A Platform For Truth: The Significance of the Scaffold Scenes in The Scarlet Letter

A Platform For Truth: The Significance of the Scaffold Scenes in The Scarlet Letter

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To the inhabitants of mid-17th century Boston, the scaffold is a place to gather, gawk, and gossip. In the puritanical society in which the novel is set, the scaffold serves the purpose of giving those who have committed a crime a place to stand and face their fellow citizens. Three times, the scaffold plays a role in a significant scene in the novel, not only elevating a criminal above the heads of others, but also revealing hidden truths. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the scaffold scenes represent the theme that what happens in the dark will eventually come to light.
Before we are first introduced to Hester Prynne, the protagonist, we learn that men and women are gathered around the scaffold kibitzing. The women’s conversation centers around Hester, and the forms of punishment they would have instilled upon her for her sin if they had been given to opportunity to do so. When Hester makes her first appearance, she is leaving the prison, and going to stand on the scaffold. Her sin is a very serious one to the puritans, adultery. As she stands on the scaffold, with the eyes of the populace boring into her, two symbols of her sin are presented to us. These are the scarlet letter, a red ‘A’ which is embroidered onto the bosom of her dress, and her daughter Pearl. Her daughter Pearl was conceived during the adulterous act for which Hester is standing on the scaffold. One of the members of the throng which has gathered is Roger Chillingworth, dressed in Indian garb. Chillingworth is Hester’s husband, who knows nothing of Hester’s adultery—until now. In this primary scaffold scene, the scaffold serves to elevate Hester on a platform of shame. Her ignominy is being reinforced to those who already know of it, and her ac...


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...re Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth repeats that Dimmesdale has escaped him. These utterances, while not seeming like anything of significance to the townspeople, represent Chillingworth’s telling of his plain, however cryptically, showing that the scaffold has played a role from his journey from dark to light.
The scaffold is a place of much activity and importance to the puritans, and Hawthorne centers many of the significant moments in this story around it. The Scarlet Letter is a highly symbolic work, and two of the most prevalent symbols are light and dark meaning truth and secrecy. Many of the characters go through the cyclic motion between truth and secrecy, and the scaffold has a great deal to do with one becoming the other. It is where Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth first dim into the darkness, but it is also where each finally returns to the light.

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