Download The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis

Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold. It's a dark, lonely night in May, and most of the townsfolk are at home. The minister realizes that he has gone unnoticed, and in his horror and pain he cries out. He thinks the citizens of Boston will come investigate his cry, but it goes largely unheeded. An elderly woman looks out, as does the Governor, but both withdraw soon enough. Dimmesdale is left alone on the scaffold.

Eventually Wilson walks by with a lamp. Dimmesdale fantasizes about calling out to his colleague, but never actually does. Instead, he continues to wrestle with his guilt and shame. He thinks that, if he waits there until morning, someone will find him, and his sin will finally be known. This plan is foiled by Hester and Pearl, who approach the scaffold unexpectedly. Hester has been sitting vigil at Governor Winthrop's death-bed and is just now walking home.

When Pearl takes her father's hand, he feels reinvigorated. His fear of being found out also returns. Pearl asks him to stand with her and Hester the next day, but he refuses. One day he will stand with them, he tells her, "but not tomorrow." Just then, a bright meteor shoots across the sky, lighting the scene. In those days, meteors were thought to be harbingers foretelling a coming disaster: war with the Native Americans, pestilence, or failure. Such superstitions are not entirely lost in Dimmesdale. He thinks he sees the shape of the scarlet A in the meteor's passing.

Pearl points to Roger Chillingworth, who has been standing just beyond the scaffold. Dimmesdale turns to Hester, agitated. He says, "Who is that man, Hester?" but she cannot reveal Chillingworth's identity because of her oath. Pearl, however, made no such oath and tricks her father into believing she will tell him the truth. Instead, she whispers gibberish in his ear as punishment for declining to stand with her and Hester. He feels mocked, and Chillingworth approaches.

Chillingworth was also at Governor Winthrop's death-bed. He was just walking home when he saw Dimmesdale (or so he says). Despite his evident fear, Dimmesdale allows himself to be taken away by Chillingworth. The next day, Dimmesdale delivers a moving sermon—his best ever. Afterward, the Sexton approaches him, returning a glove that was found on the scaffold. The Sexton assumes it was left there as a cruel joke. He also asks if Dimmesdale saw the scarlet A made by the meteor. The minister lies about seeing it.

 
In this chapter's first paragraph, Hawthorne makes heavy use of alliteration with the repetition of a "s" sound. He writes that Dimmesdale is under the influence of a "species of somnambulism" (that is, sleepwalking) and that the scaffold has seen the "the storm or sunshine of seven long years."
 
Allusions
 
King James I (1566 - 1625). For more information on King James I, see Chapter 8 Analysis: Allusions.
 
 
Hawthorne foreshadows Dimmesdale's eventual demise by...

(The entire section is 983 words.)