The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Contributed by Tereasa Jacob
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Chapter 11-12
Summary

Summary—Chapter 11: The Interior of a Heart

Dimmesdale is under so much pressure and duress from Chillingworth’s questioning and probing that it all becomes too much and he begins having visions at night when unable to sleep. Chillingworth is not relenting in his diabolical efforts, and his psychological games are torture for their object. Dimmesdale knows that he is suffering, but he cannot think of any rational basis for not trusting the doctor. He dismisses his feelings because of this, ignoring his visceral reactions of loathing and distrust. During this time, Dimmesdale delivers many sermons focussing on sin. He feels a great sense of empathy for fellow sinners, and he says he able to speak to “the whole human brotherhood in the heart’s native language.”

As stated, Dimmesdale experiences visions at night. One of these visions involves Hester and Pearl in her scarlet dress. Hester points to Dimmesdale’s chest after motioning to the scarlet letter on her own. Dimmesdale is profoundly affected by this vision and others, even though he knows that they are delusions. He unsuccessfully tries to find comfort in the Bible. Dimmesdale becomes despondent, thinking that “the whole universe if false,…it shrinks to nothing within his grasp.” Dimmesdale not only has insomnia but also deliberately keeps himself awake, holding vigils. He physically punishes himself by way of fasting and whipping. During one of these nights, Dimmesdale is inspired by a thought: perhaps holding a vigil on the town scaffold will help to soothe his suffering.

Summary—Chapter 12: The Minister’s Vigil

Dimmesdale makes his way to the scaffold and mounts it. He screams in response to pain in his chest, and thinks that perhaps he’s woken people up. Some people do hear it, but they think it is the cry of a witch and do not come to the scaffold. Dimmesdale sees Reverend Wilson and calls out to him. Wilson is out at night because the colony’s first governor, Governor Winthrop, is dying. He does not hear or notice Dimmesdale and continues on his way. Dimmesdale does not yet realize that Pearl and Hester are also nearby. He laughs out loud when thinking about the scenario of the townspeople seeing him on the scaffold, and Pearl hears him. Hester had been with the Governor because she had been asked to sew his burial robe. She and Pearl climb onto the scaffold with Dimmesdale, and the three of them hold hands. This is described as an “electric chain” because of the energy and warmth that is communicated. Pearl asks Dimmesdale whether he will “stand here with Mother and me, tomorrow noontide?”. He refuses, saying “Not now, child, but at another time.” He says this other time will be “At the great judgment day.”

When he says this, they see a meteor in the sky. It forms an “A” in red light. Suddenly Dimmesdale and Pearl realize that Chillingworth is watching them. It occurs to Dimmesdale to ask if Pearl knows Chillingworth’s real identity. He explains that he finds him to be “a nameless horror.” Pearl declares that she knows and whispers something into Dimmesdale’s ear. It turns out to be gibberish said deliberately in revenge for his refusal to do what Pearl wished. 

Chillingworth claims that Dimmesdale must have been sleepwalking and that he needs to come home now. It turns out that Chillingworth had been at Governor Winthrop’s deathbed, too. Chillingworth and Dimmesdale go home. The next day, Dimmesdale delivers an extremely powerful sermon. Afterwards, he discovers that the church sexton found his black glove on the scaffold. He hadn’t realized he’d lost it. The sexton thinks that the Devil put the glove on the scaffold. Dimmesdale hears a report that others saw the letter “A” in the sky the previous night. It seems that he and Hester are the only ones who think there is a connection between Hester’s “A” and the “A” in the sky. The townspeople believe the “A” in the sky stood for “angel”, not “adultery”. They thought it resulted from Governor Winthrop being taken to heaven.

Analysis

Dimmesdale’s moral and spiritual crisis are pivotal in these chapters. Dimmesdale’s choice to torture himself physically and psychologically is the path he has chosen in the false hope of gaining absolution. Dimmesdale has to consider the needs of his congregation, and this is reflected in how terrified he was at the thought of his flock seeing him on the scaffold. He’s worries that his sins and public disgrace could cause them go astray or at least make them disillusioned. We know, though, that Dimmesdale needs to publicly acknowledge what he did. He has so far resisted his impulses to tell all to this congregation, but we’re unsure how long this can (or should) last.

