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The Scaffold in The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is characterized by
three major events that occur on the town scaffold. What takes place on
this platform will determine the path which the three main characters,
Hester Prynne, Mr. Dimmsdale, and their daughter Pearl will follow. The
three scenes mark the beginning, middle, and end of their ignominy.
The scaffold is a platform where criminals are punished before all
the townspeople. In this case, the criminal is Hester Prynne and the crowd
has gathered to witness her shame. The first scene at the ominous platform
is Hester's first public appearance with the child and the scarlet letter.
Hester's husband, Roger Prynne (Chillingworth) makes a sudden reappearance
and is among the onlookers. The Reverend Mr. Dimmsdale is also there but
he does not stand with Hester on the scaffold, instead he stands on the
balcony with those who pass judgment on her.
During this time, Reverend Mr. Wilson demands that Hester give the
name of her lover. He gives her the chance to "take the scarlet letter off
[her] breast" if she were to "speak out his name"(64). Had she relented
and revealed his name she might never have had to endure the humiliation of
the scarlet letter. But she refused, and so her path was set.
The second time at the scaffold was a turning point for Hester.
She, Pearl, and Dimmsdale are together for the first time, "...the three
formed an electric chain" as if they were always meant to be together if
something, or someone, had not gotten in their way (140). But it is here
that Hester finally realizes the damage which hiding Chillingworth's
identity has caused Dimmsdale. Chillingworth was "a secret
enemy...continually at his side, under the semblance of a friend and
helper..." when in truth he was tormenting Dimmsdale at every opportunity
(153). When Hester sees the miserable state that he is in, weak and "on
the verge of lunacy", it leads her to later seek him out in the forest to
confess the true identity of Chillingworth, which in turn leads to their
plan to leave Salem.
Their plans were never carried through because of another visit to
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the scaffold. This time, Hester, Dimmsdale, and Pearl stood hand in hand
before the town. Dimmsdale relieves his conscience and denounces
Chillingworth for his lust for vengeance. After this final catharsis,
Dimmsdale "sinks into a deep repose" and receives some closure before he
death (233). " 'There was no one place so secret, no high place nor lowly
place, where thou couldst have escaped me save on this very scaffold,' "
says Chillingworth (231). In the end, the place of their punishment also
brought them peace.
The direction of Hester, Pearl, and Dimmsdale's lives were changed
by the fateful events at the scaffold. The cycle of their ignominy was
expressed throughout The Scarlet Letter by these scenes. The scaffold
became a place where the truth and their sins were exposed.