Puritans and the Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne was not a Puritan, but he had deep bonds back to this religion, and had ancestors that were in charge of the Salem Witch Trials, a fact that Hawthorne always felt remorse for. In choosing this time period as the setting for The Scarlet Letter, a classic story of love, betrayal and religion, he showcased both the weakness and strengths of this time period and religion.

Like the Pilgrims, the Puritans were from England, and were dissatisfied with the church reform of England. So in 1630, after much persecution, the Puritans set out for America. When they arrived in America they established the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a harbor for Puritans to live and be safe while practicing the Puritan faith. They lived a strict, stern life but were free to worship unlike they were in England.

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They were strict Calvinists, which means they believed that God was all powerful and had chosen a few people called “the elect” for salvation (Puritans). The Puritans believed that humankind was “utterly dependent upon God for salvation... They were [Christians] who regarded humans as sinners, unwilling and unable to meet the demands, or to enjoy the fellowship, of a righteous God apart from God's gracious initiative” (Puritanism). 

Throughout the novel, Hawthorne's viewpoint of this society doesn’t seem to show except in a few places in the novel; he usually seems to hold an unbiased, straightforward presentation of this time period. He does comment on the harshness and dreariness of the Puritans however, when Hester is in the Governor’s hall, “All were characterized by the sternness and severity which old portraits so invariably put on; as if they were the ghosts, rather than the pictures, of departed worthies, and were gazing with harsh and intolerant criticism at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men” (79).

However he also seems to have a certain amount of respect for his ancestors. While talking about his first ancestor, the General, in the Introduction of the Scarlet Letter, he comments on the “moral quality” of the General, and that “He had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil” (7). Hawthorne, while being aware of the harshness and cruelty of his ancestors, recognizes the strengths of their faith, their perseverance, and moral qualities.

The Puritans, while being famous for their strict codes and morals, were also well known for their forms of punishment on sinners- whose punishments and crimes were decided strictly by the church. In the novel, Hester was forced to wear a red A for adultery. In Puritans times, murders were often branded with the letter M, R for rouge, or B for burglar. Usually these brands were on the skin, and were often followed with execution (Cox).

Hester was merely saved because it was believed her husband was dead. However, as Hawthorne shows, this wasn’t enough for the women of the colony. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead” (38). Another woman in the crowd who is one of the harshest critics, comments on the fact that Hester was getting a lesser punishment, even though their law called for harsher punishments, according to their interpretation of the Bible. “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray”(39). 

Another common type of punishment that was described in the Scarlet Letter was the pillory, or stretch neck, was called the essence of punishment in England, and was placed in the main squares of towns in the Puritan colonies. The device was described by Hawthorne as “an instrument of discipline so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp and thus hold it up to public gaze..there can be no outrage me thinks..more flagrant that to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame” (qtd in Cox). Often the pillory was used in a package of punishment along with the branding.

The Puritans were ruthless and harsh in their attempt to punish the sins of the colonists, and to make examples of them, and while branding, pillory, and maiming may shock us but for the Puritans “the sight of a man lopped of his ears...or seared with a brand or great gash on his cheek could not affect the stout stomachs that cheerfully and eagerly gathered around the bloody whipping-post and gallows” (qtd. in Cox). The Puritans were ruthless and cruel in their treatment of crimes, believing that it was their religious right to enact these punishments (Cox).

Hawthorne, by choosing the Puritan time period as the background for The Scarlet Letter, provided an interesting look into that time and how different they handled sins. While not only serving as a historical background and intriguing setting, it also showed the way wrongdoings are handled in the past, and how some people choose to reveal their sins and live with them, like Hester, and are punished. And those who hide it continue on- like Dimmesdale. He almost seems to be warning against this way of life. The Scarlet Letter will continue to be a peek back into time, and a look into the interesting, and often harsh world of the Puritans. 



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