Significance of the Three Scaffold Scenes in The Scarlet Letter

The three scaffold scenes in The Scarlet Letter are integral to the structure and unity of the narrative. They are the most dramatic scenes at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the novel. Artistically and dramatically, these scenes are at the very core of Hawthorne’s tale of rime and punishment.

The Scarlet Letter

Each of these scenes brings together the major characters and forces of the story and each scene, rivets our attention to the scarlet letter ‘A’ on Hester Prynne’s bosom.

The first scaffold or pillory scene occurs right at the beginning of the novel when Hester stands with an infant in her arms on the scaffold in midday. She has committed the unforgivable sin of adultery and must be made a public spectacle. She has been let off in the opinion of many in the crowd, with a ‘lenient’ punishment for breaking a sacred commandment. People jeer at her and mock her and while the people stand 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 – exhort Hester to reveal the name of her partner-in-sin. They even hold out the temptation that she may be allowed to take off the scarlet letter if she reveals his name. Women in the crowd pass harsh comments on her, but Hester is resolute. 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 tries to hide it by shifting the infant to that side, but bears her ordeal with dignity and a certain amount of haughtiness.

She stands alone in the world with the symbol of her sin, concealing the torture she is undergoing when she spots Roger Chilllingworth at the edge of the crowd. His face darkens with some power of emotion which he controls by an effort of his will. Seeing that Hester has recognized him, he slowly and calmly raises his finger and puts it on his lip, asking her not to reveal his identity in the crowd.

Dimmesdale’s apparent status among the community leaders contrasts with Hester’s predicament in this scene, while Chilllingworth has no status to speak of at this juncture. Chillingworth is a mere spectator of Hester’s public humiliation while Dimmesdale is too cowardly and timid to admit his part in her shame. The scene sets the tone of the narrative that is to unfold with these protagonists in the ‘romance’ – Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth as the dramatic personae.

The fist scaffold scene sets the picture/image of a solitary figure against an inimical society in a village which hovers on the edge of the inviting and perilous wilderness – a beautiful young woman standing on a raised platform confronting in silence and pride a hostile crowd, a young woman who has come alone to the New World where circumstances have divided her from the community now gathered to oppose her.

The second scaffold scene occurs right in the middle of the narrative when Arthur Dimmesdale mounts the platform in a half-hearted attempt to confess his sin. This is staged on a dark night after the young priest has kept his vigil. Hawthorne calls this scene a “mockery of penitence” and “a vain show of expiation”. The scarlet letter is again emphasized here when Hester, along with Pearl, mounts the platform to stand there along with Dimmesdale, this time by stressing Dimmesdale’s obsession with his own guilt. Standing on the scaffold, he feels that the whole world is gazing at the scarlet letter over his heart. His shriek awakens Governor Bellingham and Mistress Hlibbins, but neither of them sees him on the scaffold. The reverend Mr. Wilson, returning from the death-bed of Governor Winthrop, walks past the scaffold without noticing Dimmesdale.

When the nervous and emaciated Dimmesdale asks Hester and Pearl to join him on the scaffold, he feels the vitality of a life other than his own. But he shrinks from Pearl’s suggestion that he should stand with them there in the broad daylight next day. A meteor lights up the sky at that moment and the young priest feels that it has blazed a huge scarlet letter ‘A’ across the sky. It is a symbol of his own guilt. On the other hand, the townspeople who have also seen it, interpret it to mean ‘Angel’ and take it to be a heavenly sign of good Governor Winthrop having been made an angel after his death. The light of the meteor also reveals Roger Chillingworth standing near the scaffold. His features show an expression of malevolence with which he looks at his victim. So intense is Dimmesdale’s perception of Chillingworht’s scowling face that it seems somehow to remain “painted in the darkness”. Chillingworth offers to take Dimmesdale home, and the minister goes home with the man whom he fears and hates, the man who has now discovered the secret of the scarlet letter. This is the moment of triumph for the vengeful physical.

As Dimmesdale is not yet completely ready to expiate his sin, the scene is enacted at the dead of the night with Chillingworth standing below the platform, gazing at the threesome in the glow of a strange light. This leads to the actual consummation of the die action in the third scaffold scene.

The final scaffold scene is the denouement of the story. We are prepared for this scene by Hawthorne’s focusing attention on Hester’s scarlet letter which has become a familiar sight in the town. It is the Election Day, a public holiday and many strangers are also among the crowd in the market place to watch the procession of the town worthies. People crowd around her with their gaze fixed at her bosom. Some sailors and some Indians are also among the crowd. Their curious gaze gives Hester a burning sensation in her bosom, and the scarlet letter sears her breast more painfully than at any time before.

Suddenly, the scaffold looms into focus. After his Election Day sermon, Arthur Dimmesdale is seen mounting the platform and asks Hester and Pearl to join him. Hester’s strength and presence is necessary for the purpose he has in mind. Chillingworth is also present in the crowd, as he has been on the earlier two occasions. He tries to prevent the minister from mounting the scaffold. In the first scaffold scene, he wanted to know the name of Hester’s fellow-sinner. In the second scene, the suspicion about his identify turned into a conviction. And now, with the minister who is about to reveal his secret to the crowd, Chillligworth whispers, “Do not perish in dishonor, I can yet save you.” But Dimmesdale brushes him aside and mounts the scaffold, calling him a ‘temper’. He knows and tells Hester that he is doing God’s will.

“The symmetrical design of the scarlet Letter, says F.O. Mathiessen, is built around the three scenes on the scaffold of the pillory.” There Hester endures her public shaming in the opening chapter. There, midway through the brook, the minister, who has been driven almost crazy by his guilt, but has lacked the resolution to confess it, ascends one midnight for self-torture, and is joined by Hester, on her way home from watching at a death-bed, and there they are over-seen by Chillingworth. There, also at the end, just after his own knowledge of suffering has endowed his tongue with eloquence in his great Election Sermon where he is exhausted and death- stricken Dimmesdale totters to confess his sin at last to the incredulous and only half-comprehending crowd, and to die in Hester’s arms. Hawthorne brings to bear 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 the three scenes are interrelated and give a unity to the novel.