Three Pillory Scenes in the Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is artistically one of the tightest books of fiction ever written (with the concomitant virtues and limitations of such a definition). While there are many artistic features of this book which could stand up to the closest critical scrutiny, the above question necessitates a consideration of only one of them-namely, the placing and significance of the three pillory scenes in The Scarlet Letter‘. Artistically (that is, in terms of the general symmetry of the narrative of the book) and dramatically, these three scenes are at the very core of Hawthorne’s imagination in the book.
Thus, the first pillory scene occurs in the first two chapters of the book when the entire Puritan settlement of Boston has turned out in broad daylight to witness Hester Prynne’s punishment as a result of her moral as well as legal lapse. At this juncture, Arthur Dimmesdale sits in the balcony of a structure overlooking the town-square, in which the pillory is situated. Arthur is, at this stage, sitting in company of the would-be judges and dignitaries of this Puritan settlement. Conversely, Roger Chillingworth stands anonymous in the crowd which has turned out to watch Hester’s public shame on this day. Chillingworth (or Prynne, as he was presumably called in Europe) stands in the company of a Red Indian who has come to collect a ransom for releasing him to the community of Boston-as if to emphasize Chillingworth’s affinity with a moral outsider (the Red Indian) as well as Chillingworth’s low status in this community (indeed, his anonymity) at this stage.
Hester’s public shame, symbolised in the presence of the vivid Scarlet Letter on her bosom and the baby Pearl in her arms, contrasts sharply with Dimmesdale’s apparently respectable position (and his private, anonymous shame) in this community as well as with Chillingworth’s apparent lack of status in this community (but he has central importance in the unfolding of this “tale of human frailty and woe”). Thus, Dimmesdale’s apparent status at this stage in the proceedings contrasts with Hester’s unbecoming but temporary elevation to status as a Public Sinner, as well as with Roger Chillingworth’s apparent lack of status, but actually his significance in the plot is hinted at, in that Hester reacts sharply when she recognizes him in that crowd. As he looks up, Chillingworth, apparently, can see both Hester (on the pillory) and Dimmesdale (on the balcony), and his (Chillingworth’s) physical position at this stage, in the narrative defines his symbolical-psychological role in the tale as a voyeur as an unnatural prier into the private lives of others. Hawthorne’s imagination working at lever pitch here, invests Chillingworth with all his concentrated art to bring out the voyeuristic aspect, especially, of Puritanism. Converse Dimmesdale, from his vantage position of physical elevation, look down upon Hester as well as the crowd (which then include his yet unknown but future tormentor).
Dimmesdale’s physical position, then, seems to define his symbolical-psychological role in the narrative. He, too, is a spectator of a sinner’s Tribulation although he is tied in with this sinner in a way unknown to the general community of Boston at the time. He is a passive (but not inwardly uninterested) watcher of Hester’s shame, and although his function in the tale is only hinted at, at this stage, as Chillingworth’s was, we are seized of his presence this early in the story. Hester herself occupies a middle ground, between the two extremes of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, as it were, through her own positioning in this Paysage Moralise (as indeed, she does, right through the story). The first pillory scene, then, sets up a moral psychological-typological pattern around the simple symbol of the pillory in a Puritan town-square. The stage is set now, as it were.
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The second pillory scene occurs exactly midway through this triumph of architectonics–that is, in chapter XII of a book of twenty-four chapters, as if Hawthorne were adhering closely to the Aristotelian precept of a beginning, a middle, and an end. The scene occupies a midway in the moral-psychological scheme of this book. Hester Prynne has already been halfway through to her regeneration as a nurse who visits the dying Governor Winthrop at this stage in the story : Pearl is about seven years old. On the other hand, Dimmesdale himself is halfway on his own way to regeneration. He is already torturing himself through self-mortification and there is the added, but not yet obvious, irritant of Chilling worth, and these two factors make his conscience tingle. Thus, he is compelled by an inner necessity, as it were, to visit the pillory-the scene of his secret inamorata Hester’s earlier public shame in the dead of night (which, preternaturally, is going to shine in the glow of a bright light soon), as if to expiate his sin by his attempt to join Hester in her public shame.
However, he is not yet fully ready for a public admission of his sin, and hence, the scene is enacted in the dead of a significant night for the community (Governor Winthrop dies during it). Now Hester and Pearl, on their way home from the dead Governor Winthrop’s house, are invited by Dimmesdale (as if in a stage-rehearsal for the actual thing to stand with him on the pillory, and soon, Chillingworth as if piloted by fate) comes and stands below the pillory, gazing at this threesome in the glow of a strange night. This time, although he is behaving as if in a trance, Arthur Dimmesdale initiates the joining of himself Hester and Pearl on the pillory (the symbol of public acknowledgement of sin in the book), and this anticipates the actual consummation of the action, when Dimmesdale, now aglow with an inner sense of fulfillment, invites Hester and Pearl to climb up on the pillory to stand beside him – this time, in the actual daylight, which repeats and re-echoes the beginning of the tale, Chillingworth is again separated from the threesome both in the second pillory scene and the third pillory scene. This physical positioning puts a seal on his exclusion from the band of the three on the pillory in both these scenes. In the second pillory scene, Chillingworth stands below the pillory, while Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearl stand on it, in the preternatural night, and in a scene suffused with a sense of a heightened reality, if yet of actual unreality.
In the third pillory scene, the crowd seems to effectively separate Chillingworth from the threesome on the pillory, thus enabling Dimmesdale to “escape” Chillingworth’s vindictive designs through a triumphal death. Again, each pillory scene marks an important public event. The first pillory scene enacts the significance that the 17th century Puritans attached to purity in sexual relations and the punishment through public shame that attended the aberrant; the second pillory scene also records the death of Governor Winthrop, and the third pillory scene occurs, ambiguously, on the Election Day (public election, i.e. political? or private, i.e. religious and personal ?).
Thus, Hawthorne brings to bear profound and massive associations of plot, character, symbol and event to converge around each one of the three pillory scenes in The Scarlet Letter. These three scenes, in their own way, then, are interrelated with each other to demonstrate a story of sin, damnation, and regeneration. The structure and architectonics of The Scarlet Letter, in other words, contribute toward the deepening and enrichment of its psychology, plot, and characterization. Hawthorne, thus, exploited his own considerable artistic resources in this, his finest, long work, to fuse disparate elements of his art in the service of a profound idea-the artistic recreation and criticism of a significant epoch in the American cultural history.
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