Hawthorne's employment of the three scaffold scenes in The Scarlet Letter is a brilliant structuring device; it not only frames the narrative, but it also directs the readers' attention to the essential themes of the novel. This symbol furthers Hawthorne's purpose, as it incites feelings of isolation in the characters.
In all three of the scaffold scenes, the main characters are present, but their arrangement concerning the scaffold differs. These arrangements are significant in meaning and in developing themes.
In the first scaffold scene, before a condemning crowd, Hester stands alone in her ignominy with the scarlet letter on her breast and her living symbol of her sin, Pearl, clutched to this breast. Accosted with the harsh Puritan judgments of the crowd, such as the woman who declares that she has "brought shame upon us all, and ought to die" (Ch.2), Hester is isolated from society. Nevertheless, she courageously bears her isolation. This illustrates the theme of conflict between individual and society.
In the second scaffold scene, which is in the middle of the novel and is seven years after the first scene, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale stands alone on the scaffold in the dark of night. Tortured by his guilt and remorse that he lacked the courage to confess his sin years ago, he stands on the scaffold to admit to God his sin. When Hester and Pearl approach on their way home from the governor's mansion, the minister asks them to join him on the scaffold.
"Come up hither, Hester, thou and Little Pearl. . . . Ye have both been here before, but I was not with you. Come up hither once again, and we will stand all three together." (Ch.12)
But when Pearl asks the minister if he will stand with her mother and her tomorrow, the minister replies, "Nay; not so, my little Pearl. . . . I shall, indeed, stand with thy mother and thee one other day, but not to-morrow!" (Ch.12) Ironically, the minister implies Judgment Day, but he does, in fact, stand with them one day before the Puritan community. Lurking in the shadows is Roger Chillingworth who acts as physician to the minister, and only Hester realizes that Chillingworth means to harm him. However, the minister "yields himself to the physician." (Ch.12) The theme represented here is ambiguity—some know of Dimmesdale's guilt while others do not.
In the third scaffold scene, there are parallels to that of the first scene. The townspeople meet in the marketplace and Hester is again rejected by "her fellow-creatures" while Reverend Dimmesdale is still revered as a saint. However, before he dies, Dimmesdale feels that he must confess. He calls Hester and Pearl up to the scaffold on which he has taken a position. At that moment old Chillingworth hurries forward to "snatch back his victim from what he sought to do." But the minister repulses him.
"Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late! . . . Thy power is not what it was! With God's help, I shall escape thee now!" (Ch.23)
Hester helps the minister ascend the steps to the scaffold with Pearl's hand clasped in his. Chillingworth knows that his victim has escaped him. For the minister confesses his sin and reveals the imprint of "the ghastly miracle" upon his chest, stunning the crowd. He asks Pearl if now she will kiss him since he has confessed and she does. Then the minister dies his "death of triumphant ignominy before the people."(Ch.23) This scene furthers the themes of innocence, guilt, and sin.