Critical Essays The Structure of The Scarlet Letter


The First Scaffold Scene

While many critics have imposed various structures on this novel, the scaffold scenes are by far the most popular means of pointing out the perfect balance of Hawthorne's masterpiece. These scenes unite the plot, themes, and symbols in a perfect balance.

The first scaffold scene, which occurs in Chapters 1-3, focuses on Hester and the scarlet letter. She stands on the scaffold with quiet defiance, holding her baby in her arms. Meanwhile, a crowd of townspeople has gathered to watch her humiliation and hear a sermon. Her husband, Roger Chillingworth, has just returned and is in the outskirts of the crowd. Her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, shares her platform but not her public humiliation.

The principal characters are all here. The townspeople are present to pass judgement, just as they will be in the final scaffold scene. Hester stands alone with Pearl in her arms, a mere infant and sign of her sin. Dimmesdale, with other officials who represent the church-state, shares the platform. His ambivalence about maintaining his silence can be seen in his demand that Hester tell the name of the child's father. In the crowd is also Roger Chillingworth whose voice is added to those of the crowd when demanding that Hester reveal her partner in sin. In this scene, we have Hester's public repentance, Dimmesdale's reluctance to admit his own guilt, and the beginning of Chillingworth's fiendish plot to find and punish the father. The focus on the adultery and the letter is strengthened by the topic of sin in Mr. Wilson's sermon.

The Second Scaffold Scene

The second scaffold scene again provides a view of all the principal characters, a dramatic vision of the scarlet A, and one of the most memorable tableaus in American literature. In the covering of darkness, Dimmesdale has made his way to the scaffold to perform a silent vigil of his own. So far we have seen Dimmesdale's conscious attempt to deal with his guilt, but now we go deep into his subconscious. In his spiritual torture, he cries out with a shriek of agony that is heard by Hester and Pearl as they journey to their home from the bed of the dying Governor Winthrop. This cry is also heard by Mr. Wilson.

Hester and Pearl join Dimmesdale on the scaffold, the place where seven long years earlier "Hester Prynne had lived through her first hours of public ignominy." Although the crowd is gone, Pearl asks the minister if he will join her and Hester there at noontide. He replies that their meeting will be instead at the great judgement day rather than here in the daylight. As though to taunt him, a great meteor burns through the dark sky, illuminating the scaffold, the street, and the houses. Hawthorne describes the scene as "an electric chain," the minister and his lover holding hands with their child between them. Also illuminated in the darkness is the fiendish face of Roger Chillingworth. This time, although the townspeople are not present, they talk about the scarlet A in the sky throughout the next day.

The chapter abounds in symbols: the scaffold itself; Dimmesdale's standing on it; the three potential observers representing Church, State, and the World of Evil; the "electric chain" of Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale; Pearl's appeal to Dimmesdale to stand with them; the revealing light from the heavens; and the variation on the letter A.

The Third Scaffold Scene

The final scaffold scene occurs after the procession on Election Day. In this powerful scene, Dimmesdale regains his soul, Pearl gains her humanity, Chillingworth loses his victim, and Hester loses her dreams.

Here again, the main characters come together, and this time Dimmesdale reveals his "scarlet letter." His Election Day sermon should have brought him his greatest triumph, but instead that honor is saved for his confession of sin and his final act of penance in standing on the scaffold with his lover and child. He escapes the diabolical clutches of Chillingworth who, without his victim, shrivels and dies. But he also triumphs over the evil that has overwhelmed him as he publicly confesses his part in Pearl's birth. He has learned that happiness must be willed not by himself, but by God. In this final scaffold scene, all the symbols and characters are once again present: the Church and State, the world of evil, the scarlet letter, the punishing scaffold, and a symbolic kiss. And, of course, death is present also.