Hypocrisy of the Puritans “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward (New American Bible Matthew 6:16). ” The Puritans that settled into Massachusetts in the seventeenth century were some of the most religious people to be seen throughout History. Prior to landing in America they had already abandoned two countries in order to “purify,” their Puritan religion and find a place where they could be guided by faith alone.
The basis of Puritanism was predestination, the belief that one was already predestined to go to heaven or hell. The Bible clearly states that hypocrites have already received their reward, meaning they will most likely go to hell. Certainly the Puritans in Massachusetts would look down upon such people, who appear gloomy to display their sacrifices to others, yet the most holy Puritans in Massachusetts were the biggest hypocrites of them all.
A person looking to critically analyze literature has many different options and angles he or she could take.
One of these is historical, in which the critic attempts to explain or analyze the novel through the events of the time period of the book or the time period of the novel. Influenced by stories of the Salem Witch Trials and Anne Hutchinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne presented his ideas of religion in the time period the novel was written. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Puritan hypocrisy is a theme that prominently seen throughout the novel through actions and beliefs of the Puritan community.
One of the best examples of Puritan hypocrisy occurs in the very last line of the novel, the message engraved into Hester and Dimmesdale’s gravestone, “On a field, sable, the letter A, gules,” (Hawthorne 203). On a black field, the letter “A” is boldly red. The irony is in the fact that the Puritan’s describe their community as a field of black. The teachings of the bible state that Jesus Christ is the “Light of the World,” (Gillis), so why would a faithful people ever call themselves a community without light?
In fact the royal red of the scarlet letter remains true, and at the end of the novel its meaning changes from a symbol of shame to a symbol of awe and goodness to be revered. In a truly holy setting, the congregation should be a royal color and the stains should have been sable. Hawthorne chose to represent the congregation the way he did not only to symbolize the hypocrisy, but also to show the truth behind it. The truth is that along with not being as righteous as the people said they were, the actual town of Boston, where the story takes place, was not as perfect as it was intended to be.
The first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, intended for the colony to be “A city upon a hill,” (Hall). If that was so, it was pretty hypocritical that the first thing they did was to build a place to punish people for wrongdoing. In the perfect society why would there even need to be a jail? The Puritans knew that they were not even close to being perfect, and that’s why they sealed their new prison with a heavy oak door “studded with iron spikes. ” (Hawthorne 35). It was a symbol that separated the supposedly perfect society from those who didn’t conform.
Sometimes the people who were locked up were even trying to improve the colonies cult-like attitude, like Anne Hutchinson, and all they managed to do was confirm it. This cult-like attitude came in part from the fact that everybody was hiding something. A point that is brought up many times by Dimmesdale is the idea that a hidden sin is much worse than one that is publicly displayed (Bloom). At first this may seem to be in disagreement with the bible in that hypocrites show the effect the sin has on them, and truly righteous people hold back their sins.
It is the other way around. Ever since Hester put the letter on her chest she felt no intense feelings of guilt or repentance, in other words she was showing her sin and hiding her feelings. The congregation also all had sins, yet they chose to hide them and walk around showing their feelings. That is why they are represented in the first chapter as “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray,” (Hawthorne 35). They were the hypocrites that neglected their appearance, and as the Bible stated, had already received their reward.
Even though Dimmesdale knew all of this, he couldn’t express his sins without scarring himself and tearing off his shirt. Really, the two sinners in the community were the most righteous people in the terms of the religion that dictated everything the community did. What the Catholic religion says that the people are supposed to do, is forgive (Gillis). The townspeople, especially the women, did the exact opposite. They scorned and mocked Hester for what she had done and wish that her punishment were increasingly worse.
On the day when the beadle called out Hester’s permanent punishment the women wish that she had gotten a harsher sentence, at least being branded on her forehead or even killed. They never forgave Hester and the staring and isolation continued even seven years later (Hawthorne 190). They talked about killing a human being for bringing a little shame to the community, while in the Ten Commandments, the laws that govern the Catholic religion, it is bluntly stated that killing of any kind is a grave sin (Gillis). The killing of any impure person in the Puritan society was therefore an ultimate hypocrisy.
