The three scaffold scenes in The Scarlet Letter are an integral part. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) uses these scenes to develop the structure and unity of the narration of his famous novel. These three scaffold scenes are the most dramatic scenes at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the novel. Artistically these scenes are at the bottom of Hawthorne’s tale of crime and punishment. Each of these scenes brings together the major characters and forces the story forward. They keep their attention on the scarlet letter ‘A’ on Hester Prynne’s chest.
More Notes: The Scarlet Letter
The first Scaffold scene:
The first scaffold scene occurs in chapter 3 right at the beginning of the novel. Hester stands with an infant in her arms on the scaffold at midday. She has committed the unforgivable sin of adultery and a large crowd of people gathered outside of the gate of the prison. She has been let off in the opinion of many in the crowd, with a punishment for breaking a sacred law.
People mock her for standing below the platform. The leaders of the community – civil officers, magistrates, priests – stand above on a balcony. The leaders of the community – Governor Bellingham, the Reverend Mr. John Wilson, and the young priest Arthur Dimmesdale – encourage Hester to reveal the name of her partner-in-sin. They said,
“What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him- yea compel him”
They even allowed her to take off the scarlet letter if she reveals his name. Women in the crowd make bad comments about her, but Hester is silent. She can expect no sympathy from anyone in the community. People gaze at the embroidered scarlet letter ‘A’ “fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom”.
She stands alone in the world with the symbol of her sin. She finds Roger Chillingworth at the edge of the crowd. His face becomes pale with some power of emotion for her wife. But somehow, he controls his emotion. Hester has recognized him. So, he slowly puts his finger on his lip and tells her not to reveal his identity in the crowd. Even Dimmesdale encourages Hester to disclose the name of her partner in sin. Actually, Dimmesdale himself is the fellow sinner of Hester Prynne.
More Notes: Suggestions
The second Scaffold scene
The second scaffold scene occurs in chapter 12, right in the middle of the novel. Arthur Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold. Then he attempts to confess the sin that he has done with Hester. He stands on stage on a dark night. Hawthorne tells this scene as a “mockery of penitence” and “a vein show of expiation”.
The scarlet letter is again interpreted here. Hester, along with Pearl, stands there beside Dimmesdale. This time Dimmesdale realized deeply his own guilt. Standing on the scaffold, he realizes that the whole world is watching the scarlet letter over his heart.
Then Pearl suggests that he should stand with them there in the broad daylight the next day. A meteor lights up the sky at that moment. So, Dimmesdale feels that it has blazed a huge scarlet letter ‘A’ across the sky. It is the symbol of his own guilt. The light of the meteor also exposes Roger Chillingworth standing near the scaffold. Chillingworth offers to take Dimmesdale home. Dimmesdale started to hate himself and discovered the secret of the scarlet letter.
The third scaffold scene
The final scaffold scene occurs at the end of the novel chapter 23. This final scaffold scene is the denouement of the story. Arthur Dimmesdale delivers his election sermon. Hester Prynne and Pearl stand on the Scaffold to watch Dimmesdale delivering his sermon.
People praise him for his best delivery of sermons about the relationship between God and mankind. After the sermon, he steps towards the scaffold. He stands on the platform and asks Hester and Pearl to come to him. So, Hester and Pearl come to him slowly. Roger Chillingworth tries to stop him from giving a signal. But nothing can prevent him this time.
With the invisible help of God and the visible help of Hester Prynne, Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold. Holding little seven years old Pearl’s hand he recognizes her as his daughter. So Hawthorne utters,
“Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies”
Then he confesses his sin before the gathering. He reveals that he was Hester’s fellow sinner who corrupted innocent Hester Prynne.
Dimmesdale confesses his sin at last to the crowd and wins a great moral victory. He gets peace by revealing the naked truth. So, he relates,
“Praised be his name: His will be done! Farewell”
Hawthorne brings the profound and massive association of plot, character, symbol, and event to converge around each one of the three scaffold scenes in The Scarlet Letter. All three scenes are interrelated and give unity to the novel.