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Chillingworth continues to play mind games with Dimmesdale, making his revenge as terrible as possible. The minister often regards his doctor with distrust and even loathing, but because he can assign no rational basis to his feelings, he dismisses them and continues to suffer. Dimmesdale’s suffering, however, does inspire him to deliver some of his most powerful sermons, which focus on the topic of sin. His struggles allow him to empathize with human weakness, and he thus addresses “the whole human brotherhood in the heart’s native language.” Although the reverend deeply yearns to confess the truth of his sin to his parishioners, he cannot bring himself to do so. As a result, his self-probing keeps him up at night, and he even sees visions.
In one vision, he sees Hester and “little Pearl in her scarlet garb.” Hester points “her forefinger, first at the scarlet letter on her bosom, and then at the clergyman’s own breast.” The minister understands that he is delusional, but his psychological tumult leads him to assign great meaning to his delusions. Even the Bible offers him little support. Unable to unburden himself of the guilt deriving from his sin, he begins to believe that “the whole universe is false, . . . it shrinks to nothing within his grasp.” Dimmesdale begins to torture himself physically: he scourges himself with a whip, he fasts, and he holds extended vigils, during which he stays awake throughout the night meditating upon his sin. During one of these vigils, Dimmesdale seizes on an idea for what he believes may be a remedy to his pain. He decides to hold a vigil on the scaffold where, years before, Hester suffered for her sin.
Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold. The pain in his breast causes him to scream aloud, and he worries that everyone in the town will wake up and come to look at him. Fortunately for Dimmesdale, the few townspeople who heard the cry took it for a witch’s voice. As Dimmesdale stands upon the scaffold, his mind turns to absurd thoughts. He almost laughs when he sees Reverend Wilson, and in his delirium he thinks that he calls out to the older minister. But Wilson, coming from the deathbed of Governor Winthrop (the colony’s first governor), passes without noticing the penitent. Having come so close to being sighted, Dimmesdale begins to fantasize about what would happen if everyone in town were to witness their holy minister standing in the place of public shame.
Dimmesdale laughs aloud and is answered by a laugh from Pearl, whose presence he had not noticed. Hester and Pearl had also been at Winthrop’s deathbed because the talented seamstress had been asked to make the governor’s burial robe. Dimmesdale invites them to join him on the scaffold, which they do. The three hold hands, forming an “electric chain.” The minister feels energized and warmed by their presence. Pearl innocently asks, “Wilt thou stand here with Mother and me, tomorrow noontide?” but the minister replies, “Not now, child, but at another time.” When she presses him to name that time, he answers, “At the great judgment day.”
Suddenly, a meteor brightens the dark sky, momentarily illuminating their surroundings. When the minister looks up, he sees an “A” in the sky, marked out in dull red light. At the same time, Pearl points to a figure that stands in the distance and watches them. It is Chillingworth. Dimmesdale asks Hester who Chillingworth really is, because the man occasions in him what he calls “a nameless horror.” But Hester, sworn to secrecy, cannot reveal her husband’s identity. Pearl says that she knows, but when she speaks into the minister’s ear, she pronounces mere childish gibberish. Dimmesdale asks if she intends to mock him, and she replies that she is punishing him for his refusal to stand in public with her and her mother.
Chillingworth approaches and coaxes Dimmesdale down, saying that the minister must have sleepwalked his way up onto the scaffold. When Dimmesdale asks how Chillingworth knew where to find him, Chillingworth says that he, too, was making his way home from Winthrop’s deathbed.