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Scarlet Letter Essay, Research Paper

“The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron”(64). This quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, described the well-known scaffold in Boston where confessions were made, punishments were given, and sins were revealed, such as Hester Prynne’s sinful scarlet “A.” The three scaffold scenes of The Scarlet Letter depicted different characters, times, and emotions.

Throughout the story, all of the main characters eventually stood on the scaffold, either voluntarily or against their will. In the first scene, Hester Prynne was forced to withstand this discomfort for three hours and received a great deal of public shame for her sin of adultery. The product of Hester’s sin, her baby daughter Pearl, was in her arms throughout the whole ordeal. Reverend Dimmesdale, the unknown adulterer at the time, was also present, but not on the scaffold. In the second scaffold scene, Dimmesdale stood alone on the scaffold at night to confess his sins. Hester and Pearl walked by, returning home from the deathbed of Governor Winthrop, and stood with him. As the family of three held hands silently, Roger Chillingworth walked by “with a smile and a scowl”(177), because he knew the minister’s sin and horror. Chillingworth spoke to the shamed, but never took his rightful place on the scaffold that night. In the third scene on the scaffold, all four main characters ended up on the place of shame together. Dimmesdale decided to confess his sins to the townspeople during the post-Election Day Sermon parade, and Hester rightfully joined her adulterer with pride and love. As Dimmesdale ascended the scaffold steps, “the little hand of the sinborn child was clasped in his”(288). Pearl, an imp, was along for the ride, and probably didn’t understand the meaning of her parent’s actions. Chillingworth, who belonged on the scaffold from the beginning of his revengeful days, stood closely to the family. He stayed nearby, not to help Dimmesdale, but instead, as a leech, to torment the young minister and pity himself as the husband of an adulteress. In all three scenes, Hawthorne showed that the different characters associated with the scaffold were there for very important reasons, and not just to fill up space on a page.

The time of day and the chronology of the three scaffold scenes played an important part in their interpretation and meaning. In the first scene, Hester executed this part of her sentence around midday in order for the public to be present to scorn her. If this scene had taken place at night, the crowd would have been smaller, and the power of the townspeople’s shame less harsh and emotional. Another addition to Hester’s three-hour, agonizing spectacle was “the hot, midday sun burning down upon her face, and lighting up its shame”(65). If the typical temperature had not been so high, Hester’s sentence could have been born more easily. This first scene took place near the beginning of The Scarlet Letter. The chronology provided for sufficient background information to explain the reason for Hester’s sentence of shame and the identity of the mysterious but familiar face in the crowd. In the second scene, the fact that Dimmesdale confessed his sin on the scaffold at night gave the impression that the minister was terrified of the townspeople’s’ scorn and the loss of his upheld reputation. If Dimmesdale had made his confession during the day, a portion of his suffering would have ended by his bravery and willingness to accept consequences. Instead he waited to confess his sin publicly until he was too emotionally and physically ill to sustain his own life. This chronological order was of utmost importance to Dimmesdale’s life and, unfortunately, to his death. In the third scene, the time of day and the day itself was a major part of Dimmesdale’s plan of confession. By giving his Election Sermon on a celebrated day, numerous people would be present for the sermon, the parade, and therefore his unexpected confession. Hester, Pearl, and Chillingworth were also present to stand on the scaffold beside Dimmesdale and witness his agony and declaration. The minister couldn’t have picked a better day to attract the public’s attention. Unfortunately, Dimmesdale became very weak due to his emotional torture brought upon by his sin, Chillingworth, and mostly his guilty conscience. He waited too long to relieve himself of guilt, and thus broke down and died before his peers. Chronology was not fighting on Dimmesdale’s side of this emotional battle, but it played a significant role in The Scarlet Letter’s three scaffold scenes.

Emotions flared throughout this novel, especially during the scaffold scenes because they were so meaningful and moving. In the first scene, Hester’s agony and guilt was felt through Hawthorne’s strong descriptions. She also experienced a feeling of pride, as her nature permitted and almost required. Hester’s strong personality gave her the strength to stand before hundreds of familiar faces and stare right back at them with a childish stubbornness which she most exquisitely portrayed. She despised being shamed by a scarlet “A,” but could not hide it and her sin with her precious baby, because Pearl was indeed a sin also. Hester, along with her misery, experienced feelings of comfort when she remembered her past and forgot her present situation. Yet another emotion of Hester’s was that of curiosity, wonder, and disbelief upon seeing a familiar face, her husband’s face in the large crowd. In the beginning of the second scaffold scene, Dimmesdale experienced nothing but negative emotions. He felt tortured by Chillingworth’s unknown mind games and his own conscience, terrified of his public followers, and sympathized with Hester, his loved adulteress. Dimmesdale was torn by these emotions, which was the reason for his nighttime “confession.” I believe that the minister felt relief when Hester and Pearl came by to relieve him of his loneliness, a loneliness that had been felt and multiplied through time. Suddenly Dimmesdale’s relief changed to horror and fright with the unexpected appearance of Roger Chillingworth. At the time, the minister had no idea of Hester and Chillingworth’s deal, and that the old physician was actually his worst enemy. However, Chillingworth’s evil expression and presence ran chills of terror through the young man’s weak body. During that scene, Dimmesdale was on an emotional roller coaster. In the third scene, the four main characters possessed distinct emotions. Pearl’s was that of enjoyment, for she was a mere child having a good time on a celebrated day. The imp child was also satisfied that Dimmesdale, her father, finally decided to confess his sins and stand with his family upon the scaffold before the townspeople, after he had painstakingly refused her request during the previous scaffold scene. Hester, also a member of the family of sin, experienced terror because she knew what her adulterer was accomplishing, and was afraid to join him. However, pride and love compelled her to her lover’s side to confess with him their dreadful sin. Chillingworth also felt compelled to Dimmesdale’s side, but perhaps out of mockery, and disappointment that his quest for his victim’s deterioration had ended. Perhaps a sly smile of satisfaction passed the old man’s lips when he saw his enemy wilt and die in shame. Dimmesdale’s emotions were the strongest of them all upon the scaffold, for he had built up so much anger and fear and shame inside of his body and soul. To let these feelings out with his confession gave the minister a great feeling of relief as he “stood, with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory”(290). After his great confession, Dimmesdale’s goal had been completed and he wilted and died in Hester’s arms for the whole town to see and reflect upon. The multitude of emotions throughout The Scarlet Letter’s scaffold scenes proved to be very important to the its meaning.

The three scaffold scenes portrayed various characters, times, and emotions, but served the same purpose; to proclaim sinner’s shame and confessions. These purposes were met in The Scarlet Letter to give the story a deeper and better understood meaning.


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