The Scarlet Letter Essay - The Scaffold
In the romance The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne uses the scaffold as a tool to allow the reader to see Hester and Dimmesdale’s progress as they struggle with sin and guilt. The scaffold is a unifying setting where all the characters meet; it serves as a place of shame, public atonement, and also redemption from own guilt.
Even though Hester is on the scaffold being punished for her sin; she doesn’t feel as guilty as Dimmesdale, who stands above her. When Hester walks out of the prison, she hears some women discussing her sin. Hester walks with confidence straight to the scaffold holding her child, Pearl, who is publicly considered as a product of the sin. She has to walk up several stairs to reach the stand, to be punished openly before public gaze. “Meagre, indeed, and cold was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for from such by-standers, at the scaffold.”(47). As she stands on the scaffold, she has no place to hide: “…the scaffold of the pillory was a point of view that revealed to Hester Prynne the entire track along which she had been treading since her happy infancy.” She went up to be brought down. On the other hand, she is above the vindictive Puritans surrounding her. Despite the shame of her position, she carries out her punishment with regal grace. Because she hasn’t heard from her husband in two years, she is not executed for the crime of adultery; she must still stand on the scaffold of shame for three hours and wear the scarlet A for the rest of her life. Arthur Dimmesdale, a preacher and Hester’s secret lover, stands above the scaffold on the balcony urging Hester to reveal her lover’s name. He is too weak to confess that he is the one who should stand on the scaffold of shame with Hester. As he stands above her, he is physically closer to the God but morally closer to hell. In Puritan society, a scaffold symbolized a caution from a crime, “to be as effectual an agent, in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was a guillotine among the terrorists of France.”(52) The scaffold was close to the church, which may have symbolized that God punishes men punished on the scaffold. “[The scaffold] stood nearly beneath the eaves of Boston earliest church, and appeared to be a fixture there.”(52)
In the second scaffold scene the scaffold symbolizes the need for public atonement. Wrecked by sin, Dimmesdale tortures himself.
Ironically, the more his body declines from the effects of his guilt, the more popular he becomes with the public. Deep in the night he goes to the scaffold because he can’t live with his guilt, with his sin. He wants to confess his sin but there is no one to hear him. “He felt his limbs growing stiff with the unaccustomed chilliness of the night, and doubted whether he should be able to descend the steps to the scaffold.”(139) His actions are neither logical nor rational. “Whom, but the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, half frozen to death, overwhelmed with shame, and standing where Hester Prynne had stood! Carried away by the grotesque horror of this picture, the minister, unawares, and to his own infinite alarm, burst into a great peal of laughter.”(139/140) That night he is odd; he can’t control himself. “The minister well knew-subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that he was!- the light in which his vague confession would be viewed.” It is a vain show of remorse but it shows readers his internal suffering. His guilt causes his hallucinations. At the time he is on the scaffold, Hester and Pearl return from the Governor Winthrop’s deathbed. They join Dimmesdale and all three connect their hands together and form an “electric chain.” In the moment a mystical A gleams in the sky. Finally, Chillingworth, who watches them, takes Dimmesdale home.
The last scaffold scene shows Dimmesdale redemption of his guilt. On the Election Day Dimmesdale appears so strong and vital that Pearl does not recognize him. He gives a speech, which is the most brilliant and triumphal moment of his life: all the people surrounding him are overwhelmed. Suddenly he collapses. The Reverend Mr. Wilson tries to help Dimmesdale but he pushes him away and calls Hester and Pearl to join him. The crowd watches in astonishment as the minister, leaning on Hester and holding Pearl’s hand, climbs the scaffold steps. They act as a unit.
“‘Hester Prynne,’ cried he, with a piercing earnestness, ‘in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what –for my own heavy sin and miserable agony – I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now and twine thy strength about me! Thy strength, Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath granted me! Come, Hester, come! Support me up yonder scaffold!’”(230)
Dimmesdale tells Hester he is dying and must reveal his secret. “‘Let me now do the will which he hath made plain before my sigh. For, Hester, I am a dying man.
So let me make haste to take my shame upon me!’” Then he turns to the crowd and cries out his guilt: “‘People of New England! Ye, that have loved me!- ye, that have deemed me holy! Behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last! At last! I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from groveling down upon my face.’” (231) Ripping his minister’s robes from his chest, he shouts to bears the sign of his guilt, falls down upon the scaffold and dies. The crowd breaks out in a “strange, deep voice of awe and wonder.”
The scaffold unifies all the characters: Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth as they meet together in the three scaffold scenes. It is a stage, where Hester and Dimmesdale reveal their feelings as they struggle with their sin. The moral of the romance is shown by Dimmesdale’s deeds and the way he struggle with his sin. “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be interfered!”(236) This quotation tells more about people’s souls than about their actions. The secret about his sin was killing him. If he had revealed the truth in the very beginning on the scaffold with Hester, his life would probably be more valuable and he wouldn’t suffer as much as he did.