Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter:
Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student
Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson
(courtesy of Greenwood Press)
In "The Scarlet Letter" (p. 72-73) Pennell shows how Hawthorne casts Pearl
in the role of forcing Hester and Dimmesdale to face the reality of their situation
as they taste freedom in the forest scene. In the second scaffold scene Pearl
confronts Dimmesdale, saying, "Thou wast not true." In the final scaffold scene,
Dimmesdale publicly acknowledges Hester and Pearl while confiding that their sufferings
"served God's purpose."
"The possibility of freedom from their burdens forecasts Hester and Dimmesdale's actions in the chapter that follows. Believing in the 'golden light' that has created a dreamlike atmosphere around them, they further discuss plans to escape. While still in the forest, Hester removes the scarlet letter, freeing herself from its stinging weight, and removes her cap, revealing her luxuriant hair and the vitality that still exists at her core. At this moment 'as with a sudden smile of heaven' (293), the sun emerges. In this light of hope Hester tells Dimmesdale that he must know their daughter, Pearl. But Pearl's entry into the scene brings with it the return of reality, for she forces her mother to resume the scarlet letter and replace the cap before approaching. Pearl unsettles Dimmesdale, asking if he will walk back into town with them (an echo of her question on the scaffold) and washing away the kiss he bestows on her.
Hawthorne develops two scenes in which Dimmesdale stands upon the scaffold, one midway through the narrative, the other near the end. 'The Minister's Vigil' (Chapter 12) takes place at night when the purpose of the scaffold is controverted, becoming a place of concealment rather than exposure. Dimmesdale, unlike Hester, faces no crowd that passes judgment as he stands on the platform. Although he shrieks aloud while on the platform and imagines all the terror of a public confession, Dimmesdale engages in a 'vain show of expia- tion' (246). Even when joined on the scaffold by Hester and Pearl, Dimmesdale cannot accept responsibility for his actions, for which Pearl accuses him, stating, 'Thou wast not true!' (253). Hawthorne uses this scene to reinforce the reader's understanding of Dimmesdale's weakness and his pride. The use of vigil in Chapter 12's title indicates that this episode entails watching and waiting but no action that will resolve either the minister's or Hester's plight.
The final scaffold scene occurs in Chapter 23, 'The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter.' It follows Dimmesdale's meeting with Hester and Pearl in the forest and reveals the culmination of his inner struggle. Set within a day of public celebration rather than public punishment, Dimmesdate's exposure on the scaffold stands in stark contrast to Hester's. He stands amid all the ceremonial activity of Election Day as a man within his element, though physically weak and unsteady. He directs the movement of the other characters, summoning Hester and Pearl forward to join him on the scaffold. As he does this, 'there was something at once tender and strangely triumphant' in his gesture (335). Gaining the crowd's attention, he places himself center stage. He compares his sin to Hester's and claims that her letter 'is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast' (338). The narrator then describes what follows: 'With a convulsive motion he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation' (338). Everything in this scene points to the exposure of some physical mark upon Dimmesdale, the presence of 'his own red stigma!' (338), but it is never directly confirmed for the reader. As Dimmesdale lies dying in Hester's arms, he beckons Pearl, who kisses him. His last words are for Hester, as he tells her all their suffering was necessary, for it served God's purpose" (72-73).