But, before Mr. Dimmesdale had done speaking, a light gleamed far and wide over all the muffled sky. It was doubtless caused by one of those meteors, which the night-watcher may so often observe burning out to waste, in the vacant regions of the atmosphere. So powerful was its radiance, that it thoroughly illuminated the dense medium of cloud betwixt the sky and earth. The great vault brightened, like the dome of an immense lamp.
After Hester and Pearl join Reverend Dimmesdale on the scaffold, the same platform on which Hester has been displayed in the past, the three stand together quietly, holding hands. As they do, a meteor shoots across the sky, an apparent symbol of their union, their bright love for one another, in the darkness. Here, the cosmic reflects the specific. Brightness and darkness, truth and secrecy, and past and present all symbolically collide.
Nothing was more common, in those days, than to interpret all meteoric appearances, and other natural phenomena, that occurred with less regularity than the rise and set of sun and moon, as so many revelations from a supernatural source.
The Puritans believed that meteors revealed supernatural impending events such as sickness, crop failures, and harsh weather. The narrator refers to such events as “awful hieroglyphics on the cope of heaven,” and so it was on this night. However, the impending event that this meteor reveals is that the truth will be exposed: Reverend Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl are bound together as a family, and soon the whole community will know.
We impute it, therefore, 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,—the letter A,—marked out in lines of dull red light.
In this moment, Reverend Dimmesdale’s shame and guilt reveal themselves in the heavens above. He sees a letter “A” in the sky, outlined by the red light of the meteor. The secret that his heart has carried and his body has hidden seems suddenly revealed for all to see. The significance of the moment is that Dimmesdale imagines his guilt is written across the night sky for everyone to behold.
Certainly, if the meteor kindled up the sky, and disclosed the earth, with an awfulness that admonished Hester Prynne and the clergyman of the day of judgment, then might Roger Chillingworth have passed with them for the arch-fiend, standing there, with a smile and scowl, to claim his own. So vivid was the expression, or so intense the minister's perception of it, that it seemed still to remain painted on the darkness, after the meteor had vanished, with an effect as if the street and all things else were at once annihilated.
While Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl stand together on the scaffold, under the foretelling meteor, Roger Chillingworth appears. The narrator muses that if the trio is admonished by the heavenly event, then Chillingworth should be admonished, too. His sin is just as heinous as theirs, perhaps even more so. In the next moment, Reverend Dimmesdale admits that he has a “nameless horror” of Chillingworth, but Hester, bound by her promise not to reveal his identity, does not reveal the truth.
“But did your reverence hear of the portent that was seen last night? A great red letter in the sky,—the letter A, —which we interpret to stand for Angel. For, as our good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night, it was doubtless held fit that there should be some notice thereof!”
While the sexton returns a glove found on the scaffold to Reverend Dimmesdale, he brings up the topic of the meteor seen in the sky the night before. The sexton explains that many people saw the letter “A” in the sky. However, instead of attributing the letter to Hester, he suggests another interpretation, a detail revealing that the community doesn’t have Hester or her struggles in the forefront of their minds. Moments later, afraid to reveal his feelings, Reverend Dimmesdale denies seeing the meteor at all.