In The Scarlet Letter, in chapter two, why is the pillory both an effective punishment and a cruel one?

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For Hester specifically, her public interrogation on the pillory in front of all of Boston is effective because of her emotional reaction to it. While the townspeople believe Hester’s outward stoicism is proof of her unabashed pride in her sin, Hester is actually suffering internally. The narrator reveals Hester’s internal struggle with her experience on the pillory. She blocks out the cold, scrutinizing looks of the public with thoughts about what led her to this present moment.

She remembers her childhood, her marriage, her journey to Massachusetts, and the short time between her arrival and her current predicament.

One could argue that Hester’s life “flashes before her eyes,” as the cliche goes. This shows just how effective this public act of shaming is for her. Hester deeply regrets the actions that led her to the pillory.

At the same time, Hawthorne describes the townspeople with a critical bent. The women of the crowd want harsher punishment, and when Hester finally ascends the scaffold, not a soul speaks. This solemn silence only isolates Hester more, forcing her to turn inward. Their seeming indifference, in Hester’s eyes, is more difficult to bear than ridicule or wrath. One could argue that the dissonance between the public airing of Hester’s sin and the isolating effect it has on her is particularly cruel.

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The pillory was an effective means of punishment because the person who was being pilloried had no way to hide their shame.  The offense was made public and they could not even hide their shame from their friends and neighbors.  It is particularly effective in TSL because it provides a stage for the "confrontation" between Hester and Dimmesdale.

It is a successful literary device because it provides Hawthorne with a stage for dramatic irony, presenting the reader with Pearl's father without revealing who he is at this point and letting the plot unravel.  It would have been difficult to present this public confrontation without the pillory.  The scene also allows Hawthorne to introduce the townsfolk who are watching the punishment, revealing their general cruelty (although there is some sympathy in a couple of them), and introducing the city which functions as a character in the story.

Of course, when Hester leaves the pillory her punishment is only just beginning, but we have learned many things that will be developed during the story.

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