The first third of the chapter continues in the same vein as the previous chapter. We learn more about Dimmesdale’s sermon. We receive still more assurance of Dimmesdale’s exalted position in the eyes of the community at the present moment. There are more premonitions that something momentous is about to happen. The transition occurs as the procession leaves the church toward the festival.
Everything changes in a moment when Dimmesdale reaches the by-now famous scaffold or platform in the middle of town. The scene that follows is strongly dramatic in nature, with lavish attention given to setting, the stationing of characters in the setting, gestures among characters, and dialogue. Throughout the scene, the action is heightened by the responses of the incredulous onlookers.
The action begins when Dimmesdale pauses and stretches out his hands to Hester and Pearl. In an obviously domestic touch, Pearl runs to Dimmesdale and throws her arms around his legs. Roger Chillingworth attempts to halt the action, but Dimmesdale repulses him. Dimmesdale ascends the scaffold and has important exchanges with the three main characters in his life—Hester, Pearl, and Chillingworth. Additionally, Dimmesdale makes a complete confession of his adultery and hypocrisy to the members of his church and community, identifying his sin as requiring God’s forgiveness. At a climactic moment in the middle of all that is happening, Dimmesdale rips away his ministerial robe. In a touch of the supernatural, the narrator tells us that something was revealed, but it is left to our imaginations to guess what it is. At the very end of this packed action, Dimmesdale collapses in death.
Chapter 23 is not simply the climax of The Scarlet Letter. It is one of the greatest pieces of imaginative writing ever produced. It is also what turns the story in a strongly Christian direction and in fact makes it a Christian classic. There is so much here that it is hard to know where to start unpacking it. One avenue is to explore Dimmesdale’s interactions with the other characters (including the Puritan community as a group), starting with Chillingworth.Chillingworth’s whole life had been built around manipulating Dimmesdale’s guilt as a means of achieving revenge. He tries hard to maintain that control in this scene. Dimmesdale calls him a “tempter,” and the satanic connection is reinforced when Chillingworth is repeatedly called “old.” Chillingworth functions as an obstacle to Dimmesdale’s conversion, and he admits defeat with the acknowledgment, “Thou hast escaped me.”
Dimmesdale’s interaction with Pearl, and her resulting development, are more complex. The key to what happens is that Dimmesdale acknowledges his father-child relationship for the first time. He invites Pearl with the words, “Come, my little Pearl,” and she runs to him and clasps him by the knees. When Pearl kisses Dimmesdale’s lips (and we remember her refusal to do so in the forest), “a spell was broken.” The narrator calls what is happening “a great scene of grief,” a moment that was anticipated in chapter 16 with the comment that Pearl lacked “a grief that should deeply touch her, and thus humanize and make her capable of sympathy.” Here at the climax, “the wild infant” (Pearl’s basic identity up to now) has “all her sympathies” unleashed, and henceforth “she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.”
Then there is Dimmesdale’s changing relationship with the community. There is an element of rebuke when Dimmesdale announces, “People of New England, . . . ye, that have deemed me holy!—behold me here, the one sinner of the world!” Further, “There stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!” So the relationship between Dimmesdale and the community is one of new revelation and honesty.
God also enters the cast of characters in this great confession scene. Dimmesdale’s references to God are conspicuous. To Chillingworth, Dimmesdale says, “With God’s help, I shall escape thee now!” Earlier in the story Dimmesdale had been unable to move beyond seeing God as a God of judgment; now he says to Hester, “In the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what—for my own heavy sin and miserable agony—I withheld myself from doing seven years ago.” Again, “Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!”
The references to God keep multiplying. The narrator claims that what is about to happen is “the judgment which Providence seemed about to work.” Dimmesdale, we read, is about to “put in his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice.” Regarding his sin, Dimmesdale says, “God’s eye behold it!” For Hester and Pearl, says Dimmesdale, “be it as God shall order, . . . and God is merciful.” Most climatically of all, Dimmesdale’s last words in the whole book are a catalog of God’s mercies, a biblical genre.
And there is, finally, the relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale that reaches its climax in this chapter. The main pattern is that Hester and Dimmesdale are foils to each other. We have noted the overwhelming degree to which Dimmesdale aligns himself with a Christian view of things. He believes that he has sinned and his sin needs to be forgiven by God. So he confesses and casts himself on God’s mercy. His last words are as thoroughly Christian as words can be: “Had . . . these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be his name! His will be done! Farewell!” Dimmesdale embraces a Christian worldview, with forgiveness of sins as the highest value.
Hester has been the Romantic spokesperson throughout the story, and she remains such in this chapter. Dimmesdale, on the verge of the salvation of his soul, asks Hester, “Is not this better . . . than what we dreamed of in the forest?” Hester the Romanticist does not see it that way: “I know not! I know not!” Hester the Romanticist wants to believe that she and Dimmesdale will “spend [their] immortal life together.” She theorizes, “Surely, surely we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!” Dimmesdale’s Christian reply is, “Hush, Hester, hush! . . . The law we broke!—the sin here so awfully revealed! . . . It may be, that, when we forgot our God—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and He is merciful!”
The very last sentences of Dimmesdale’s final, farewell speech are particularly filled with theological and biblical meaning. After cataloging the agonies that Dimmesdale paradoxically claims were part of God’s mercy to him, he asserts that if any “of these agonies had been wanting, I had been lost for ever.” To be lost is a loaded theological word that denotes being without salvation in Christ and therefore to be condemned eternally in hell. Dimmesdale’s next statement is, “Praised be his name.” To praise God’s name is a recurrent formula in the Old Testament Psalms. And when Dimmesdale follows that up with the declaration, “His will be done,” he repeats both a petition in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:10) and Jesus’s resignation to the Father’s will in his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42).