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Puritanism In The Scarlet Letter
Puritanism In The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne expresses the aspects of relationships,
religion, community, discipline and punishment in the puritan community of 17th century
Relationships between men and women were very constrained and that is what
made adultery such a bad sin in the eyes of everyone in the community. Religion seemed
to govern over all, people would look up to reverends and the community believed that
fate was their destiny. Public discipline and punishment were used to discourage
everyone else from committing the same crime or sin as the offending criminal did.
The community was to follow the beliefs of god and to do their duties the best they
could, yet were there to criticize and punish all who disobeyed the religion or laws. In
17th century Boston every thing was very strict and everyone was expected to follow the
laws, which makes Hester's sin such an excellent example of the beliefs of that time
period. The first scaffold scene is very important because the scene sums up the beliefs of
the general public at that time, and gives a prospective of what Hester Prynne must deal
with. In the beginning of chapter two the scene is described as it could have betokened
nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit,(47) showing that the
whole town was there for a ruthless public punishment. The crowd was not there for an
execution though, but there for a public punishment of Hester Prynne who had committed
adultery. A townsman describes Hester's punishment to a stranger as, they have doomed
Mistress Prynne to stand only a space of three hours on the platform of the pillory, and
then thereafter, for the remainder of her natural life, to wear a mark of shame upon her
bosom.(58) This scene shows the weight of values and morals upon society in the 17th
century and how public punishment was not only used as punishment but as a way to
discourage others from committing the same crime. The community was key in this
punishment because it helped alienate Hester and further her pain. The punishment
brings forth Hester's underlying pain, [Hester] sent forth a cry she turned her eyes
downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that
the infant and the shame were real.(55) This pain only breaks surface once, yet
throughout the whole story Hester must deal with the shame and emotional pain of the
scarlet letter. The stranger sums it up best with the quotation, Thus she will be a living
sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her tombstone.
Since religion was such a key part of their lives, anyone who did disobey their god
was looked down upon. What made religion ironic in this story was how everyone looked
up to a reverend that had committed the same sin as someone they looked down upon
severely. Dimmesdale says, before the judgment-seat, thy mother, and thou, and I, must
stand together! But daylight of this world shall not see our meeting!(134) The reverend
knows his sin and wants be punished with Hester and Pearl, yet not until what he calls
judgement day. In the 17th century, Puritans believed that there was a stern God who
had decreed in advance the fate of each person for all time. Therefore, there was not
much people felt they could do to become a better person in God's eyes but do his biding
with their jobs. To increase their chances of getting to go to heaven the townspeople
would often get one step closer to God by getting close to a religious leader, which was
bad for Arthur Dimmesdale who was probably farther away from God than everyone else
because of his sin. Relationships were looked upon as something sacred and a woman
should be loyal to her husband. Once married it was considered a horrible offense if you
were un-loyal to your spouse.
They have not been bold to put force the extremity of our righteous law against
her. The penalty therefor is death.(58) A townsman explains that the penalty is death for
her crime (showing the harshness of the 17th century), yet that the other party in the
affair must have played a strong role in tempting her, so they just sentenced her to the
letter on her chest and three hours on the scaffold.
The stranger shows how most people reacted when only seeing one of the guilty
two parties up on the scaffold, it irks me, nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity
should not, at least, stand on the scaffold by her side. Women still did not have that
many rights, so anything Hester said in her defense would have just have been ignored.
Relationships were not supposed to be broken unless by divorce, even if the husband was
at the bottom of the sea-where Hester's husband was believed to be.
Through relationships, religion, community, discipline and punishment the reader
can get a better understanding of what was expected of towns people in the 17th century.
The Scarlet Letter shows the pain and suffering a woman went through when she broke
her marriage, and disobeyed her religion. She then was sentenced to a public punishment
to be humiliated, tormented, and alienated by the community around her. The fate driven
religious society in 17th century Boston would not accept sin of any kind and the
punishment for adultery was death. Instead, the community branded Hester Prynne with
the letter A for the rest of her life and made her stand in front of the whole community
as an example for everyone that sin and corruption was not accepted in their society.
The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Penguin Putnam Inc. NY, NY, 1999.
The Americans, Danzer, Gerald A. McDougal Littell Company. Dallas, Texas, 1999.
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