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Role Of Women In American Society

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The Scarlet Letter: An Analysis of Puritanism and Sin

The Scarlet Letter is a modern classic of American literature written about controversy and published with controversy. The main topic of the book, adultery, is written in a dark and sad way, as Hawthorne describes injustice, fate or predetermination and conscience ( Van Doren, 1998) . No other American novel of the time has such a controversial theme as Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter. The setting of Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is the seventeenth century Puritan New England. But Hawthorne’s writing for this book is heavily influenced by his own nineteenth century culture. Hawthorne strongly believed in Providence. Hawthorne was descended from the Puritan traditions, growing up in Salem, Massachusetts. One of his relatives, Judge Hawthorne, was a judge during the Salem Witch Trials. But Hawthorne was very critical of the Puritan ethic and demonstrated that through this book (Bloom, 1986). Hawthorne believed that anyone trying to interfere with natural law was trying to interfere with Providence . Hawthorne also believed than man was not wise enough to do God's work . (Colacurcio, 1985). According to Craven (1959), the idea of America as a New World and Americans as a new species of man came from the thinking that America was a sacred nation with a divine purpose. The journey back to the very beginning of the New World sets the stage for a journey back to purity - away from the sins of the current day. Hawthorne’s focus in the book on the Puritan ethic of the times, the effects of sins and the use of the supernatural all contribute to the many aspects of the novel and Hawthorne’s story and message.

Hawthorne used the Puritan ethic as his basis for right and wrong in The Scarlet Letter . However, his criticism of this ethic is obvious as he talks about the portraits in Governor Bellingham’s house. He describes them “as if hey were ghosts…. Gazing with harsh and intolerant criticisms at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men.” ( Bloom, 1986, p. ). Predestination, a belief of the

Puritan ethic that man’s fate is set at his birth is also very much a part of the characters of the book. The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, who committed adultery with Hester Prynne, uses the statement, “Were it God’s will” when he asks for Roger Chillingsworth’s advice on whether he should admit publicly to the adultery . Dimmesdale says “ I could be well content that my labours, and my sorrows, and my sins, and my pains, should shortly end with me, and what is earthly of them be buried in my grave, and the spiritual go with me to my eternal state, rather than you should put your skill to the proof on my behalf” p. Hester Prynne and The Reverend Dimmesdale’s affair becomes the focus of the 17th century community in New England. Hester is the “fallen” woman who is brought before the court of community opinion and justice. This Puritan community believes that all men have fallen and all men are sinners (Bloom, 1986). Hester is made to wear the scarlet letter, an A. This A represents adultery and it is Hester’s badge of dishonor and sin and a symbol of her failure. The scarlet letter is meant to affect the person wearing it by showing that they have sinned an are, in the end, sorry for their sin. The letter has the opposite effect on Hester, however. Dimmesdale also views the world as God’s creation and subject to God’s rules. When Hester asks Dimmesdale if he thinks the two of them will be together in eternity, Dimmesdale responds that only God knows that. ( Martin, 1983). Earlier in the book, Dimmesdale performs the Election Day Sermon, one of the most prestigious and honorable things a Puritan minister can do. Dimmesdale wanted to make sure he had completed all his public duties before confessing to the Puritan community that he too is an adulterer. He wanted to inspire the congregation with his preaching and to show them he was a good minister. In secret, he was a sinner, and adulterer. Near the end of the book, Dimmesdale asks Hester and Pearl, their child conceived by the adultery, to go to the scaffold with him. He tells Hester he needs her strength to be “guided by the will which God hath granted him” p. ( Martin, 1983). Dimmesdale thanks God and tells Hester he is doing God’s will. He then shows his own scarlet letter to the crowd. Pearl, the child of Dimmesdale and Hester conceived because of their adultery is viewed by the Puritan community and their ethics as God’s punishment to Hester ( Reynolds, 1990).

Hawthorne examines the effect of adultery and sin in general as a major theme of the book. The Puritan ethic and opinion in general of society abhorred sin. Hawthorne states “ Be true! Be True! Be True! Show freely to the world if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred” ( Bloom, 1986). Hawthorne believed that everyone sins and everyone also has good in them. Being true means being truthful that we all are sinners ( Gross, 1988).The Puritans, are however, very stern, very serious and not outwardly happy or joyous people. It is a though they walk through like with the weight of the world on their shoulders. They are not tolerant at all with people who do wrong or commit sin ( Martin, 1983). Hester’s A, meant to be a symbol of adultery and sin, does not mean that to her. Hester rejects the meaning of the A as adultery, shame and sin. Her beautiful sewing of the A on her clothing shows that she is not ashamed of the A and it is not a negative mark on her in her opinion ( Gross, 1988). Hester is affected however by her sin. But it is not because she is publicly punished. Hester stood upright and very ladylike on the scaffold wearing the Scarlet A. She did not hand her head in shame. She stands strong and almost seems to stand proud ( Martin, 1983). Hawthorne writes about Hester, “ She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into moral wilderness. Her intellect and her heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, despair, solitude. These had been her teachers-stern and wild ones-and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss” p. But Hester does suffer from her sin. She is isolated from others because of the scarlet letter and is alone, even among people. Also, in the Puritan way of thinking, Pearl, Hester’s daughter, is looked upon as God’s punishment to Hester because of the adultery. The community and Hester see Pearl as a curse. Pearl represents pleasure and a blessing to Hester too ( Reynolds, 1990). Dimmesdale, on the other hand, hides the A so that he can still be thought of as a great minister. For Dimmesdale, the A stands for ambition. He is more concerned about what people think of him and his career than he is about Hester and Pearl. (Gross, 1988). He refuses to admit to his adultery with Hester. Acting as Hester’s minister on the scaffold the first time, Dimmesdale begs Hester to tell the community who her lover is. He refuses to admit to the sin, but he stands there willing to allow Hester to name him as her lover. Being named as an adulterer would bring him shame, but also would bring him relief. He asks Hester to do for him what he can’t do for himself (Martin, 1993). Chillingsworth represents the worst of the Puritan community.

