The irony of the "A" in the sky is that the townspeople see it as a representation of "angel" while Dimmesdale believes it is divine judgment with regard to his sin of adultery.
The narrator tells of ancient interpretations of such celestial events as having been divinely inspired.
The meteor flashes through the sky after Dimmesdale has joined hands with Hester and Pearl up on the scaffold. Rather than seeing this as God's blessing on their love and His forgiveness of Dimmesdale's fall from grace, the reverend sees it in a negative fashion. He so hates his sin that he not only whips himself and fasts regularly in atonement, but he begins to fail physically. Had Dimmesdale been able to forgive himself with the generous nature of the God he so adored, this could have been a turning point for the three of them: Arthur, Hester and Pearl. Instead, it simply convinces him that his self-loathing has been noted and approved by God, and Dimmesdale's illness eventually kills him.
One of the ironies of Dimmesdale's interpretation of the sign in the sky is that he is the minister of God's love and mercy. Logically, such a one would be the first to recognize a manifestation of God's love to His followers. However, Dimmesdale is consumed by guilt, thus his vision of the manifestation is impaired by and reflects that guilt, while it is the others, his "flock" of sinners, who see God's love in the manifested A in the sky.
That the townspeople have afforded Hester retribution for her sin is ironic since Puritanism allowed for no reward for good deeds. It is also ironic that Dimmesdale feels that he can never be forgiven for what he has done, even when he perceives the change in the attitudes of the members of the community toward Hester.
Here Hawthorne points to the great evils of the precepts of Puritanism which, so ingrained in Dimmesdale are they that he persists in holding his secret sin within him even when it is killing him.
This scene pushes Dimmesdale's guilt to a much greater level than ever before in the novel. He is absolutely consumed by guilt and yet ironically he finds in harder and harder to confess his guilt as the novel progresses. He actually becomes a better preacher each week as the guilt builds. Combined with how Chillingsworth is prodding him and his time spent with Hester in the woods, he is more and more stretching his public and private persona. Guilty hearts see judgement where there is none, and that is certainly true of Dimmesdale here.
You are correct! I always thought of this book as an example of the irony and hypocrisy of these early colonial societies that were so tyrannically religious. So many normal parts of life were infringed upon, yet people could get away with treating each other badly in the name of God and religion.
This scene affects the story because it implies that there is a cosmic need to punish Hester's mistake, in the eyes of Dimmesdale. It is almost as if he feels that the pain they both have endured is not enough. This may also be the reason why he ultimately deceives Hester one last time and does not complete the plan that they both put together to leave the settlement. The fact that, to the settlers, it meant "angel" is indeed ironic and may have everything to do with the fact that they, at some point, begin to see Hester as a good person. This, as we can see, is a huge contrast with Dimmesdale's own view of Hester.
Yes, absolutely. Let us remember that this is a novel in many ways that is about the theme of interpretation itself. These two interpretations of the same phenomenon also find an interesting parallel in the way that Dimmesdale's preaching is actually made much more effective by his guilt, even though he harbours his secret sin inside of him that, if it were known, would result in his censure and punishment by the otherwise adoring congregation. Perception seems to be in the eye of the beholder.