A trim, clean novel, devoid of a single superfluous word, The Scarlet Letter is organized around three similar episodes. At the beginning, the end, and exactly in the middle, Hawthorne sets the scene in the market place and puts the scaffold at center stage. These three episodes build progressively, with each repetition adding new features, as though Hawthorne is allowing his characters several tries to get their performance right: These characters are the public, Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth.
The first episode occurs in chapters two and three. Hester and baby Pearl, amid a throng of onlookers in the market place, are displayed upon the scaffold. The public is an important feature to the scene, for by searching out “iniquity” (57) and bringing it before everyone’s view, the townspeople are punishing Hester with shame and implicitly asserting that the “question of guilt, passion, and anguish” (60) needs to be answered by the community, not the individual. Meanwhile, Hester not only endures the scrutiny but also appears somewhat immune to it, for when the preacher turns her sin into an occasion for a thunderous sermon, his voice has no effect on her (64). Thus, even though Hester is supposed to be shamed, she remains private and individual and, going beyond the crowd, places her trust directly in her “heavenly Father” (63). Although Hester’s awareness deepens throughout the novel, her “wondrous strength and generosity” (63) remain constant to the end. Pearl makes up the third player of the scene. While she blinks “in the unadulterated sunshine” (60) – which is a very suggestive description – she nonetheless stands as the living emblem of sin. When Dimmesdale speaks, she reaches for him (62), and this reaching, in essence, is a common element of all three of the scaffold episodes, which progresses from a reach, to a touch, to a kiss. Dimmesdale stands above the accused and fails to take his rightful place. He meets neither the demand of the community nor the desire of Pearl. Hester, through her silence, allows him to continue with his hypocrisy. Her reticence reaffirms both her stance toward the public’s cry for shame and also her spirit of independence, as though she believes that only Dimmesdale himself can be the arbiter of his own behavior and conscious. Ironically, he is unlike her, so he ends up suffering with private guilt, because he is more like the community in believing that “iniquity” ought to be publicly exposed. Furthermore, his emblem – which gets more intensely revealed in each episode – is now only suggested by the hand that he places upon his heart. Chillingworth is last crucial player. Just as Dimmesdale’s true position is veiled to the public (and the reader) in this scene, Chillingworth hides his identity. Only Hester possesses complete knowledge. In a sense, she is married to both men, and to complete their public performance rightly, they all need to get onto the scaffold and reveal their proper relations. Each subsequent episode progresses toward fulfilling this event. (Of course, other characters, namely the Indian and Mistress Hibbons, add another layer of meaning to this repeated scene, especially since it involves scapegoating and marginalization.)
In chapter twelve, the center of the novel, a suffering Dimmesdale is driven to the market place out of a sense of guilt, and he mounts the scaffold by himself – not with Hester and Pearl. He shrieks, for the interior of his heart bids him to unburden himself of his hypocrisy and “crime,” to unveil it for public scrutiny, but the town does “not awake” (130). Mistress Hibbons silently notices, and Reverend Wilson walks sluggishly by, but the public remains absent from the scene, and he thinks about waiting until morning (132). Thus, before Hester and Pearl arrive and join him upon the scaffold, the performance has already gone awry. First, Dimmesdale, who is too self-absorbed in his own suffering, stepped upon the stage without his fellow players. Second, there is no audience to give the performance meaning, so there is guilt but no shame. Pearl recognizes the problem when she asks, “Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, to-morrow noontide?” (134). He declines, because “all the dread of public exposure” returned (134), and he says they will stand together before God (134), as though they will form a family in heaven. Ironically, while Hester finds strength in her direct, unmediated experience with God, allowing Him to be her primary judge, Dimmesdale is now using God as an excuse to avoid the public, as though he has the rhetoric but not the import, for he ought to know “the judgment-seat” of God is much more terrible, penetrating, and significant than the community’s temporal castigation. The illuminated heavens (a rich, complicated symbol) seem to respond to Dimmesdale. Also, Pearl acknowledges Dimmesdale, by holding his hand, but she withdraws it from him (135). Chillingworth appears, but he remains as deceptive as usual. While several crucial elements are missing for the proper performance, Hawthorne shows the reader this scene to underscore its failings and to create an expectation for the final attempt. In order to retain his organization, Hawthorne needs to enact another scene – the death of Governor Winthrop – simultaneously in the background. This background scene provides the reason for Hester and Pearl’s appearance and also for Chillingworth’s. Hawthorne employs this layering of scenes with complete mastery. Not only is there a symbolic alteration in the town’s power, and not only do the characters move dimensionally through time and place, but also Pearl gains knowledge of the “black man” at Winthrop’s home, and also Hester and Chillingworth’s possible interaction – or avoided interaction – at the death scene is never mentioned. While the death scene seems vitally important, Hawthorne nonetheless regulates it to the background, in order to bring the scaffold scene front and center.
The third performance takes place in chapter twenty-three. (In another organizational move, Hawthorne seems to have buffered the scaffold scenes from the ends by a pair of thin chapters: one and twenty-four). Once again, he places “the woman of the scarlet letter in the market-place!” (214) Now, the crowd is present. Interestingly, after Dimmesdale speaks, and all the major characters are in the crowd, Dimmesdale calls the Hester and Pearle to himself. All three, together, ascend the scaffold – with Chillingworth following, “as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene” (219). With everyone in his proper place at last, the performance is perfected. Pearl claims her father with a kiss, freeing herself from doing “battle with the world”; and “towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled” (222). Hester shares her shame, supports Dimmesdale, and finally loses the hope of marrying him, on earth or in heaven. With his death, she is allowed to go on in her isolation, meeting people at the level of charity but still retaining her independence. Dimmesdale reveals his own scarlet letter and exposes himself to the crowd; however, still with a tinge of self-absorption, he rejects the possibility of marriage in heaven (which was his earlier excuse to escape the public gaze), and he thrusts some of the guilt upon Chillingworth (221). Now vanquished upon the stage, Chillingworth has nothing left to do but die, yet proving that he is not entirely evil, he leaves a “very considerable amount of property” to Pearl (225).
Ironically, the public, whose gaze is necessary to legitimize and define the characters’ performances, has mixed reviews. Despite their crucial role, they don’t know exactly what they saw. Thus, Hawthorne says, “the reader may choose” (223), but not just among the theories regarding what appeared on Dimmesdale’s chest. The reader must also choose how to interpret the performance, for not only do the characters act separately; they also work together – and their proper roles seem to be revealed through their several attempts to get them right.