The Scarlet Letter and its Portrayal of 17th Century Colonial Puritanism The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathanial Hawthorne, is a novel which epitomizes 17th century Puritanism as well as its social and political implications on the people of Massachusetts Bay. The story exemplifies the contemporary social hypocrisy of the time which was characteristic of New England’s insecurity as a fairly new colony. The Puritans pushed to distance themselves from the corruptions of the Church of England they had left behind by forging their own moral and social identity based upon strictly fundamentalist principles.
The protagonist of the Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, challenged these institutions through her behavior as well as her presentation entirely. Hester’s experiences challenge popular beliefs and suggest that the predecessors of United States were founded on the basis of repressive ideals rather than those of freedom and personal liberty. It’s important to take the social and political context of the Scarlet Letter into consideration when putting its historical value into perspective.
A common misconception about New England was that it was politically theocratic; however, politics and religion remained separated under specific bylaws. In saying this, the extent to which religion influenced Puritan life was staggering in its own regards. The Scarlet Letter is quick to portray the religious influence of Puritanism over colonial life in New England. While earlier colonies had been settled by unorganized congregations of materialistic men, New England was populated through mass migrations which occurred predominately in family units.
These family units acted as the basis of communal life, and strict adherence to moral principles was, in their belief, the glue which held society together. Hester Prynne challenged the societal norm through adultery; isolating herself from the rest of her community both figuratively and literally. She was literally outcast because committed adulterers were forcedly labeled with an embroidered ‘A’, and figuratively because of the social excommunication that she faced in light of her actions.
The dialogue between the town women outside of the jail in chapter two emphasized the effects that Hester’s adultery had on her own image. “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. ” (Hawthorne 36). The derivation of legal guidance from the Scripture is noteworthy evidence of religion’s influence over the everyday aspects of Puritan life. People sought not only religious guidance from the Bible, but also a social model to emulate to the best of one’s ability.
Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, adorned with prominent golden thread, was a stark contrast to the conservative appearance encouraged and more often than not forced onto the women of New England; and despite its negative undertones, she refused acknowledge society’s power over her by removing it. The religious nature of the Puritan people also contributed to their interpretation of phenomena which are today considered contemporary commonplaces. In chapter 12, a meteor illuminated the dark sky and seemingly reproduced the image of a glowing red ‘A’.
According to Hawthorne; “Nothing was more common, in those days, than to interpret all meteoric appearances… as so many revelations from a supernatural source…. looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter – the letter A – marked out in lines of dull red light. Not but the meteor may have shown itself at that point, burning duskily through a veil of cloud, but with no such shape as his guilty imagination gave it, or that another’s guilt might have seen another symbol in it. ” (Hawthorne 106-107). In the context of the chapter, the event symbolized the climax of Arthur Dimmesdale’s moral crisis.
However, the meteor also told the reader much more about the Puritan people as well as their understanding of the world around them. The influence of God over all aspects of daily life culminated into a dependence and or a reliance on God that would be satirized and explored by the Enlightenment thinkers of the next century, such as Voltaire. In essence, the Puritans resolved to justifying supernatural occurrences by supernatural means rather than reason. The meteor symbolically explored the philosophical and intellectual positions of the 17th century Puritans and how they influenced colonial society.
Nathanial Hawthorne was able to impeccably portray New England in the 17th century throughout the Scarlet Letter. By constantly referencing the undeniable influence of religion over the everyday lives of the Puritan people, he was able to successfully portray a period in which the interpretation right and wrong came directly from Biblical scripture. The context of the plight of the protagonist, Hester Prynne, further illustrated the stipulations of establishing a colony based on religious principles.
Her pursuit of liberty and her unwillingness to deny her sins set her apart from the rest of her contemporaries and furthered Hawthorne’s purpose in creating a true sense of American identity through the account of her story. The philosophical and intellectual awareness of the Puritans depicted through the meteor phenomenon later in the novel further emphasized the historical context of the Scarlet Letter as well; reaffirming its pre-Enlightenment origin and giving rationale to the New Englanders who lived the majority of life free from reason entirely.