Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Impression on Puritan Society Back in the day during colonial times, law and religion were inseparable. When a woman cheated on her husband, she had to be punished by law, even if her husband had been missing for two years and she had not thought that she would ever see him again. The heroine of the novel “Scarlet letter”, Hester, cheats on her husband. Her punishment is to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her clothing for the world to see.
The “A” stands for Adultery. She is punished via displaying her scarlet “A” for the rest of her life, which makes her constantly exposed the community’s negative judgment.
This single letter serves the purpose of separating Hester from the society in which she lives: the non-adulterers. Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of this book, had Puritan ancestors; one of his grandfathers was a judge during the Salem Witch trials. In the book he tries to make peace with the past by showing the weaknesses and transgressions of the Puritan society.
He seems unbiased and objective when he gives historical information on how this society functions and their daily lifestyles. But he obviously disapproves the Puritan theology. Hawthorne shows this conflict through his main character Hester.
Sympathetic and admiring, he demonstrates Hester’s good qualities, her compassion towards others, her kindness, which transform her into a heroine, as opposed to a sinner. At the same time, the mistreatment of Hester and her daughter have to face by Puritan society, opens up the weaknesses and suppressions of the system. Nathaniel Hawthorne describes Puritans as a stringent society where everyone must work together and abide by the rules or the whole system will collapse. During early years of colonization, many colonies did not survive due to the brutal conditions in the Americas.
However, this particular colony held its own and within a year built a successful town. Although his description of the Puritan life in general is unbiased and tolerant, he does not shy away from demonstrating his own dislike of their system and rules. Hawthorne uses powerful imagery to show the conflict between the strict, and at times unjust society versus the spirit of mercy and compassion. In Chapter one, he uses a prison door as a symbol to characterize the Puritan society. The prison door is described as having never known a “youthful era”.
It is made of iron and well worn. Yet the wild rose bush used to describe Hester, grows at the side of this door. It represents kindness and forgiveness to the prisoner who must face either a prison or death sentence. The iron door is everything that is unrelenting and strict about the Puritan society, where the rose bush represents grace and forgiveness. In Christianity, grace is “unmerited mercy”, which means forgiveness of sins that is undeserved. Since the prison is a place of sin, the wild rose bush is the unexpected symbol of redemption and hope.
Throughout the book the author shows his bias and disdain towards the Puritans as a society. The Puritans,” who excessed in their falsely godly demeanor, were nothing more than cannibals, seeking carnage to satisfy their cruel, odd human souls”, he so says in one of the chapters. Hawthorne dislikes the negative impact of this society on free spirit. He demonstrates this by showing the contrast between the stringent rules of the society versus the free and pure soul of Hester. As the novel progresses, the letter “A” transforms into a symbol of hope, instead of adultery and sin.
It represents her strength and independence. In the novel, wearing the letter cuts her off from the society, but at the same time frees her in other ways. She is able to observe the hypocritical and strict ways of the Puritans from the perspective of an outsider. She sees how the strict laws of the society make people submissive ,force them to hide their flaws and sins in attempt to avoid punishment. The Puritan society is harsh and at times overzealous. Nathaniel Hawthorne shows these strengths and weaknesses throughout the book by using descriptions of individual characters and the society as a whole.
He does not hesitate in demonstrating his dislikes through exploring the conflict between Hester and the Puritans. He shows some of society’s positive values of being united and hardworking. He underscores that Puritans believe in their own strict interpretation of the Law of God and want to follow it in every aspect of their lives. While at the same time, he obviates his indignation with obvious hypocrisies and the savagery of their internal values. He shows Puritan’s failure to be a united society in their shunning of Hester, instead of giving her support and guidance.
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