The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Chapter 23 | The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of chapter 23 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter | Chapter 23 : The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter | Summary



Dimmesdale's speech is a huge success, and it is the most brilliant moment in his life. As the procession of honored officials approaches the marketplace, the crowd shouts its praise for him. Their shouts abruptly end when they see how pale and weak he is, about to collapse. Reverend Wilson and Governor Bellingham try to help, but Dimmesdale pushes them aside, pausing at the scaffold where Hester and Pearl are standing. Dimmesdale asks them to join him on the scaffold. Chillingworth tries to stop Dimmesdale but then follows them up the steps. Chillingworth tells Dimmesdale: "there was no one place ... where thou couldst have escaped me—save [except] on this very scaffold!" The crowd is astonished.

Dimmesdale tells Hester that he is dying and so must reveal his secret. He turns to the crowd and confesses his guilt. Ripping his shirt aside, he shouts that he has "his own red stigma," his own sign of guilt. The crowd is horrified, and Dimmesdale falls to the ground. Chillingworth mutters, "Thou hast escaped me!" At Dimmesdale's request, Pearl kisses him and cries. Dimmesdale says farewell to Hester and tells her that their ultimate reunion in the afterlife rests in God's hands. As Dimmesdale dies the crowd breaks out in "a strange, deep voice of awe and wonder."


Dimmesdale's sermon concerns the relationship between God and man, especially relating to Puritans in New England. This shows that Dimmesdale is focused on his relationship with God and his place within the community, one of the main conflicts in the book. Dimmesdale would sever his ties to the community only if necessary to save his relationship with God. His last sermon preaches a "glorious destiny" for the Puritans. How can his actions lead to a better destiny? Only through death.

The Reverend Wilson tries to help Dimmesdale, but Dimmesdale pushes him away: symbolically, Dimmesdale is pushing aside the church. Governor Bellingham tries to help, but Dimmesdale pushes him away as well: in this way, Dimmesdale is pushing aside the state. Dimmesdale turns to Hester, but she can help him only partly. These three symbols show that Dimmesdale must admit his guilt on his own without the help of religion, government, or love.

Further, Dimmesdale delivers his confession with the sun shining on him, in front of the entire community. The sun symbolizes that God and nature approve of his action. Just in case readers miss the symbolism of the sun, Hawthorne sets this scene just after noon, when the sun is at its highest point. This could be compared to Dimmesdale's "confession" in the scaffold scene from Chapter 12. That confession was not valid because it was made at night and not in public.

In Chapter 19 Pearl would not accept Dimmesdale's kiss, but now that Dimmesdale has publicly admitted his guilt, Pearl kisses him. The kiss symbolizes her forgiveness and willingness to accept him as her father. It also marks her transformation from an elf-child to fully human, as "a spell was broken." This is the first time in the entire novel that Pearl cries. Tears are a traditional symbol of forgiveness and are often presented in paintings and poetry as pearls.

This chapter is the climax of the novel, and the climactic scene is when Dimmesdale, with a "convulsive motion," tore open his clothes to reveal his chest. The narrator demurs from telling all, however: "It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation." In refusing to describe what Dimmesdale revealed, Hawthorne allows readers to reach their own conclusion. His approach adds to the suspense and to the eerie mood, compelling the reader to keep reading, hoping that Hawthorne will reveal the truth in the final chapter.

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