The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Chapter 12 | The Minister's Vigil

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of chapter 12 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter | Chapter 12 : The Minister's Vigil | Summary

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Summary

Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold where Hester and Pearl had stood at the beginning of the novel. He imagines the universe sees a scarlet letter on his chest, and he cries out. He thinks that his guilt will now be revealed, but only Governor Bellingham and Mistress Hibbins investigate the sound. John Wilson walks by the scaffold on his way home from former Governor John Winthrop's deathbed, but Dimmesdale does not speak to him. He imagines that the townspeople will wake up to find him standing on the scaffold. He laughs and hears Pearl laughing in return; she and Hester are on their way back from Winthrop's deathbed where Hester had measured the body for a funeral robe. Dimmesdale sees them and asks them to join him on the scaffold. As they hold hands, Pearl asks Dimmesdale if he will stand on the scaffold with them the next day at noon. He replies that they will stand together on Judgment Day. A meteor streaks through the sky, and Dimmesdale thinks it forms the letter A. At that moment, Pearl points at Chillingworth, who is standing in front of the scaffold. Dimmesdale asks Hester who Chillingworth really is, admitting that he hates and fears the man. When Hester does not answer, Pearl says that she knows but whispers nonsense into the minister's ear. Chillingworth reaches out, and Dimmesdale returns home with him.

The next day Dimmesdale gives one of his greatest sermons. The sexton gives Dimmesdale his glove, which Dimmesdale had left on the scaffold. The sexton explains the glove being on the scaffold as the devil's work, an effort to make the holy minister look bad. The sexton also says that others saw the A in the sky but that it stands for angel, a reference to Winthrop's death.

Analysis

The scene on the scaffold takes place at the exact midpoint of the novel. Night, like shadow, represents concealment, as sunlight symbolizes exposure. The sun is a symbol for happiness and the approval of God and nature. Thus, it is not enough that Dimmesdale stand on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl at night; to admit his guilt fully, he must stand there openly during the day. Hawthorne also provides several variations of the A in this chapter. These include Hester and Dimmesdale standing with Pearl between them, the A in the sky, the pain in Dimmesdale's heart, the letter on Hester's dress, and Pearl (the living symbol of the A). The scaffold symbolizes the need for public punishment and atonement.

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