He represents evil. Pearl thinks Chillingsworth is the devil or Satan. Hester also sees him in a similar way. ( Bloom, 1986). Finally, Hawthorne states this about the effects of sin, “In our nature, however, there is a provision, alike, marvelous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures by it’s present torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it.” (Azuze, 2007, p.4).

Hawthorne frequently explores affairs of supernatural occurrences in The Scarlet Letter. He uses these occurrences to almost provide a sense of divinity and power to change the present without boundaries, as a contrasting view to that of the Puritan predestination. Hawthorne seems to incorporate the supernatural often in themes that are present throughout the book, even characters that may appear to be normal to the reader. Hawthorne often does quite a good job of subtly creating supernatural presence that one must look beyond what is in plain view to understand the full meaning and symbolism of his words. Others, however, are quite obvious, such as "Mistress Hibbins, a witch with a reputation of having a bad temper and being insane," (Gross, 35). While the presence of witches in early New England is questionable as to the validity of reality vs. obstinate accusations, Hawthorne seems to propose that in The Scarlet Letter, Mistress Hibbins is indeed a supernatural being of sorts, with no question of whether or not she really is a witch. In the story, Mistress Hibbins proves herself as supernatural when she reveals things that no normal person could know without being some kind of 'seer' or 'mystic.' Another character we can plainly see has some aspects of the supernatural to her is Pearl, Hester's daughter, the result of Hester's mistake and embarrassment, sorrow and almost regret. "The supernatural aspect of pearl makes her out to be what many of us would call monsters of beings from fairy tales... [She is considered] a 'devil-child' or and often referred to as an 'imp'," (Bloom, 74). It is clear that Pearl is not quite normal, to say the least. Pearl is tied to Hester's Scarlet Letter because "she is the product of the adultery," (36). Although physically Pearl is too young to know such about her creation, she seems to supernaturally be aware of her presence as the direct result of a sin, and this shows in her awkward speech that may look childish at first, but seems almost sinister at further analysis. "When Reverend Wilson asks Pearl, 'Who made thee?', she says that she was plucked by her mother off the wild rosebush that grows by the prison door" (37). Pearl comes to be "obsessed with the [scarlet] letter, always touching it and throwing flowers at it. She gets upset with her mother takes it off. She even makes her own out of seaweed" (36). The Letter itself provides a key sense of the supernatural in the story. The letter is just more than just a labeling, it is part of Hester. "As Hester returns from the town scaffold to the prison, the people of the town whisper that the Scarlet Letter gives off a strange gleam or glow" (Gross, 62). In time, the letter becomes not only a physical asset of Hester, it becomes part of her spiritually, constantly reminding her of her sin and her mistake, and that no matter what she does there will always be a stain. Dimmesdale has a connection with a scarlet letter too, though not quite as noticeable as that of Hester's. Dimmesdale, because he has kept his sin secret, is constantly being eaten away by his private sin, knowing what he must do to cure himself of the agony but not brave enough to do it. "A strange light in the sky illuminates the scaffold and its surroundings. Looking up, Dimmesdale seems to see in the sky a dull red light in the shape of an immense letter 'A'" (Bloom, 55). To some, this occurrence was nothing more than Dimmesdale seeing what he was framed to see based on his conscience. However, others think it may be the work of a divine being: "the meteor that lights up the sky is Hawthorne's way of interpreting natural phenomenon as a special message from God to his people" (Martin, 47). This only caused Dimmesdale more anguish which later induces him to carve his own scarlet letter into his chest, not able to resist the power of the guilt he is facing, yet hiding from everyone.

Hawthorne’s work The Scarlet Letter exemplifies the Puritan way of life and at times, shows how flawed it can be. His inclusion of the effects of sin from the perspective of the various characters and the use of symbolism through supernatural events and characters makes The Scarlet Letter the classic American novel it remains today.


Azuze, Ismaznizam J. ,( 2007). Conservative and Antirevolutionary Ideology in the Scarlet Letter: A New Historicist Analysis. GEMA Online Journal of Language Studies, Volume 7(1) 2007.

Bloom, Harold, (1986). Modern Critical Interpretations of Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

Colacurcio, Michael., Ed. (1985). New Essays on the Scarlet Letter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gross, Seymour, ( 1988). The Scarlet Letter. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Martin, Terence. ( 1983). Nathanial Hawthorne. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Reynolds, David. ( 1990). Hester Prynne. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

Van Doren, Mark, (1998). The Scarlet Letter Literary Companion, San Diego: Greenhaven Press.

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