The deeper I get into The Scarlet Letter, the more I wonder who the novel is really about. It may be less about Hester Prynne and more about the drama unfolding with Roger Chillingworth, the wronged husband on his quest for vengeance, and Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who’s fathered Hester’s, out-of-wedlock baby.
Chillingworth, in the guise of the trusted doctor, is gradually pushing Dimmesdale toward a crisis or breakdown. He occupies an interesting position in the story – associated with neither the Puritan church and culture nor the Romanticism of Hester and her daughter Pearl. He interacts with both but acts more like a free agent, outside church and conscience.
Dimmesdale is moving towards destruction, yet this movement is filled with contradictions. Years are passing, guilt is growing, and his personal pain is becoming more and more visible to his parishioners. Yet instead of seeing guilt, they see their own suffering mirrored in their minister, and they love him all the more. As Hawthorne tells us in chapter 11, “The Interior of the Heart,” “The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale had achieved a brilliant popularity in his sacred office. He won, indeed, in great part, by his sorrows.” The minister has become a living martyr, and he understands the irony that people’s reverence for him is growing because of the very sin of which he’s guilty.
The startling scene of chapter 12, “The Minister’s Vigil,” follows. Dimmesdale can no longer tolerate the burden of guilt, and in the dead of night mounts the platform, the same platform Where Hester stood with the baby Pearl. It’s significant that he does so at night, while to town sleeps, instead of daylight, when people would be about their work and daily activities. Hawthorne is likely suggesting here that Dimmesdale might intend to confess but exactly to whom are you confessing when no one’s around. He shouts into the night; a few souls are awake, but they don’t realize who it is or what they’re really hearing. Public revelation is not yet to happen.
Hester and Pearl join him on the platform. Hester’s awake because she’s been at Governor Winthrop’s death-watch, to measure him for the shroud she’ll be sewing. Dimmesdale tells them he will join them on the Great Judgment Day, but not before. If nothing else, he’s recognized his own weakness and knows he won’t be making a public confession.
A light suddenly streaks in the sky, so bright that it illuminates the scene around the platform. Pearl points to a figure standing in the shadows, and it’s none other than Chillingworth, watching the figures on the platform.
The next day, Dimmesdale preaches a sermon so powerful that “souls, it is said, more souls than one, were brought to the truth by the efficacy of that sermon.” The contradiction of the minister’s guilt continues.
But there’s a sign of what will come. Dimmesdale’s black glove is found on the platform, obviously, the sexton reports, because “Satan saw fit to steal it.” And then the sexton speaks of the light in the sky, and how it formed the letter A, a sign, the sexton says, of an angel appearing at the hour of Governor Winthrop’s death.
Dimmesdale says he didn’t see it. But he knows, and we know, that the A in the night sky was not for the governor but for the minister. Something’s coming.