What is the critical significance of the narrative structure of The Scarlet Letter, relating this to the concerns central to the theme of the identity and society.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nathaniel Hawthorne skillfully uses the religious number three (the Trinity) as it plays an important role in The Scarlet Letter. In fact, the narrative is constructed around three very significant scenes involving the scaffold; there are three main characters, and Pearl and her parents make three. Further, Hawthorne's narrative is a moving depiction of human nature, sin, and redemption. And, as a part of this highly structured novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne also employs other symbols, especially the powerful scarlet A along with imagery to allegorical effect.  

SCAFFOLD SCENES - These three scenes are pivotal to the plot.

1. Hester on the scaffold - As the story of The Scarlet Letter begins, Hester Prynne, charged with adultery, stands before the assemblage of gray Puritans on the scaffold, placed not far from the prison. Standing there are personages representative of the Church-State, the Reverend Wilson and Reverend Dimmesdale; also there is the cuckolded husband, Roger Chillingworth, eager to hear Hester's answer when the Reverend Wilson asks Hester to name the man with whom she has sinned. But, just as she has boldly sewn an elaborate A upon her breast in defiant obedience to Church orders, so she refuses to name her partner in sin, and the man does not come forward. Chillingworth, who has just found his way out of the wilderness, vows to avenge himself against the man who has been with his wife. These, then, form three subplots: Hester's defiance of the Puritan culture, Dimmesdale's hiding of his secret sin, and Chillingworth's plot of secret revenge.

2. The Reverend Dimmesdale on the scaffold - In the middle of the novel, Chapter XII, the climax of the plot, Arthur Dimmesdale stands in the night upon the scaffold. Tortured by his secret sin, all has become false to him and he is real only in his private anguish.

The only truth, that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth, was the anguish in his inmost soul, and the undissembled expression of it in his aspect.

Having spent secret moments in his private chambers, the minister scourges himself and he fasts in order to punish himself. He keeps vigil in the hope of purifying himself, and one evening he stands on the scaffold, hoping that he can confess his terrible sin publicly and, thus, be cleansed through confession. While on this scaffold, Dimmesdale cries out in his anguish and Hester, who has been attending at the death of Governor Winthrop, and Pearl join Dimmesdale symbolically upon the scaffold, thereby foreshadowing his final act. Little Pearl in her own "scarlet garb" points her finger at her mother's letter, and then at the minister's chest.

"Ye have both been here before, but I was not with you. Come up higher once again, and we will stand all three together!"

But Pearl asks him if he will do the same in the daylight, and the minister cannot make this promise despite the powerful symbols that he witnesses: the lights in the sky, "the electric chain" of the family of Hester, Arthur, and Pearl, herself a symbol. Then, the minister sees the letter A in the sky as the "arch-fiend" of Chillingworth passes by. The next day a black glove is found there, and the old sexton who has discovered it says it must have been dropped by Satan. And the townspeople talk of the "A" in the sky that they interpret as "Angel," believing the "good Governor Winthrop" was made an angel. Others interpret it as "Able" for Hester. This allegorical interpretation of symbols is part of the Puritans' belief that God takes an active part in their lives.

3. The final scaffold scene of Dimmesdale - In this scene, the characters again come together. This time, Dimmesdale is redeemed as he saves his soul, but he loses his corporal life, Pearl is made human, Hester loses her dream of living happily with the minister, and Chillingworth is foiled in his evil scheme of stealing the soul of the minister.

Again, all symbols converge. Dimmesdale reveals his own A and regains his soul and spiritual identity, the living symbol of Pearl gains her human identity with the symbolic kiss, the fiend of Chillingworth cannot have his victim and his evil plan ruined, and the representatives of Church and State at the holiday have their hypocrisy exposed with death hovering over. For Hester, the scarlet letter undergoes yet another change as with Dimmesdale's salvation, she, too, is relieved of some of her shame by the truth. Her life turns from passion to thought and she returns to England with her daughter for a time. And, despite all the years of wearing it, "[T]he scarlet letter had not done its office" because Hester is yet independent. Still, it has become a part of her as, after her return, she bends and picks up the old letter and replaces it upon her bosom.

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The Scarlet Letter

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