Puritanism in the Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne was created to display how life was during the Puritanism period in the seventeenth century. This novel has representations of the Puritan culture because it shows how the characters are expected to live by the word of God, specifically, and if anyone deterred, then they would be punished severely by an unforgiving society. In the Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne used the main principles, hypocrisy in the Puritan culture, punishment, and predestination to display the Puritan beliefs in the novel.
How Are The Puritans Portrayed in The Scarlet Letter
Hawthorne displayed the hypocrisy that occurred during the Puritan period through Hester Prynne, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth. Even though adultery is a sin, she didn’t necessarily believe it was a sin because she and her husband were not in love (Humphreys). Dimmesdale is a minister who people look up to and who they consider to be sinless. He held up that image by keeping his sin a secret. Even though he is supposed to be the person who shows people how to live strictly by the word of God, he committed the sin anyway. “The fact that Chillingworth takes pleasure in his patient’s discomfort while at the same time claiming to be a physician of the highest caliber makes Chillingworth a hypocrite” (Humphreys). Chillingworth made a vow to take care of his patient’s physical and mental health, but instead, he enjoys their distress. Besides the examples previously stated, Hawthorne, displays the hypocrisy that is seen within the Puritan culture which shows that maybe Puritans are not that “pure” after all.
How it works
During the Puritan period, an individual was meant to live strictly by the word of God. People were expected to live righteously to set a good example for those around them, in hopes of persuading others to change their sinful ways. One of the Puritan’s main cultural beliefs was that males were considered dominant, held positions of power, and were superior to women. Also, religion and political views were intertwined which is shown in this novel. For example, the novel stated, “religion and law were almost identical” (Hawthorne 43).
Law and religion during the Puritan period coincided with one another because Puritan religion is the foundation on which the laws were based (Maclean). Puritan religious beliefs have influenced their judicial system because people believe that God is the ruler of the land. Therefore, it would only make sense to create the laws and have them structured around their religion. This would explain why Governor Bellingham and John Wilson, who is the elderly clergyman of the town, oversaw Hester Prynne’s punishment (Hawthorne 58). “In The Scarlet Letter, those two branches of the government are represented by Mr. Roger Wilson (Church) and Governor Bellingham (State). The rules governing the Puritans came from the Bible, a source of spiritual and ethical standards” (Cliffnotes).
The strict punishment was displayed through the character, Hester Prynne, and how she was treated throughout the novel. At the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne was sent to prison because she committed adultery, which was a sin and looked down upon by everyone around her. When she was released from prison, she emerged with a baby on her hip and an “A” embroidered on her gown. The townspeople didn’t appreciate that she was still beautiful with the letter “A” on her chest because Hester had made it so beautifully. One lady even suggested ripping that letter off Hester’s gown and replacing it with one made from rags, so the ugliness of the letter would match the ugliness of the sin she committed (Hawthorne 48). As a form of embarrassment and punishment, Hester was made to stand in the middle of the marketplace on a scaffold (49).
As a result of Hester’s sin, Pearl was shamed and looked down on as well. For example, while Hester was standing on the scaffold with Pearl, one would assume that she had some resemblance to the Virgin Mary. However, since Pearl was created in sin, the townspeople believed that Hester and her baby made the world a darker place (Hawthorne 49). This shows that even though Hester finished her time in prison, she was still publicly shamed, and her daughter received some of the same scorn as well.
Everyone knew not to commit a sin, and if they did, they attempted to hide it. The confinement and unforgiveness of the town were too tough for most people to endure. For example, the public humiliation and punishment that Hester and Pearl received pushed Dimmesdale, Hester’s lover, and Pearl’s father, to silence and fear of admitting his contribution to the sin. However, he eventually admitted to everyone what he had done and that he should have stood on the scaffold with Hester (Hawthorne 249). As usual during the Puritan period, instead of being scolded and hated by the public, the townspeople gave excuses as to why he might have done it, instead of holding him accountable (253). Women were not to do certain things, such as step outside of their marriage, so that would explain why peoples’ reactions were different to Dimmesdale’s confession than to Hester’s.
At this time punishment was not limited to physical or earthly beings. It was taught that whatever was done on earth can follow in spirit afterward. Hester understood that even if she took the letter A off her chest, nothing would change. She would always be looked at as an adulterer even after death in the eyes of God. Hawthorne explained that over her grave, her sin would be the only thing that she would be remembered by (72). “On a field, sable, the letter A, gules” (Hawthorne 260), was written at the end of the story to demonstrate just how unforgiving the Puritans were. Even after death, on her headstone, the letter A was engraved, so no one would ever forget what she had done.
Predestination means that God has already chosen who will be saved and who will not be saved. In Dimmesdale’s case, even though he committed a sin, along with Hester, he still believed that everything done was God’s will. (Hawthorne 112). Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, believed that he should not forgive Hester or Dimmesdale for their wrongdoings. Hester was already predestined to sin and commit adultery, so it would not have made a difference if he decided to forgive either of them or not. As Chillingworth stated, “It is not granted me to pardon. I have no such power thou tellest me of…. It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may” (164). God already knew the outcomes of Chillingworth, Dimmesdale, and Hester long before the initial sin was even committed.
Puritan Values in The Scarlet Letter
In conclusion, Hawthorne used his novel to demonstrate the Puritan Culture. Hester Prynne’s punishment demonstrated how strict the elite was to those who broke the law and committed sins since the justice system and religion went hand-and-hand. This was also a testament to the values and relentlessly devout faith that society has to its religious beliefs. In addition, it displays the adamant idea that men have superiority when Dimmesdale is looked over persistently for committing the same act. Her punishment was administered to her by males in government and ministry positions, as only males were able to have those positions of power. The Puritan culture, justice system, and religious beliefs were displayed and exemplified throughout the Scarlet Letter.