While Hester has been subjected to public shame and the pain resulting from that, Dimmesdale’s punishment so far has been entirely internal. This difference sets up an ironic comparison and contrast. The scaffold has a symbolic function in helping to show the difference between Dimmesdale’s and Hester’s situations. Hester was publicly shamed on the scaffold seven years earlier, and the new scene with Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl in the same setting is set in parallel to this. There isn’t an audience this time, though.

As we know, Pearl refused to provide any information on Chillingworth when Dimmesdale withholds the promise to acknowledge her and her mother on the scaffold the next day. This helps to establish a strong connection between Dimmesdale’s inadequate grasp of the real world and his refusal to fully recognize his own guilt. Dimmesdale has no capacity for understanding other people when he will not embrace the truths about himself. He is so detached from reality that his hallucinations and visions seem more real to him. He is not so deluded as to completely believe that his visions are real, though. He is frustrated by his failure to fully grasp the world around him.

The people of the Puritan world from which Hester is ostracized live in a dramatically oversimplified, black-and-white world. They appear unable (or unwilling) to see anything that exists outside of their preconceptions. For example, they are unwilling to acknowledge that Mistress Hibbins, the governor’s sister, is a witch. Why? Because she’s the governor’s sister and occupies a high position in the social order. Poor and isolated Hester, however, has been set down as the embodiment of sin because of just one transgression. The Puritan system of thought is a highly reductive one. Every individual is shoved into a category and the community at large is willfully blind to anything that shows they do not fit within it.

Even though Dimmesdale is a leader in the community and therefore a part of the social order, he is able to see that rigid social categorisations and labels are sometimes fictions. He is given even more insight into this by his own predicament, with its contradiction between his private reality and public self. This leads to his becoming even more effective as a preacher, because he is able to relate to people’s inner selves more deeply. He knows first-hand how horrific it is to live with the guilt of hidden sin, and he fervently wants to save his congregation from this fate. He knows that the isolation from other people can be an even more painful consequence of sin than separation from God. One of the most significant themes explored in this novel is sin and the fact that it is much more complex than many people allow.

Despite the fact that Dimmesdale is able to perceive the many shortcomings of reductionist thinking and labelling, he fails to really do anything to challenge them. The difficulties in his life are caused by the belief that people around him have that they have the right to play God and judge others. Chillingworth also feels he has the right to punish others.

There are several things that occur in these chapters that challenge the validity of the Puritan social order. The fact that Dimmesdale’s crisis is juxtaposed with Governor Winthrop’s death is instructive. When Governor Winthrop, who was the first governor and one of the founders of the colony, was one of the most important people in the formation of this Puritan society, dies, this is a symbol of the fading away the validity of Puritan ideals. It is clear that the colony will survive without strictly adhering to the Puritan moral system. The community is now established and no longer fragile and new. Hester’s marginalization has been a method of protecting the fragile structure of the community. Now that it is more established and settled in, perhaps it’s no longer necessary for Hester to be so forcefully excluded.

The “A”-shape created by the meteor in the sky is a marker of both Dimmesdale’s guilt and the first governor’s death. Signs were seen as very significant by Puritans. This was especially the case with symbols found in the natural world, as they were believed to symbolize divine will. For the Puritans, symbols tended not to be very complex. They were quite stark in their meaning and import. In this novel, symbols help to communicate facts we have already gleaned or gained insight on. We find that the narrator has a more complex understanding of signs, and that he juxtaposes this with the more concrete types of interpretations the Puritans ascribed to them. The meteor illuminates the connection between Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale, and reveals their relationship to Chillingworth. The Puritans of the community, however, only see the symbol of the meteor as being a sign of Winthrop going to heaven. Dimmesdale sees the “A” from the meteor as a sign of his guilt and the scarlet letter that he should wear. The town thinks that the “A” stands for “Angel”. It is clear that the people of the town choose to perceive what they want to perceive, to help prop up their understanding of the world in which they live.

This novel shows the potential consequences of willful blindness and deliberate misinterpretation of events and signs. The Puritans make the mistake of reducing individual human beings to inflexible one-dimensional characters. The social order they inhabit is fixed, and they choose to be attached to it being that way. They want Hester to live her life as a living negative example, and to be an outcast and scapegoat. This is why they will not allow her to have forgiveness.

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