In Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, the Puritans constantly look down upon sinners like Hester Prynne, both literally and symbolically. The use of the three scaffold scenes throughout the course of the novel proved to be an effective method in proving this theory and showing how Puritan society differs from that of today’s.
In the first scaffold scene, Hester is being led from the prison where she has spent the last few months, towards the scaffold clutching her newborn baby to her bosom, covering the scarlet letter-the two symbols representing truth and her lost innocence. She stands on the scaffold, with the magistrates and ministers standing above her on the pulpit, symbolizing that they will always be closer to God than she will ever be, however, the reader is unaware that Hester’s minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, who also stands above her on the pulpit, which is a bit of dramatic irony, considering the fact that he is the father of the infant, and her accomplice in her sin. Also during this scene, the man the reader comes to know as Roger Chillingworth hides in the shadows, looking up at Hester, the evil already swelling within him, blackening his soul.
The events leading up to the next scaffold scene, some years later, are some of the most significant scenes in the entire novel. The treatment of Dimmesdale by Chillingworth, who Dimmesdale had taken in as his physician, plays a key role, due to the fact that Chillingworth’s intentions are less than pure. Chillingworth is bent on revenge, and is willing to do anything necessary, even destroy another man’s life in order to soothe the savage beast within. However, deep inside Chillingworth’s soul, he realizes that his hunger for revenge will never fade, and one can begin to assume that like most villains, Chillingworth wants to be caught. It is for this reason that he allows Hester to reveal his true identity to Dimmesdale, even thought he realizes that it could be his demise.
This new information is a shock to Dimmesdale, his doctor, his friend; his confidante was his enemy all along. Bent on revenge and destroying him, Dimmesdale realizes that the “Black Man” has his soul after all, and if he doesn’t submit to his will, his life and his reputation will pay the price
In a daze, confused and hurt, Dimmesdale wanders to the place where seven years ago Hester had stood clutching their child to her bosom, to the scaffold where he should have stood beside her all those years ago. While standing on the scaffold, his shirt open revealing his own scarlet letter to the world, he looked up at the pulpit where he had stood all those years ago and realizes the hypocrisy of his past actions. He knew that he was no closer to God than Hester, if anything he was far lower than she was, for she had the courage to admit to her sins and to accept her punishment and make the best of it.
The main scene that led up to the third scaffold scene is the encounter in the forest between Hester and Dimmesdale. During this scene, the last few details surrounding Hester’s situation is revealed. While Pearl plays on the other side of the brook, dancing in the “pure sunlight” and reveling in reality, while Hester and Dimmesdale are lost in their own fantasy world, dreaming of a life where their mutual sins will be forgotten. The main theme of this scene is that sin cannot be forgotten, but it must be forgiven through penance and penitence. For while Hester remains in this fantasy world, free and without inhibitions and the strict morals instilled by Puritan society, her daughter Pearl (truth) will not return to her, because this world that Hester has created is a lie.
In this final scaffold scene, Dimmesdale is preparing to make a speech in honor of the election of the new governor, this speech, by Puritan standards, marks the height of his career. As Dimmesdale ascends towards the pulpit for the last time he seems anxious and excited, ready to make his peace with God and deliver a powerful sermon. However, Dimmesdale realizes the hypocrisy in his actions and as he descends from the pulpit, he is silent and withdrawn, as if all the life and faith he had in the world had been drained out of him. It is in this scene that Dimmesdale finally recognizes Hester and Pearl publicly, he takes them up upon the scaffold with him, and announces to the world what he has done, and through this he feels that he has suffered enough and that his conscience is clear, and with this he dies and goes to Heaven, a soul that has been forgiven, leaving Hester and Pearl alone once again with their grief, and their sin.
These three scaffold scenes display the rise of conflict, the climax, and the conclusion. All three tie together to show a common theme, truth. The scaffold and those who stood upon it stood for truth, while those above them judged and those below gawked. It serves as an important symbol throughout the novel setting apart the sinners and those who would judge them.