The Pillory of Shame: An Analysis of the Three Scaffold Scenes in The Scarlet Letter
We commonly look to repeating occurrences as indications of our personal progression and growth. Thinking back to constant occasions, such as past holidays, seasons, or important events, helps us to evaluate the changes that have occurred in a span of time. In literature, the same is applicable: we must look at recurring locations, events, and circumstances to analyze changes in characters and plot. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the three scenes on the town scaffold must be considered in this way, as the greatest character changes of the novel are revealed during each of those scenes. The scaffold, an archetypal symbol of guilt and public humiliation, plays an important role in exposing the characteristics and intentions that the novel’s main characters keep hidden in fear of public disgrace. In each of the three scaffold scenes, there are many explicit and implicit changes that are greatly indicative of the characters’ relationships and the story’s thematic implications. To gain a clear understanding of how each scaffold scene symbolically demonstrates changes in the characters and the plot, we must analyze the setting, character positioning, emotional expression, dialog, outside phenomena, and symbolic entities in each scene.
The first scaffold scene is greatly significant because it introduces all of the novel’s main characters and, through both overt and symbolic means, serves to illustrate their qualities and relationships with one another. The most obvious and prominent focus of this first scene is Hester and the “A” embroidered on her chest. With the jeering crowd staring at her, the governing body berating her, the bright sun beating down on her, and the red letter displayed brazenly on her chest, Hester’s sin is completely exposed, and she must totally bear the shame and humiliation of it. She accepts her state confidently and defiantly, as shown through her refusal to speak, her outward emotionlessness, and the way she has beautifully decorated the letter that symbolizes her sin. This is wholly in contrast to the state of her lover and fellow sinner, Arthur Dimmesdale. While Hester stands elevated on the scaffold as an object of ridicule, Arthur is raised higher than her, sharing the attention of the crowd but completely detached from the sin he shares with Hester. Seeing as the scaffold is the ultimate position of guilt, there is irony in the placement of these two characters: Arthur, torn by guilt for his inability to confess, stands exempt from the dishonorable pillory, whereas Hester, who seems to feel no guilt for her action, is receiving all the disgrace. Although he is physically higher than Hester, the hypocrisy and cowardice Arthur shows in his condemnation of Hester and refusal to admit his part in the sin reveals the fact that Arthur is morally “lower” than her. Roger Chillingworth is...