The scaffold scenes are one of the most dramatic structuring devices in The Scarlet Letter. They provide a framework for the entire novel and help highlight the most important themes. Notice that the novel contains 24 chapters. The first scaffold scene is contained in chapters 1-3. The second scaffold scene happens exactly in the book's middle, at chapter 12. Chapter 23 contains the last. All of the book's main characters are present in each of these scenes, as is the novel's primary symbol, the scarlet letter.
In The Scarlet Letter, why is the scaffold important and how does it change over the course of the novel?
In the first scaffold scene, Hester and Pearl stand alone, publicly humiliated, while Dimmesdale watches from the side, standing with the other leaders of the community. Emotionally and physically, he is separate from her, but she bravely bears her solitary suffering. Presented in all of its beauty, the scarlet letter symbolizes her artistry and imagination, showing her in contrast to her more conventional lover. From the sidelines, Chillingworth, Hester's husband, learns of his wife's transgression. An evil impulse almost immediately grows within his heart, as shown by the imagery of the "writhing," snake-like horror that moves from his face into the "depths of his nature."
The second scaffold scene contains nearly all the same elements. This time, though, the scene occurs at night, nearly seven years after the novel's action begins. Rather than highlighting Hester's suffering, this scene focuses on Dimmesdale's guilt and remorse, which have led him to the edge of insanity. While in the chapter preceding this one they were divided, here Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale stand hand-in-hand, forming an "electric chain." Hester learns the extent to which Chillingsworth has been torturing Dimmesdale, and she makes the important decision to save him from his enemy. However, Pearl shows that Dimmesdale's repentance isn't complete when she asks him if he'll stand on the scaffold with her and her mother in the light of day. He won't. Of course, Chillingworth, the embodiment of evil, is present once again on the sidelines. The scarlet letter makes an appearance as a glowing light in the sky, telling Dimmesdale that even nature knows of his guilt.
The final scaffold scene in some ways mimics the first. Once again, all the major characters meet in the marketplace in full daylight. Hester is again the object of unwanted attention due to the scarlet letter, making her an outcast, while Dimmesdale is exalted as a saint. But this scene is different, because Dimmesdale is dying. Realizing that this is his last opportunity to confess before his death, Dimmesdale finds courage to perform this vital act, if for no other reason than to save his soul. As in the second scaffold scene, Hester's strength is emphasized: Dimmesdale needs her to carry him up the scaffold where he can make this revelation. Chillingworth's evil has become full-blown, but his power over Dimmesdale is now gone, because the minister chooses the path of truth. His death frees Pearl from her role as symbol of her parents' guilt, so she can become a compassionate and caring human being. In this scene, the scarlet letter makes its appearance on Dimmesdale's chest.
No aspect of this novel is irrelevant. Each of the symbols, characters, and themes is presented with consistent, delicately chosen details, creating a beautiful and complex novel. For more insight into the rich layers of symbols and meaning in this novel, be sure to check out CliffsNotes The Scarlet Letter (it's free to read online!).