The Scarlet Letter Chapter 12 Summary

Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

In Chapter 12 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter'', Arthur Dimmesdale tries to find a way to relieve himself of the burden of guilt he's been carrying around for so many years. The lesson begins with a brief review of events leading to this chapter.


Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester's minister, has been under the care of Roger Chillingworth, Hester's estranged husband now living under an assumed name. Dimmesdale is one of the few people who have suggested that Hester and Pearl should remain together. He has been ill and Chillingworth feels that stress or a 'secret' may be to blame. He suspects Dimmesdale of being Pearl's father and Hester's lover. Dimmesdale's secret -- that he was indeed Hester's lover and is the father of Pearl -- is eating him alive and he begins to punish himself with flagellation and starvation. He also harbors a great deal of anger at Chillingworth for mistreating him and preying upon his nerves. During this time, Dimmesdale is giving impassioned speeches to his parishioners, calling himself 'a pollution and a lie.' But he does not confess his secret.

Richard Mansfield as Arthur Dimmesdale in 1910 production
Depiction of Dimmesdale from 1910 play

On the Scaffold

In Chapter 12, Dimmesdale wanders around Boston at night. It is a dark and cloudy night, and the streets are empty as all good townspeople are at home and likely abed. Dimmesdale is suffering under the burden of his guilt and seeking to sort out a way to alleviate the pressure when he comes to the scaffold. He climbs up and imagines what Hester must have seen while undergoing her initial punishment. He feels the weight of Hester's punishment and exile, and it manifests as guilt over his own selfishness and lies. He is alone, but cries out as if he is being shamed himself and suffering for his part in the 'sin'. Reverend Wilson is passing nearby but does not investigate the sound. However, Governor Bellingham and Mistress Hibbins do hear the cry and peek out of their windows into the darkness. Hester and Pearl are returning from the deathbed of a former governor and they join Dimmesdale atop the scaffold. Pearl asks if Dimmesdale will join her and her mother when they face the crowds again, and Dimmesdale says he will only do that on judgement day, or the day Puritans believe God will bring judgement on all people and decide who goes to Heaven and who is smote on earth.

Sign in the Sky

As Dimmesdale stands with Pearl and Hester on the scaffold, a meteor passes overhead. Dimmesdale thinks it looks like the letter 'A'. The meteor glows a dull red, a reminder of the scarlet A on Hester's clothes, dulled by the years and her hard work. Chillingworth is watching from the darkness, and Pearl sees him in the dim light from the meteor. Dimmesdale asks Hester who Chillingworth really is to them, but she does not reply. Pearl babbles nonsense to Dimmesdale in response, and tells him that she mocks his refusal to stand with her and Hester on the scaffold during the day. Chillingworth makes Dimmesdale climb down and takes him away. They return to Dimmesdale's home, where Chillingworth has been staying.

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