Chapter 12 is central to the book in several ways. Literally it is at the half-way point of the book. Structurally, it is the second of the three “scaffold scenes” — the first was when Hester stood on the scaffold alone, and the third ... we’ll come to the third later. And as far as ideas go, it gets to the heart of what Hawthorne thought about whether one can know God for sure.
The most interesting thing in this chapter is how Dimmesdale’s view of everything is completely coloured by his own mental state. He is thrashing about within his own mind, and since his thoughts are obsessively about his guilt, he sees accusations of guilt wherever he looks. This is all very painful, and makes for excellent drama, of course, but it’s also very un-Puritan. The Puritans were always keen to understand events and what they meant, but they did so within the context of a knowable God who had revealed his character in Jesus, not simply by projecting their own feelings onto the world around them.
Let’s have a look at what some real Puritans said on the topic of knowing God and then come back and compare them with Dimmesdale.
The Puritan view of the knowledge of God probably rings true for evangelical Christians today. Following Paul’s argument in the letter to the Romans, they thought that the natural world gave humanity enough knowledge of God’s divine nature and goodness for us to be ‘without excuse’. However, only the scriptures contain the revelation of God that we need to know him personally, to know what he thinks of us and how he feels towards us. And it is in the light of scripture that we are then to understand the world around us and the events in our lives.
The Puritans were into the reading of ‘providence’ (events, natural phenomena, etc.) in a limited way — but they were very cautious. Increase Mather (a Puritan minister who preached in New England a little later than the time when The Scarlet Letter’s is set) wrote this:
When a fearful sight appears in heaven, which the whole world cannot but take notice of, now to make a particular and absolute determination that such a place, or such a person, such a judgement, is certainly intended thereby, is certainly too much boldness. (Heaven’s Alarm to the World, 1682).We should not, in other words, be too sure of our interpretations of events or the natural world — they cannot tell us anything particular or certain. Mather goes on to say that they can be taken as a general warning, but he’s careful to remind people that they shouldn’t jump to conclusions.
Compare this to Dimmesdale. His way of seeing the world, while certainly appears to be humble, is in fact self-obsessed. Hawthorne sees this clearly — Dimmesdale is like one who has ‘extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul’s history and fate’ (Chapter 12). When he stands in awful turmoil of mind on the scaffold in the dead of night, he sees a meteor burning across the sky and interprets it as an ‘A’ — an accusation written against him alone. He is ‘reading’ the world as a message from God to him personally.
Hawthorne doesn’t stop with Dimmesdale, however. The whole Puritan community seems to make this kind of blunder. The other ministers think Chillingworth has been sent by ‘providence’ (Chapter 9), and the meteor is interpreted by another person in the community as meaning ‘Angel’ in honour of Governor Winthrop’s death (Chapter 12). Although he sees that Dimmesdale’s ‘reading’ of the A is self-obsessed, Hawthorne seems to imply that all readings of the world or events in our lives are just a way of projecting our own desires or feelings onto the world.
The Puritans would have said that such projection is only to be expected if scripture is not brought to our aid. And scripture as a means to knowing God is almost entirely absent from The Scarlet Letter.
We will never really know if the meteor declared Dimmesdale’s guilt or Winthrop’s honour. Hawthorne prefers to leave all the unsettling multiple choices available, without letting us pick one. Disturbing, if one is used to confident interpretation, but Hawthorne has a point. And despite Hawthorne’s jibes at them, the real Puritans could see that we can sometimes be, like Job’s friends, too quick to draw conclusions.