Dimmesdale finishes his Election Day sermon, which focuses on the relationship between God and the communities of mankind, “with a special reference to the New England which they [are] here planting in the wilderness.” Dimmesdale has proclaimed that the people of New England will be chosen by God, and the crowd is understandably moved by the sermon. As they file out of the meeting hall, the people murmur to each other that the sermon was the minister’s best, most inspired, and most truthful ever. As they move toward the town hall for the evening feast, Dimmesdale sees Hester and hesitates. Turning toward the scaffold, he calls to Hester and Pearl to join him. Deaf to Chillingworth’s attempt to stop him, Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold with Hester and Pearl. He declares that God has led him there. The crowd stares. Dimmesdale leans on Hester for support and begins his confession, calling himself “the one sinner of the world.”
After he concludes, he stands upright without Hester’s help and tells everyone to see that he, like Hester, has a red stigma. Tearing away his ministerial garments from his breast, Dimmesdale reveals what we take to be some sort of mark—the narrator demurs, saying that it would be “irreverent to describe [the] revelation”—and then sinks onto the scaffold. The crowd recoils in shock, and Chillingworth cries out, “Thou hast escaped me!” Pearl finally bestows on Dimmesdale the kiss she has withheld from him. The minister and Hester then exchange words. She asks him whether they will spend their afterlives together, and he responds that God will decide whether they will receive any further punishment for breaking His sacred law. The minister bids her farewell and dies.
[T]he scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too.
The book’s narrator discusses the events that followed Dimmesdale’s death and reports on the fates of the other major characters. Apparently, those who witnessed the minister’s death cannot agree upon what exactly it was that they saw. Most say they saw on his chest a scarlet letter exactly like Hester’s. To their minds, it resulted from Chillingworth’s poisonous magic, from the minister’s self-torture, or from his inner remorse. Others say they saw nothing on his chest and that Dimmesdale’s “revelation” was simply that any man, however holy or powerful, can be as guilty of sin as Hester. It is the narrator’s opinion that this latter group is composed of Dimmesdale’s friends, who are anxious to protect his reputation.
Left with no object for his malice, Chillingworth wastes away and dies within a year of the minister’s passing, leaving a sizable inheritance to Pearl. Then, shortly after Chillingworth’s death, Hester and Pearl disappear. In their absence, the story of the scarlet letter grows into a legend. The story proves so compelling that the town preserves the scaffold and Hester’s cottage as material testaments to it. Many years later, Hester suddenly returns alone to live in the cottage and resumes her charity work. By the time of her death, the “A,” which she still wears, has lost any stigma it may have had. Hester is buried in the King’s Chapel graveyard, which is the burial ground for Puritan patriarchs. Her grave is next to Dimmesdale’s, but far enough away to suggest that “the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle, even in death.” They do, however, share a headstone. It bears a symbol that the narrator feels appropriately sums up the whole of the narrative: a scarlet letter “A” on a black background.
This third and final scaffold scene serves as a catharsis, as all unsettled matters are given resolution. Pearl acquires a father, Dimmesdale finally confesses, and Chillingworth definitively loses his chance for revenge. Moreover, despite the fact that the resolution takes place before the assembled townspeople, the Puritan elders have no power to judge or punish in this situation. Instead, Dimmesdale serves as his own prosecutor and judge.
He apparently wills his own death, thereby breaking away from Puritan morals. He also provides a commentary on them, addressing the novel’s main themes of sin, evil, and identity within society. One might think that the people’s shock at their minister’s secret life would provoke them into contemplation of their punitive system. That is, if Dimmesdale is capable of such a sin, then surely every individual must be; perhaps sinfulness should be acknowledged as an inescapable element of the human condition.
However, no such reconsideration takes place. The old order regains control soon after Dimmesdale’s death. Although many claim to have seen a scarlet “A” on Dimmesdale’s chest, others read the minister’s confession as an intentional allegorical performance. It is this latter group, which argues that Dimmesdale meant to deliver a lesson on sin and was not confessing to any actual wrongdoing, that reestablishes the old ways. In their view, Dimmesdale meant to teach his parishioners that all men have the potential for evil, not that evil is a necessary part of man. Correspondingly, the conservatives believe, society need only renew its vigilance against evil rather than reconsider its very conception of evil. Even in his defiance, then, Dimmesdale is appropriated by the Puritan system as a means of reinforcing its pre established messages.
However, this victory for the entrenched ways seems to be only temporary. It is no surprise that Chillingworth dies, because the “leech’s” source of vitality has been removed. Hester’s and Pearl’s fates are more complicated. Given an “earthly father” for the first time, Pearl finally, according to the narrator, becomes “human.” It is as though Pearl has existed up to this point solely to torment her parents and expose the truth—she is, after all, the direct result of their sin. The final acknowledgment of that sin has freed her. It has “developed her sympathies” and made her an autonomous and fully “human” being. Pearl returns to Europe and marries into an aristocratic family. Notably, she does not go to England, which is the society against which the Puritans define themselves. Pearl opts out of this binary altogether, finding a home in a place where the social structure is well established and need not rely on a dogmatic adherence to rules in order to protect its existence.
Unlike Pearl, Hester can never escape her role as an emblem of something larger. She leaves Boston, presumably to give her daughter a better chance at a happy life, but in so doing ensures that her scarlet letter will become a “legend” and take on a kind of existence of its own. Having sacrificed her humanity and her individuality to her child, and to the letter on her chest, Hester now becomes a spokeswoman for larger issues.
She becomes an advocate for women and takes on a role in the community similar to that of a minister: she cares for and attends to the spiritual needs of her fellow human beings. Hester’s burial speaks to the eventual sacrifice of her private self to her public, symbolic role. Although she and Dimmesdale are together at last, the distance between their graves and the design of their shared headstone seem to call out for interpretive readings. The simple romantic relationship between them is overshadowed by its larger representations.
By the time Hester dies, the meaning of the scarlet letter on her chest has become confused and ambiguous. While it gives her authority and even respectability among some people, it will always mark her as guilty of what society still considers a sin. The fates of the other characters also suggest that it is not always easy to differentiate between hate and love, between essential identity and assigned symbolism, or between sin and righteousness.