Justice at the Scaffold in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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Justice at the Scaffold in The Scarlet Letter

Richard Harter Fogle acknowledges the aspect of the superhuman as "the sphere of absolute insight, justice, and mercy: few of Hawthorne's tales and romances can be adequately considered without taking it into account" ("Realms of Being and Dramatic Irony" 309). This superhuman aspect surfaces through Divine Justice in The Scarlet Letter. On the other hand, the merely human application of justice emerges through the Puritan laws, or Earthly Justice. The struggle for supremacy in the novel between Earthly and Divine Justice becomes a central theme, reflected in multiple aspects of the plot. However, the focal point in this struggle manifests itself at the scaffold in Boston, where Divine Justice materializes and ultimately triumphs over Earthly Justice.

The thematic struggle at the battleground of the scaffold unfolds and develops through Hawthorne's three scaffold scenes. Earthly Justice dominates the first scene, where the Puritans force the stoic Hester Prynne, bearing the scarlet "A" on her bosom, to stand on the scaffold in front of the cackling, condemning Puritan crowd. Hawthorne explains that "shame...was the essence of this punishment" (41). Moreover, Ernest Sandeen verifies that a sinner "feels shame before his fellowman and fear before his God" ("The Scarlet Letter as a Love Story" 360), meaning that Earthly Justice induces shame as Divine Justice creates fear. Therefore, since Hester's punishment reduced her to shame on the scaffold, Earthly Justice dispensed its punishment, asserting its authority, in this first scaffold scene.

Also, Dimmesdale's reluctance in this scene to admit his guilt diminishes the hope for Divine Justice, which is fo...

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...werful yet merciful Divine Justice that unfailingly watched over them.

Works Cited

Abel, Darrel. "Hawthorne's Hester." The Scarlet Letter. 3rd ed. Eds. Seymour Gross, Sculley Bradley, Richard Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long. New York: Norton, 1988. 300-308.

Feidelson, Charles, Jr. "The People of Boston." The Scarlet Letter. 3rd ed. Eds. Seymour Gross, Sculley Bradley, Richard Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long. New York: Norton, 1988. 371-375.

Fogle, Richard Harter. "Realms of Being and Dramatic Irony." The Scarlet Letter. 3rd ed. Eds. Seymour Gross, Sculley Bradley, Richard Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long. New York: Norton, 1988. 308-315.

Sandeen, Ernest. "The Scarlet Letter as a Love Story." The Scarlet Letter. 3rd ed. Eds. Seymour Gross, Sculley Bradley, Richard Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long. New York: Norton, 1988. 350-361.
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