Notes to Ch 12, The Minister's Vigil
The Scarlet Letter

black and weather-stained with the storm or sunshine of seven long years ... sl12.html#g01
By these words Hawthorne poetically states that Hester had been on the scaffold seven years before, not that the scaffold had been built seven years before--presumably it was built early after the Puritans arrived in 1630, along with the jail and the burial ground. However, since the pillory was not really mounted on the scaffold at this time, we cannot hold the author to strict historical accuracy. We are assuming here that the story started in the late spring of 1642 and that we are now in 1649, seven years later. It is late spring--"early May," according to the next paragraph, but late March if we wanted to be historically accurate with Governor Winthrop's death on March 26.
eye-witnesses while...her punishment ...sl12.html#g01
Here is a flashback to the scaffold scene in the first chapters. But also it makes a parallel between the public confession (or defiance) of Hester on the scaffold, and what Arthur is doing now. One has to wonder which appearance on the scaffold would be more sensational to the same audience. See an earlier reference to the requirement for public confession rather than private.
that Remorse which dogged him everywhere ...sl12.html#g01
The capitalized Remorse and Cowardice, like John Bunyan's allegory in Pilgrim's Progress, mean that these qualities take on a life of their own as characters--only a partial, shadow life, since they are not really living, but through their names we already know how they are supposed to act. Hawthorne uses this rhetoric at times, but sparingly--the whole novel is more than a simple allegory, and the living characters have a rich and free life beyond what allegory (or Calvinist predestination) would allow.
the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain ...sl12.html#g03
The author identifies the mental anguish the pastor is feeling with physical pain centered on his naked chest and tells us that what Chillingworth saw (or thought he saw) was a scarlet "token" or sign. Further, Hawthorne states that for some time Dimmesdale had felt great physical pain at that location. Since the scarlet letter on his chest happened before Chillingworth had a chance to poison him, we have to believe that Dimmesdale had inflicted this injury on himself through excessive whipping or cutting of the skin.
he shrieked aloud ...sl12.html#g03
In "Young Goodman Brown," Brown shouted "Faith!", and the echoes of the forest mocked him, "as if bewildered wretches were seeking her, all through the wilderness." This is much finer, even if Brown only shouted rather than shrieked--mocking is much stronger than playing or bandying. But notice that Dimmesdale does not articulate any words, at least in a language that we can understand--perhaps the Holy Ghost is operating through his conscience as at Pentecost, and ironically the hearers believe this to come from an evil voice.
the noise of witches ...sl12.html#g05
There may have been some belief in witches at that period, but the period of witchcraft hysteria was after the date of this story, and does not especially reflect the practices of the Puritans Hawthorne is depicting here--Hawthorne as usual is touching up history and mixing in effects for his story. It would be more likely for residents to assume owls or loons would make strange noises at night, even in downtown Boston of the time.
Governor Winthrop ...sl12.html#g07
Hawthorne chooses the death of Governor Winthrop as the critical event here, emphasized by the scaffold scene. Winthrop, the greatly revered first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, died March 26, 1649. He left a journal that Hawthorne no doubt read. He would have characterized Winthrop as one of the iron men of the Puritans, but one who insisted on the rule of the elders instead of civil democracy--which Hawthorne would prefer.
Geneva cloak ...sl12.html#g08
A Geneva cloak ought to be familiar to those who have seen it in graduation ceremonies--it was black or dark, but the ones the Puritans wore were heavy wool, in order to stay warm. The name comes from its use in Geneva by the followers of the Protestant theologian Calvin. The Puritans were Calvinist Protestants rather than Lutheran Protestants.
The three formed an electric chain ...sl12.html#g01
What words could not communicate, their emotional energy could. Electricity of course was not harnessed at this date for homes as today--it was a strange phenomenon barely understood, perhaps magical or supernatural. The image is a powerful one.
a light of those meteors ...sl12.html#g01
Meteors and comets and other celestial phenomena were not blamed on unidentified flying objects in this time, but rather were thought to have special sigificance as direct word from God about what the people down below were doing, good or bad (usually bad). For example, when Reverend John Cotton died in 1652 a meteor was seen at night and the residents of Boston were alarmed at the strange sight, which they connected with Cotton's death. Perhaps it meant he was on his way to heaven, but perhaps something bad was about to happen. We should not look too closely at this, but it seems strange that it was so dark unless it was cloudy, and then it would be strange to see the meteor so distinctly. Hawthorne had seen a comet, which sounds like it would fit this description better than a meteor, but one lasts too long in the sky and the other flashes too quickly. The aurora borealis would not be visible if it was that cloudy.
humorous ...sl12.html#g11
Here Hawthorne gives us some deep insight into the character, whose unconscious is acting in spite of his conscious will. Later we will see what happens when he has decided to escape--his actions are nearly psychotic (a sort of identity crisis), the minister in a maze. The implication is that he might be controlled by evil forces--who knows?
the destiny of nations ...sl12.html#g01
Here we see a text in the sky to decipher along with the text of this book. Both seem to be about nations, or at least that is what we seem to be looking for. Pearl continues this theme by talking gibberish. And Dimmesdale ends up like Simon Peter denying the truth.

Summary. From here until the end of the book we expect you to write your own summaries, following the models of preceding chapters. E-mail to your summary (after reading the chapter carefully). You will get in return e-mail similar summaries made by others, which you may then compare with your own to see if you have understood the chapter. Use "Ch. 12 SL Summary" as the Subject: line.


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Eldred, Eric. Notes to Ch. 12, The Scarlet Letter. 1999. 23 Sep. 1999.


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