The Scaffold Symbolism In The Scarlet Letter English Literature Essay
In Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter, the scaffold is a place of both humiliation and reconciliation. The scaffold appears three times throughout the novel at the beginning, middle, and end. The novels four major characters and the scarlet letter "A" are present in all scaffold scenes. The scenes maintain an outline for the story and emphasize the novels most significant themes. The scaffold is inserted into the story for its practical purposes but begins to represent and personify various other connotations as the novel progresses.
In the first scaffold scene, Pearl and Hester are on the scaffold enduring dreadful civic scrutiny, unaccompanied by Pearl's father, Arthur Dimmesdale. “Hester Prynne passed through this portion of her ordeal, and came to a sort of scaffold” (Hawthorne 52). Dimmesdale is standing with the town's leaders, witnessing Hester's public humiliation. Hester Prynne bears the beautifully embroidered Letter "A" on her chest, while on the scaffold. This symbolizes her attempt to hold on to her former self and her pride even while she is being persecuted for it. The scaffold is the scarlet letter, both subject Hester to constant humiliation and punishment (Bloom 1). Hester’s refusal to name the father of her child alludes to Christ’s willingness to die on the cross for humanity’s sins (Campbell 2). Roger Chillingworth, Hester's spouse, discovers his wife's sin [affair]. When he learns of Hester's wrongdoing he develops a sinister urge and a hunger for revenge. “His face darkened with some powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an effort of his will, that, save at a single moment, its expression might have passed for calmness” (Hawthorne 57). The scaffold is a place of punishment. It provides a framework for discipline throughout the town:
This scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine, which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature,-- whatever be the delinquencies of the individual,--no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do. In Hester Prynne's instance, however, as not infrequently in other cases, her sentence bore, that she should stand a certain time upon the platform, but without undergoing that gripe about the neck and confinement of the head, the proneness to which was the most devilish characteristic of this ugly engine (Hawthorne 52).
The scaffold symbolizes the foundation of Puritan society, strict discipline and hypocrisy (Bloom 1).
Seven years after the start of the novel, the next scaffold scene takes place. This scene happens at night and focuses on Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is being eaten by his indiscretion and remorse. Dimmesdale is on the brink of psychosis. This scaffold scene parodies the first one in many ways, for example, Dimmesdale has not revealed himself as Pearl’s father and Hester still carries that burden alone. In the chapters before the second scaffold scene Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl were segmented. However, in this scene "The three formed an electric chain" (Hawthorne 134). It is in this scene that Hester learns how bad Chillingworth’s abuse has been. Hester shows Dimmesdale mercy by revealing Chillingworth’s identity, unlike Pearl who reveals that Dimmesdale’s transformation is finished. Pearl asks him if he will join hands with her and her mother during the day for all to see, he refuses. Sinister Roger Chillingworth is looking from afar. The scarlet letter “A” appears in the sky as a reminder to Dimmesdale that he cannot run away from his sins (Bloom 1). The scaffold showcases sin. “On the scaffold, where evil-doers are set up to public shame” (Hawthorne 138). In Another view of Hester Chillingworth tells Hester:
"Better had he died at once! Never did mortal suffer what this man has suffered. And all, all, in the sight of his worst enemy! He has been conscious of me. He has felt an influence dwelling always upon him like a curse. He knew, by some spiritual sense,—for the Creator never made another being so sensitive as this,—he knew that no friendly hand was pulling at his heart- strings, and that an eye was looking curiously into him, which sought only evil, and found it. But he knew not that the eye and hand were mine! With the superstition common to his brotherhood, he fancied himself given over to a fiend, to be tortured with frightful dreams, and desperate thoughts, the sting of remorse, and despair of pardon; as a foretaste of what awaits him beyond the grave. But it was the constant shadow of my presence!—the closest propinquity of the man whom he had most vilely wronged!--and who had grown to exist only by this perpetual poison of the direst revenge! Yea, indeed!—he did not err!—there was a fiend at his elbow! A mortal man, with once a human heart, has become a fiend for his especial torment!” (Hawthorne 150).
It is in this chapter that Chillingworth realizes his rage. Chillingworth’s fiery exclamation marks the end of his transformation from a curious scholar to a sinister abuser (Reiss 5).
The last scaffold scene is extremely similar to the first one. The four main characters converge in the marketplace, during the day. This scene focuses on both Hester and Dimmesdale. Hester is at the center of the townspeople’s scrutiny, because of the scarlet letter. Dimmesdale on the other hand is revered like a saint or a rock star. Unlike the other scenes, Arthur Dimmesdale is perishing. Those numerous years of stress have caused his health to decline. Dimmesdale professes his sins in order to redeem his soul. Hester’s strength is also an integral part of this scene. Dimmesdale relies on Hester’s strength. “Come Hester, come! Support me up yonder scaffold” (Hawthorne 219). Since Dimmesdale revealed his sins, Chillingworth’s power over him is no longer there. Dimmesdale dies after saying these words, “To die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people” (Hawthorne 222). Arthur Dimmesdale’s death liberates Pearl. Pearl goes through a transformation. She is no longer a symbol of her parents’ indiscretion. Dimmesdale's death marks the end of pearl being a symbol. The scarlet letter “A” appears in the form of a stigmata on Dimmesdale’s chest. The scaffold stalled Arthur Dimmesdale’s redemption. “There was no place so secret, no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me, save on this very scaffold” (Hawthorne 219). Hawthorne magnifies Dimmesdale's juvenile and feminine characteristics in the last scaffold scene while simultaneously intensifying Hester's strength and masculinity (Harper 3).
The scaffold scenes come together in order to display a shared theme, truth. The scaffold separates the sinners from those who judge them (Bloom 1). Throughout the story the scaffold functions as a plot tool in order to deepen the novel. Hawthorne's ability to create symbols that evolve throughout the novel proves how complex and intricate the plot is. The scaffold is evidence of Nathaniel Hawthorne's talent in the use of symbolism. Throughout the novel the scaffold becomes a place of embarrassment, penance, death, and new hope. The scaffold either causes prosperity or failure in the lives of Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Pearl.
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