Scaffold Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter

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In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the main conflict revolves around Arthur Dimmesdale. The character is faced with a dilemma between accepting his sin and publicly acknowledging his relationship with Pearl as his daughter, and his desire for freedom. Dimmesdale’s actions undergo a significant transformation throughout the three scaffold scenes in the story. Initially perceived as a hypocrite during the first scene, he ultimately reaches a point of publicly confessing his wrongdoing in the final scene. These scaffold scenes hold great significance in portraying Dimmesdale’s progression from extreme hypocrisy to complete redemption for his sin.

In the first scaffold scene, Hester Prynne stands on the scaffold with Pearl in her arms, publicly accepting her sin. The Reverend Dimmesdale, acting as her accuser, also stands on the scaffold and asks her to reveal the person responsible for the adultery, aware that he himself is guilty. However, Hester firmly refuses to disclose the identity of her child’s father to the crowd. This scene exposes Reverend Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy as he pretends to desire Hester’s confession, while secretly hoping she remains silent to protect his own reputation from ruin.

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Dimmesdale is aware that if his identity was exposed, it would be even more detrimental for him due to his role as a minister, as it contradicts his principles. In the second scaffold scene, Dimmesdale is torn between upholding his public image as Hester Prynne’s accuser and a hypocrite, and dealing with the internal conflict of guilt over his adulterous act. In the dead of night, when the entire town is slumbering, Dimmesdale quietly ascends the scaffold, observing a solemn vigil.

While on the scaffold, Dimmesdale expresses both physical and mental anguish, attracting the attention of Hester and Pearl as they make their way home. Responding to Dimmesdale’s plea, they unite with him on the scaffold, standing close in the darkness. Inquiring if Dimmesdale will stand beside them the next day for others to witness, Pearl receives a negative response. Dimmesdale declares that instead, they will stand together on the momentous Judgement Day.

In the third and last scaffold scene, Dimmesdale eventually acknowledges their shared sin with Hester and demonstrates remorse for concealing his guilt. Right after delivering his Election Day sermon, which further boosts his popularity among the townsfolk, Dimmesdale guides the people towards the town hall for a celebratory feast. When he reaches the scaffold, he summons Hester and Pearl to assist him in ascending the stairs and once more requests their presence beside him.

At this moment, Dimmesdale publicly confesses his guilt to the whole town but also saves his soul. Finally, Dimmesdale is able to rid himself of his guilt and die with a clear conscience. This is the only instance of pride for Dimmesdale in the entire book. Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts the escalating mental and physical anguish experienced by Dimmesdale as he attempts to conceal his sin from both the townspeople and God Himself through the three scaffold scenes.

In the first scaffold scene, he is the accuser who wears two faces towards Hester. In the second scaffold scene, he endures an insufferable amount of physical and psychological anguish. Lastly, in the third scaffold scene, he publicly expresses profound remorse for his transgression, granting not only himself but also Hester and Pearl liberation. Despite the argument that he perishes in disgrace in the eyes of the townsfolk, his open admission actually leads to his acceptance into Heaven. There, he will reside in eternal bliss and absolution from any wrongdoing.

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Scaffold Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter. (2017, Jan 24). Retrieved from

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