Dictated and governed by a set of religious laws, Puritan society restricted those who lived within its limits to mundane, ordinary lives. The theocratic based community was forced to live under the harsh, and often strict, guidelines of the Puritan church. Any one sin could be punished severely, whether it is a minor infraction or an offense condemnable by death. A person could not speak out or show any emotion lest they were willing to face the consequences of their seemingly legitimate actions- creating a society where outward and inner truth could not, and therefore, did not, exist.
These brutal living conditions enforced by the Puritan community are depicted in the nineteenth century novel The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne uses a myriad of motifs to provide an insightful look into the harsh society. The scaffold, the most prominent motif in the novel, reflects the characters innermost thoughts and feelings to their fellow townspeople, and proves to be the only place in the Boston community in which unbridled- and often brutal- honesty can be found.
Hawthorne uses the scaffold as a tool through which he demonstrates the public revelation of one’s sins. Public penitence upon the scaffold was the only way society would acknowledge, and later forgive one for their sins. It is the first step on the long road to acceptance back into the strict, Puritan society. In the first of three scaffold scenes, Hester stands before the community, wearing a scarlet A.
For her punishment, she was required to stand for hours upon the scaffold, and the truth pertaining to her sin of adultery and her inner struggle were put on display, ‘…for, haughty as her demeanor was, she perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon’; (52). Already carrying the heavy burden of her guilt, Hester was forced to stand before her fellow townspeople to endure further suffering, causing unbearable anguish within her.
She was publicly acknowledging the fact that she had sinned against God, as well as against her community, causing shame to engulf every fiber of her being. Hester was admitting the dishonorable truth, which took time for even her to accept, to those she encountered everyday. The scaffold was the only place within the strict, theocratic society that she could reveal the harsh truth of her sin, and in turn, was the only place Hester could attain forgiveness for her wrongdoing.
Although the scaffold serves as a forum for public revelation and acceptance, it provides a sanctuary of personal truth as well. Upon its framework, a person may act freely as they wish, letting their desires and wishes become a reality. They are not shackled by the pressures of their lifestyle, and therefore may truly be themselves. In the second scaffold scene, Dimmesdale climbs the wooden steps and is joined by Hester and the product of their sin, Pearl. Putting aside their daily facades, they join hands to form an ‘electric chain.
As ‘they stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendor, as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets, and the daybreak that shall unite all who belong to one another’; (142), they could finally be together, as one. They let their inner-truths, that could not be displayed anywhere but on the scaffold, be revealed to themselves, as well as to each other. Each one of them carried some sort of sin, preventing them from achieving their ultimate goal- to be together. In addition, it is upon the scaffold that Pearl realizes the intimate bond between herself and Dimmesdale.
This personal revelation of truth could not have been uncovered with the absence of the scaffold. Ultimately, the scaffold not only revealed the truth without, but also within. In the final scaffold scene, Hawthorne intertwines the two previous revelations of truth into one. A person may reveal a hidden truth publicly, and at the same time reveal it to themselves, thus lifting the burden of the sin from their conscience. These two disclosures are in direct relation to the scaffold, for this is the only place within Puritan society in which the true essence of a person may be exposed.
Dimnmesdale is able to break the barriers placed upon him as the result of his sin as he climbs upon the scaffold to confess his secret to all, and: ‘For an instant, the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentrated on the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood, with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had one a victory. Then, down he sank, upon the scaffold! ‘; (232) Dimmesdale’s confession of his act of treacherous sin freed him from the restraints, which had held him back for so long.
Now, finally, his soul could be laid to rest, no longer forced to endure the torment that had torn him apart for many years. As his unexpected testimony shocked the spectators, Dimmesdale found something he had long forgotten- peace. The truth of his sin, and his ability to finally disclose it to the community he had sworn to uphold, set him free. And only through the presence of the scaffold, was public, as well as personal, revelation able to take place. The scaffold serves as the main focus of the novel around which the major events revolve.
It serves as a forum for public and personal revelation, while exposing the inner truths and desires of the characters that stand upon it. Not only does it provide the basis for these actions, but serves as the only place where the people of the community accept, and later forgive the sins and wrongdoings of the offenders. The scaffold is the most prominent motif in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, for the significant events that occur upon it lay the groundwork upon which the novel is constructed. Ultimately, no truths would have been uncovered without the presence of the scaffold, leaving a literary masterpiece in shambles.