The Centering Link
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, centers its plot, setting, and characters around the unifying scaffold. With each encounter at the scaffold, the four main characters, Hester, Pearl, Rev. Dimmesdale, and Mr. Chillingworth, become more emotionally connected to one another. Each of the three meetings symbolizes a major turning point in the novel where a sin is confessed and/or developed. All four main characters interact together only at the scaffold.
During the first scaffold scene, Hester climbs the scaffold to display her scarlet letter ?A? to the public. The townspeople become aware of her sin of adultery, and view her differently after this event. In the second scene, Reverend Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold to confess his sin during the night, and Hester and Pearl join him. “God flashes” a great letter ?A? in the sky to show his disapproval toward the Reverend?s overall behavior. The third and final scaffold scene sends the Reverend to heaven and leaves Hester and Pearl on earth to grieve. Reverend Dimmesdale uses his final spark of energy to confess to the townspeople his sin that hid deep in his soul. Mr. Chillingworth watches Hester, Pearl, and Reverend Dimmesdale in each scene with disbelief. Major changes occur on the scaffold that signify a turning point in each character as well as the entirety of the novel.
Overall, the scaffold symbolizes shame, confession, and death. After the first time Hester climbs the scaffold, the townspeople shun her from their town. Hester forcefully confesses her sin by flashing her scarlet letter “A,” and Rev. Dimmesdale confesses his sin by telling the townspeople the truth about himself. The deaths of Governor Winthrop and Rev. Dimmesdale both occur during confessions on the scaffold. All major turning points for the main characters occur here.
The four characters unite at the scaffold bearing many similarities throughout each confrontation. Hester and Pearl always attach to one another while on the scaffold. Hester holds Pearl’s body or her hand so that she is close to the one thing she has. From the first scaffold scene to the last, Rev. Dimmesdale always holds his heart with his hand to show his weak and troubled soul. Mr. Chillingworth takes full advantage of the Reverend’s weakness and makes it his mission to ruin Rev. Dimmesdale’s life. During each scaffold scene, Mr. Chillingworth always looks up from the ground at the three atop the wooden structure. He never likes what he sees. Mr. Chillingworth changes with each scene as well as the other characters.
During the first scaffold scene, Hester confesses her sin to the town. She displays herself for everyone to judge. Before she climbs the scaffold, Hester seems grim and weak because of being in jail. However, by displaying her beautifully embroidered “A”, Hester proves her strength to everyone judging her. Everyone in the town still shuns Hester from their society even though she demonstrated great strength. Up until Hester’s display, Pearl lives as an innocent baby and after it, she symbolizes a living sin. Rev. Dimmesdale stands with his clergymen above Hester and Pearl. He interrogates Hester as to who fathers Pearl, but realizes Hester’s strength by her refusal to expose his name. This scene changes Dimmesdale because he feels incredibly guilty for forcing Hester to deal with the shame and burden alone. He demonstrates his shame and grief by clutching his chest with his hand, a reflex that occurs more frequently as the novel progresses. Mr. Chillingworth eyes Hester and the Reverend from afar and below. He arrives in the new world hoping to finally see his wife after two years apart, only he finds her with her baby that obviously did not come from him. After this encounter he makes it his sole mission to ruin the life of the baby’s father. In this first scene, all four characters seem distanced from one another.
In the second scene, Reverend Dimmesdale confesses his sin. He ventures to the scaffold, weak and grim, during the night. As Hester and Pearl make their way home from Governor Winthrop’s deathbed, Dimmesdale calls out to them. After coaxing the two on the scaffold with him, they form an “electric chain” by holding hands together. New life and energy rush through Rev. Dimmesdale during this bonding. Pearl, the symbol of love and the product of sin, connects Hester and the Reverend. Pearl realizes the truth about Dimmesdale when she asks him to stand with her and her mother at noontide the next day and he refuses by saying that he only will on judgement day. Hester changes because she sees what pain and suffering the Reverend experiences and realizes that he too feels awful about the situation. When Mr. Chillingworth walks by the scaffold, Dimmesdale expresses his hatred toward the man. Hester feels bad for not telling Dimmesdale the truth about Chillingworth and his plan to ruin Dimmesdale’s life. Mr. Chillingworth changes because he realizes that Mr. Dimmesdale wants to confess his sin, therefore leaving Chillingworth with no mission in life. With his hand over his heart, Mr. Dimmesdale confesses his heaven-defying guilt and vain repentance to no one. A few people walked by him due to the location of the scaffold in the center of the town, but Hester, Pearl, and Chillingworth are the only people who see. Ironically, Dimmesdale feels somewhat relieved after his “confession.” When the sexton tells Rev. Dimmesdale that the letter “A” flashed in the sky at night, stands for Angel, not Adultery, it makes the Reverend feel even worse about the situation. Since no one hears Rev. Dimesdale’s confession, he knows that he must climb the scaffold again to confess another time.
The third scaffold scene occurs after the Reverend gives his electrifying Election Day sermon. With a death-like hue to his face, Rev. Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold for the last time with Hester and Pearl. With his hand gripping his heart, Dimmesdale uses all his strength to step away from Hester and Pearl’s support and confess his sin that he feels obligated to tell. When Dimmesdale tears off his ministerial band, for an instant he feels like he won a victory, but quickly he sinks upon the scaffold. Before this scene, Hester plans on leaving aboard a Spanish ship with Pearl and the Reverend to start a new, happy life. When atop the scaffold, holding the dying minister, Hester only wishes to know if they will spend their eternal life together. Her hope for a new life dies with Rev. Dimmesdale. Above on the scaffold Pearl kisses the weak man to break the spell of her symbolizing sin. Pearl pledges to live as a strong woman in the world and not a battle in it. Mr. Chillingworth tries to stop Dimmesdale from climbing the scaffold and putting shame on himself. This is the only place in the world Dimmesdale can escape Chillingworth. After Dimmesdale confesses, Chillingworth possesses no mission or direction in his poor, miserable life and he dies. God, the angels, and Satan know Dimmesdale’s secret, but not the townspeople. After telling the people, Dimmesdale knows that he can not live any longer. The Reverend, father, lover, and mentor passes away with a clean soul because he confessed.
All major turning points and confessions center around the scaffold. This wooden symbol of sin and hatred is the most powerful landmark in the city. Located in the center of the city allows everyone a view of what occurs. From the first scaffold scene to the last, the townspeople always shun Hester and Pearl. Only at the end do they realize the identity of Hester’s sinful partner. The scaffold unites the novel because drastic changes occur there and the city as well as the book center around it.