Public penitence is no longer widely used as punishment in today's western society. However, back in Puritan society, it was in some ways considered worse than death. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the criminals of the law be it governmental or religious, were taken in sight of all onto the scaffold to publicly display their wrongdoing. Just as the scaffold is the center of the town, it is also the center of the story. The scenes that take place at the scaffold are the most important events in the story; they establish the environment for the story and are pivotal to the plot.
The first action at the scaffold is in chapter two; this sets the background for the whole novel. At the beginning of the chapter, we see the Puritan society standing, waiting for Hester Prynne to come out of the jail and make her trip to the scaffold.
The coarseness of the society is illustrated by this scene, in which Hester's fellow citizens are awaiting her. A few of the women are discussing their disagreement with her punishment, one saying, "'this woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die'" (49). These gossiping women, despite their small roles, tell the readers of the general Puritan belief of law and order. This scene explains Hester Prynne's humble position in the society and graphically describes the humiliation she suffers. As Hester remains on the scaffold her husband, Roger Chillingworth, and her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, are standing nearby. Through this scene, Hawthorne hints to us that they are very important characters, and will be developed throughout the novel. Chillingworth is introduced to us as a stranger through "the eyes of Hester Prynne [which] were fastened on his" (57). The importance of Arthur Dimmesdale is...