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Essay about Symbolism of the Scaffold in The Scarlet Letter

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In the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, we notice that action only happens in a few places, among which are the forest, the market place, the governor’s residence, and Dimmesdale’s house. Although all these locations are significant to the story, the most important symbol among them is certainly the scaffold in the market place, where the story begins and ends. The scaffold’s meaning changes throughout the story and has different values for different characters. It represents humiliation, then insight, and finally redemption for Hester and Dimmesdale, but for Chillingworth, it symbolizes birth of sin, growth of sin, and ultimately consummation by sin.
At the beginning of the story, the scaffold “constituted a portion of a penal machine” (48) that completely disgraces the one punished, in this case Hester Prynn. We learn from the crowd that she committed adultery and that the scarlet letter she wore on her bosom is the embodiment of such sin. However, despite her fear of exposing her dishonor to the entire public, Hester showed an extreme amount of self control by hiding her continuous agony under an apparent elegance and beauty. Even when Hester recognized her husband, she did not show her anguish more than by inadvertently squeezing her child. On the other hand, Dimmesdale was completely craven in that scene. Instead of bearing the shame with Hester, since he was the father of the child, Dimmesdale stood high above the scaffold, on the side of “justice.” Although he appeared righteous when he prompted Hester to reveal the name of the other adulterer, his “frightened look” (59) and his “long respiration” (61) after Hester refused to talk betrayed Dimmesdale’s cowardice. Therefore, in this scene, sin was not onl...


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...rted” (233) that the cuckold’s bore once he realized his failure, symbolizing the total downfall of the antagonist. In contrast to the previous scenes, this final passage gave Dimmesdale absolute control of the situation and took away his former feebleness so that his final moments further emphasize the divine qualities of his repentance.
The scaffold is the beginning and end of the story, as well as the start and resolution of sin in all the characters. For the adulterers, the final scene symbolizes the last redemption because Dimmesdale died free of guilt. For Chillingworth, however, the minister’s last speech allowed the latter to escape his torture. All three characters sinned throughout the story, but by the end of the book, two of them acted on their mistakes and succeeded in repenting while the other one willingly fell in the trap and was at last consumed.



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