffold scene. The novel is perfectly structured
around the three key scaffold scenes; it is Hawthorne at his best.