Summary: Chapter 11: The Interior of a Heart
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.
Summary: Chapter 12: The Minister’s Vigil
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.
Dimmesdale and Chillingworth return home. The following day, the minister preaches his most powerful sermon to date. After the sermon, the church sexton hands Dimmesdale a black glove that was found on the scaffold. The sexton recognized it as the minister’s, but concluded only that Satan must have been up to some mischief. The sexton then reveals another startling piece of information: he says that there has been report of a meteor falling last night in the shape of a letter “A.” The townspeople have interpreted it as having nothing to do with either Hester or Dimmesdale. Rather, they believe it to stand for “Angel” and take it as a sign that Governor Winthrop has ascended to heaven.
Analysis: Chapters 11–12
These chapters mark the apex of Dimmesdale’s spiritual and moral crisis. Dimmesdale has tried to invent for himself an alternate path to absolution, torturing himself both psychologically and physically. The nearly hysterical fear he feels when he imagines his congregation seeing him on the scaffold is a reminder that the minister has not only himself but also his flock to consider. His public disgrace could harden his followers, or even lead them astray. However, the events in these chapters suggest that Dimmesdale must publicly confront the truth about his past. He has a strong impulse to confess to his congregation, and, although he resists it, his attempts at private expiation begin to bring him closer to exposure.
The scaffold is an important symbol of the difference between Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s situations. It helps to establish an ironic contrast between her public torments and his inner anguish. Dimmesdale’s meeting with Hester and Pearl atop the scaffold echoes Hester’s public shaming seven years earlier. This time, however, no audience bears witness to the minister’s confession of sin. In fact, it is so dark outside that he is not even visible to Reverend Wilson when the latter walks past.
When Dimmesdale refuses Pearl’s request that he stand with her on the scaffold in broad daylight, she refuses to share what she knows about Chillingworth. Pearl thus makes a statement about the causal connection between Dimmesdale’s denial of his own guilt and his incomplete understanding of the world around him. As long as he hides the truth about himself, he can never discover the truths of others. Increasingly, Dimmesdale’s hallucinations seem more real than his daily encounters. His visions never wholly delude him, however, and he remains painfully aware of his reliance upon fictions.
The Puritan world of
Yet, unlike his society, Dimmesdale recognizes that such categorizations can be fictions. In fact, it is his acute awareness of the dichotomy between his public image and his private self that leads him to new levels of insight, enabling his preaching to become ever more powerful and persuasive. Dimmesdale can speak of the ravages of sin because he lives them. He brings to his sermons sympathy for others and a strong sense of the daily terror to which a sinful life can lead. He understands that the worst consequence of sin is, practically speaking, separation from one’s fellow man, not separation from God. This more complicated definition of sin is one of the important themes of the novel.
Curiously, while Dimmesdale sees the dangers of formulaic reductions and distortions of reality, he does little to overturn them—either those he himself lives by or those upheld by his community. Much of his daily misery is caused by the willingness of those around him to play God, to stand in judgment, and, in the case of Chillingworth, to mete out punishment.
Although none of the characters explicitly challenges the Puritan order, several events within these chapters do offer an implicit rebuke. The structural juxtaposition of Governor Winthrop’s death with Dimmesdale’s crisis is significant. Winthrop was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its first governor. As one of the men responsible for the beginning of Puritan society, he would naturally have had to insist upon a strict adherence to Puritan ideals. His death signals the passing of an older order and suggests that the Massachusetts colony has existed long enough that a strict and literal observance of the rules is no longer necessary to ensure the colony’s survival. Perhaps someone like Hester no longer constitutes a threat to social stability in this no longer new—and thus no longer as fragile—community; perhaps the policing of others is no longer critical to the colony’s well-being.
Winthrop’s death and Dimmesdale’s guilt are jointly marked by the meteor’s “A”- shaped path. To faithful Puritans, signs, particularly natural ones, were of the utmost importance, and were read as symbols of divine will. Unlike those found in most literature, symbols in the Puritan sense do not signify in complicated or contradictory ways. Instead, they tend to serve, particularly for the characters in this novel, as reinforcements of things that are already “known.” The narrator makes a point of this by often juxtaposing his own, literary interpretations of signs—which tend to be more philosophical or metaphorical—with the Puritan community’s more “confident” or “concrete” interpretations. Here, as the narrator recognizes, the meteor physically and figuratively illuminates Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl, and it exposes their relationship to Chillingworth.
Yet the Puritan characters see the event as definitive “proof” of their governor’s ascent to heaven. While the characters’ more fixed symbolic interpretations provide the reader with little insight into the true nature of the celestial “A,” they nevertheless speak volumes about the minds from which they spring. Thus Dimmesdale reads the “A” in the sky as his own, divinely sent scarlet letter. His constant burden of guilt taints and controls the way he sees the world. So, too, does the community’s reading of the “A” as standing for “Angel” testify to its mindset. The townspeople see only what they want to see, a tendency that is reaffirmed the following morning when the sexton invents a story to prevent the discovery of Dimmesdale’s glove from seeming suspicious.
As we will see, the deliberate rereading of Hester’s scarlet letter that takes place in the following chapters will, like Dimmesdale’s glove, bring together this practice of stubborn misinterpretation with one of its consequences: the reduction of human beings to one-dimensional functionaries in an inflexible social order. Just as Dimmesdale must remain an example of piety—no matter how one has to stretch the facts—so, too, must Hester remain either a scapegoat or a negative example. She is not allowed to receive forgiveness.