How does the scaffold in The Scarlet Letter bring greater meaning to the message, and does how the symbol further Hawthorne's purpose?

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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.

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One of the messages with which Hawthorne leaves readers comes in the final chapter of the book, "Conclusion." The narrator says, "'Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!'" In other words, then, we are all sinners—something else the narrator claims in this chapter—and we have a duty to be honest about that sinfulness. When we try to pretend as though we are without sin, we run the risk of committing further sin, as Dimmesdale does.

When he cannot admit his sinfulness, and stand on the scaffold with Hester, he adds sin on top of sin. When the other women in the town judge her—saying that the letter should be branded on her forehead or that she should be executed for what she's done—they add new sin on top of old.

The scaffold is the symbol of the admittance of sinfulness, and if everyone in the town were honest, they'd have to accept their own place on it. Instead, they lie to cover up their own sinful natures—a nature that each person shares with everyone else.

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At the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne and her illegitimate child, Pearl, stand on the scaffold in Boston so they can be public objects of scorn. Hawthorne writes, "The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron" (33). In other words, the scaffold is meant to shame people because it holds the gaze of the person on the scaffold forward so the offender's eyes must meet the crowd's. The scaffold enhances the idea that Hester and her child are outcasts, as they are held aloft from everyone else as sinners. 

At the end of the book, as the Reverend Dimmesdale is dying, he asks Hester and Pearl to help him ascend the scaffold, which he once feared. Hawthorne writes that as Dimmesdale ascends the scaffold, the crowd would not have thought it strange "had he ascended before their eyes . . . fading at last into the light of heaven" (140). Dimmesdale sacrifices himself on his death bed by telling the truth—that he is Pearl's father and a sinner—and the scaffold at this point acquires a symbolism that is similar to the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Hawthorne's message is that Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale are saintly, while the crowd that crucified them is evil. The striking symbol of the cross reinforces Hawthorne's message that in Puritan society, those who are outcasts are truly saints while those who cast them out are sinners. 

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