The Scarlet Letter Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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."
King James I (1566 - 1625). For more information on King James I, see Chapter 8 Analysis: Allusions.
Hawthorne foreshadows Dimmesdale's eventual demise by showing him on the scaffold. This act is a kind of rehearsal for the scene in Chapter 23 when Dimmesdale does reveal his scarlet letter to an unsuspecting crowd.
To Dimmesdale, the ring of light from Wilson's lamp makes him look "like the saint-like personage of olden times, with a radiant halo." This emphasizes the holiness of the pastor but at the same time makes Dimmesdale look less holy by comparison.
The Black Glove. Dimmesdale's black glove is a symbol of his public shame (as opposed to his private guilt). When the Sexton returns it, there's some suspicion as to how the black glove appeared on the scaffold and why. Dimmesdale allows the Sexton to believe that this was Satan's doing and that the black glove was deliberately placed there in order to besmirch the Reverend's character. That Dimmesdale left the glove behind further indicates that he wants to be found out.
The Meteor. For Dimmesdale, this meteor is a symbol of his personal guilt, shame, lust, and sin. It's a powerful symbol of his degradation, and the minister interprets it as a sign that he should reveal himself and make his sin known. Many people see this meteor, however, and it means many different things to them. For the Sexton, the letter A stands for angel, as in the angel that took the Governor Winthrop to Heaven. For others, the meteor may portend doom.
The Scaffold. Yet again, this scaffold is a symbol of shame and public humiliation. When Dimmesdale stands on it, he's determined to reveal his sin to the world. This is the most dramatic and effective place to do so, given its public setting. If anybody were to see the minister on the scaffold, he would be ruined. This is made all too clear when his glove is found on the scaffold.
Life and Death. Hawthorne juxtaposes Governor Winthrop's death with Dimmesdale’s continued (if tortured) life. In this chapter, the Reverend's inner spiritual battle is given much more space and consideration than Governor Winthrop's death, which is mentioned only in passing. This can be interpreted a number of ways. One is to read the juxtaposition as a way of emphasizing the Reverend's desire to live. In this chapter, at least, his desire isn't to die but simply to be known, to be seen as a sinner. Life, for him, has come to mean torment. Honesty is one escape from this. Death is another.
Superstition. Religion and superstition aren't mutually exclusive, and many Christians in the novel see signs and symbols in things that don't traditionally have meaning in Judeo-Christian theologies. For example, the meteor that appears to write a letter A on the sky is interpreted to mean many things, including: "angel," sin, adultery, and possibly even an evil omen foretelling war with the Native Americans. All these interpretations stem in some way from superstitions, both religious and not, that see symbols in natural events such as meteor showers.