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The Scarlet Letter: Puritanism

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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



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