In The Scarlet Letter, there are three scenes in which the scaffold is present. The scaffold, a symbol of sin and of shame, is very important to the plot. Each scene reveals something new about the characters and what they symbolize; we learn about each character’s strengths, weaknesses, external struggles, and internal conflicts.
When we are first introduced to the scaffold, it is the beginning of the story. Hester Prynne, a beautiful young woman, has committed adultery and has a little baby, named Pearl. She has just been let out of prison after several months and now she and Pearl must stand on the scaffold in the middle of the town. This is her punishment—to stand there and be humiliated. It is the middle of the day and all the townspeople are gathered around; they are whispering, gossiping, and inwardly judging her because of her actions, though they all have sins of their own.
While on the scaffold, the Governor and the minister, Dimmesdale, repeatedly ask Hester to tell the name of her baby’s father, but she refuses, determined to keep it a secret and bear all the guilt herself. She is trying to protect the father even if it means she has to raise the child alone. Dimmesdale, meanwhile, is full of inner conflict. He knows he is the father of Pearl, but is too much of a coward to own up to it.
Chillingworth, Hester’s husband who was thought to have been dead, first enters the story while she stands on the scaffold. He sent her to America ahead of him and she hadn't heard from him in a very long time. Most people in the town thought that her husband must have surely died. From the first, his heart was full of evil and anger.
In the second scaffold scene, Dimmesdale is holding a midnight vigil on the scaffold. He does this as penance; he will not stand up there during the day, only when he is alone and no one is watching. Hester and Pearl see Dimmesdale, he calls to them, and they join him on the scaffold. Pearl asks him if he will join them on the scaffold tomorrow afternoon. He won't. Dimmesdale speaks of standing with them at Judgment Day, but he is too much of a coward to stand with them and admit his sin in front of the town.
While they are standing there, a bright meteor lights up the sky. It is astounding because it is the shape of an ‘A’ and it is red. It threatens to tell everyone what they have done, but everyone who saw it thinks it stands for angel. They believe the Governor died and became an angel. While the trio stands and stares at this miracle in the sky, Chillingworth comes and tells the minister he should not be up and out this late at night, and Dimmesdale is taken home. In this scene, Pearl is confused why Dimmesdale will never be seen with them in public. He is too much of a coward to confess in front of everyone, but he seems to think that standing on the scaffold at night will ease his guilt.
The next time Dimmesdale is on the scaffold, he is giving an important sermon. While he speaks, Hester and Pearl stand at the foot of the scaffold. When he has finished, he calls to them, and Pearl runs to him and hugs him. Then, he confesses and shows everyone the scarlet letter branded into his chest. A murmur ripples through the crowd as they stare in disbelief. They say Chillingworth did it to him, or it was just an object lesson showing that we all have sins. They could not believe that their holy and respected minister could have committed so terrible a sin. After he gave his sermon, he started to look weak and sickly again. He never got to run away with Hester, but he died without anything burdening his heart. Once Dimmesdale was gone, Chillingworth had no purpose in life, and he died not long after.
The third and final scaffold scene is important for the conclusion of the story. It is Dimmesdale’s moment of redemption from his secret sin and Pearl’s freedom from her role as a symbol of her parent’s guilt. Because Dimmesdale chose to tell everyone the truth, Chillingworth’s evil loses its power. In each of the scaffold scenes, the four main characters and the scarlet letter are present. Each scene is important for understanding the character development of each person; they provide structure for the novel and highlight themes.