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Literature: Nathaniel Hawthorne

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For thousands of years, humans have confronted their sinfulness. Some trust in
their religious faith to help with their struggles, some sin more to hide the
truth. But in the end, man must stand alone – as a sinful creature before God.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale has a difficult time
finding a place to relieve his sin. The Scarlet Letter’s scaffold is a place
for the protagonist to find peace with himself. That scaffold holds more
importance than just somewhere to condemn prisoners. It is the one place where
Dimmesdale felt liberated to say anything he wishes. In Puritan culture, the
scaffold is used to humiliate and chastise prisoners, be it witches at the
stake, thieves in the stocks, or a murderer hanging from the gallows. In The
Scarlet Letter, the scaffold was viewed more as a place of judgement. “Meagre
... was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders,
at the scaffold.” (p. 63) Indeed, it was used for castigation, but it was also
a place of trial: Hester’s trial was held at the scaffold. Standing upon the
platform opens oneself to God and to the world. “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.” (p.
186) Being on the scaffold puts oneself in a feeling of spiritual nakedness-
where you feel exposed to God, but cleansed. It was the one place where
Dimmesdale could find complete reconciliation. Witnessing such an event as
reconciliation is quite a fascinating experience. But without knowing what is
going on, it can also be quite horrifying. “Without any effort of his will, or
power to restrain himself, he [Dimmesdale] shrieked aloud: an outcry that went
pealing through the night, and was beaten back from one house to another, and
reverberated from the hills in the background; as if a company of devils,
detecting so much misery and terror in it, had made a plaything of the sound,
and were bandying it to and fro.” (pp. 178-9) Indeed, the townsfolk felt the
latter. “Drowsy slumberers mistook the cry either for something frightful in a
dream, or for the noise of witches.”(p. 179) They did not understand that this
was his reconciliation. Both Governor Bellingham and Mistress Hibbens had awoken
to the frightful sound and looked from their house in investigation. When they
perceived it was the Reverend in another of his midnight vigils rather than a
cry for help, they stumbled right back to their sleeping chambers. Along with
this inquisitive attention from onlookers, came the looks of disdain, from
Chillingworth and others. “Smiling on her [Hester]; a smile which -- across
the wide and bustling square, and through all the talk and laughter, and various
thoughts, moods, and interests of the crowd -- conveyed secret and fearful
meaning.” (p. 284) Chillingworth might of had other plans, but after hearing
what Dimmesdale had to say, Chillingworth thrust himself to his knees and admit
defeat. Although he was a sick man, Dimmesdale’s struggle was not for life,
but for repentance. In fact, his mental anguish of sin is what had caused his
illness. Dimmesdale would spend some nights scourging himself, just himself and
a whip-like punishment device. He felt it critical to admit his sin to himself
and to his community and brethren “... The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to
the dignified and venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, ... as knowing that
some deep life-matter -- which, if full of sin, ... was now to be laid open to
them.” (pp. 306) This act of declaring his sin is one step closer to
salvation. The scaffold provides a perfect venue to stand before God with
everything before oneself. Dimmesdale stood before God and his community and
chose to “sink upon the scaffold. Hester partly raised him, and supported his
head against her bosom. Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a
blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed."
(p. 308) On the scaffold, Dimmesdale openly brought his sin to light and felt
restored.
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