The death of Hester would also leave Pearl, a very important figure, without any hypocritical, symbolic purpose. A baby born anywhere in the world is a symbol of new life and joy. In the Catholic religion, a newborn also represents a being free of all sin, once baptized. An innocent little cherub swaddled in white garments (Gillis). From a Puritan standpoint a new baby should have been the purest of them all and they should have celebrated every successful birth, as there was a high chance of infant mortality in the colonies where there were no specialized doctors.
Instead, Pearl was never allowed to be baptized and her original sin was never lifted, therefore the newborn was a symbol of sin and adultery. The corrupt society made Hester carry Pearl around like a living, breathing scarlet letter. From the beginning of her life Pearl was doomed, no chance of being a proper Puritan girl, because she was a symbol of such evil. To the people of Boston, she was the devil incarnate, born out of an adulterous affair. She would be excluded her whole life and would forever be an outcast. The supposedly ever-forgiving Puritans would never forgive a child because of the actions of her mother.
Pearl would be shut out of the church, and because of that, shut out of the community. It has been shown that throughout history, hard times are associated with a stronger belief in religion. It is also true that if one did not follow closely with the popular religion, they would be persecuted. That is a big reason why the Puritans left in the first place, they did not agree with the religious views of their country. England was not tolerant and the Puritans could not practice the religion that they thought to be better (Wilson).
Why then, when the Puritans settled into a colony where they could do anything, did they choose to impose a strict zero-tolerance with religion, and punish anybody that did not accord? It is because they were hypocrites. Why should Pearl’s exclusion from the church have anything to do with her position in the town of Boston? She was being taught the same lessons from the same religion as everybody else yet she was still ostracized. Once the Puritans made up their minds, there was no changing them. The most holy people are the ones that see the good in anybody they meet.
They know that every person has some good inside of them and they try to see it out. The Puritans in The Scarlet Letter did not do that. They automatically assumed one thing and stuck with it. Sometimes it was bad, in the case of Mistress Hibbons, who was going to be executed as a witch because the town thought she was a little nutty. Sometimes they automatically thought someone was good, as was the case of Dimmesdale. He had tried multiple times to get Hester to admit that he was Pearl’s father and even tried multiple times to admit to his sin publicly, yet the people would not listen.
They kept their beliefs through every sermon he had, even as he pleaded his guilt. They were so hardheaded that some Puritans even denied the scarlet letter he had scarred on his chest because they would not believe he would have done something so sinful (Hawthorne 199). They denied it and kept their purity, even when they knew that one of the worst sinners in the bible was one who denied Jesus (Gillis). Almost everything the Puritans did contradicted their religion. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is classic American literature filled with symbolism, powerful themes, and historical condemnation.
The time period in the book was one where a powerfully blinding religion was finding its identity in a new land full of promise. It was also a religion whose congregation often contradicted the basis of their beliefs. They all hid sins and neglected their appearance so they may appear holy. They built jails and cemeteries before their town was even up and running, knowing how imperfect their society would be. They wanted to kill anybody who did not go along with their strict rules, to further “purify” their race. They would not forgive children whose mother sinned, let alone the mother.
The Puritans were an absolute hypocritical congregation hiding under the sins of others when they themselves said that “a pure hand needs no glove to cover it,” (Hawthorne 121). Works Cited Bloom, Harold. “The Scarlet Letter. ” Quoted as “The Scarlet Letter” in Bloom, Harold, ed. The Scarlet Letter, New Edition, Bloom’s Guides. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 2010. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. (accessed November 7, 2012). Gillis, Chester. “Roman Catholic Church. ” World Book Advanced. World Book, 2012. Web. 7 Nov. 012. Hall, Timothy L. “The City on a Hill and Its Detractors and Alternatives: 1621–1659. ” Religion in America, American Experience. New York: Facts On File, Inc. , 2007. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. (accessed November 8, 2012) Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. USA: Prentice Hall, 1850. Print. New American Bible. Ed. Joseph Mindling, Rev and J. Edward Owens, Rev. Rev ed. Wichita: Devore & Sons, 2010. Print. New American Bible. Wilson, John F. “Puritans. ” World Book Advanced. World Book, 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
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