In Hawthorne's Puritan story of The Scarlet Letter, what does the scaffold symbolize?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is set in the Boston colony of Massachusetts, a fortress of Puritanism. The first scene takes place as Hester Prynne leaves her cell and heads for the scaffold.

Hester Prynne has had a child out of wedlock and while she has been found guilty of adultery (as her husband disappeared several years before—thought to be killed by Indians), she will not name the father of her child. At the outset of the tale, the scaffold represents judgment. It is here that Hester must stand for three hours, enduring public humiliation. Exposed to all for her sin of adultery, she must from this time on wear the reminder of her shameful behavior—the scarlet "A"— sewn onto the bodice of her dress. The judgment of the scaffold is more horrific for Hester than if she had had to face the outward scorn of the townspeople:

Had a roar of laughter burst from the multitude—Hester Prynne might have repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful smile. But, under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to endure, she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once.

Towards the end of the story, Dimmesdale stands upon the scaffold twice. The first time it is midnight and while he wishes to confess his sins at that time, it is not something he is willing to do before the community. While the scaffold still represents shame to Hester, to Dimmesdale it is symbolic of the lies that he has lived behind for seven years. While he should have taken his place beside Hester when she was first accused, he has suffered and repented in secrecy—experiencing no peace and no respite from his personal torment. At midnight, Dimmesdale's place on the scaffold is meaningless.

However, by the story's end, in the light of day, Dimmesdale chooses to mount the scaffold and expose his guilt.

Chillingsworth (motivated only by his pleasure in tormenting Dimmesdale) tries to stop the preacher and prevent Hester and Pearl from joining the pastor on the scaffold; but Dimmesdale with the little strength he has left, tells the old man that he is, with God's help, immune to Chillingsworth.

"Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late!" answered the minister, encountering his eye, fearfully, but firmly. "Thy power is not what it was! With God's help, I shall escape thee now!"

Dimmesdale evades the evil intentions of his nemesis, Chillingsworth notes, in the only place possible: on the scaffold. The minister cries out to Hester:

"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!"

Then Dimmesdale declares his guilt before the entire town. No longer hiding what he has done, he admits to his part in Hester's sin. He points out that while she suffered, he concealed his part.

By the story's end, the scaffold is a place of reconciliation and restoration. Dimmesdale experiences the release of guilt—redemption, and forgiveness of his sins. 

Overall, the scaffold brings all things into the light. It is where the truth is exposed. At the beginning the truth exposed Hester's guilt and shame. By the end, it exposes Dimmesdale's guilt and shame, but it also represents compassion and forgiveness, things sorely lacking in the Puritan religion.

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