Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850, many years after the demise of the New England Puritan society that his novel attacks. The novel follows the struggles of two sinners in the morally strict Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century. A young woman named Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale commit adultery. Hester's sin becomes publicly acknowledged when she has a child; she is forced face humiliation by standing on a scaffold in the center of town and must wear a scarlet letter "A" on her chest. At the same time, Dimmesdale suffers in secrecy and his guilt causes him endless misery. As the novel progresses, Hawthorne makes it clear that Dimmesdale's deceit is a much more severe form of punishment than that faced by Hester. Hawthorne's theme of honesty is supported by the events that take place on the scaffold and the symbolism of the scaffold itself.
The scaffold's first use is as the site of Hester Prynne's public humiliation. As an adulterer, she could by law have been killed, or have "felt the brand of a hot iron" (44) on her forehead. The town leaders mercifully give her a lesser punishment. In Puritan society, harsh punishments for Old Testament crimes were meant to catch the attention of potential wrongdoers and were rarely carried out as written. Hester is required to stand for several hours on the scaffold under the disapproving gaze of the entire town in the "too vivid light of day" (46). This ordeal is incredibly painful for Hester, yet it also marks the beginning of many years of personal growth and ultimately her healing process. The punishment is meant as much to rehabilitate Hester as it is to humiliate her, as the scaffold is held to be "an agent in the promotion of good citizenship" (48). Certain social mores ran deep in Puritan society, and by enforcing these, the magistrates feel they are doing a service to everyone. Eradicating sin from the community took group effort, and the scaffold is the most prominent symbol of this belief in penitence and regrowth.