Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter


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In the scarlet letter the core of the story line revolves around a movement known as the Puritan. The Puritan movement began when King Henry declared England's independence from the Church of Rome and he appointed himself head of the new Church of England. King Henry did this because he wanted to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. By appointing himself head of the Church of England he was able to grant himself his own divorce that the pope would not give him. At first there was little difference between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic but later with the spread of Protestant reformers such as John Calvin the church began to change. Some people thought the church of England retained too many of the superstitious practises of the Roman Catholic Church. They wanted simpler truths and less structured forms of worship like the earlier Christians, because they wanted to purify the Church of England, they got the name of Puritans. John Geree describes the puritans as "one, that honoured God above all, and under God gave every one his due"!
These Puritans followed a very strict code of practise; they were greatly influenced by the bible, their ministers and the government. They sometimes seemed to follow their codes of practise a little too seriously and seem almost hypocritical and farfetched at times, i.e. during the period of the Salem witch trials.
The history of Puritan Society itself portrays the Puritan society and its leaders as having the right intentions for a stable and necessary environment, the fact that they were trying to live "purely," shows that they had their hearts in the right place, but it was never their outright intentions to produce a hypocritical society.

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Hawthorne's own experiences greatly influence his attitude towards the puritan lifestyle. Hawthorne was a direct descendant of John Hawthorne who was a judge during the time of the Salem Witch trials. In the "Custom House," Hawthorne accepts the guilt and responsibility from the fathers and offers to repent for their crimes. This is an unusual way of viewing and dealing with guilt. This view of guilt and sin seems to be a main driving factor in Hawthorne's novels. Another thing that may influence Hawthorne's attitude towards the Puritans is that he seems to write a lot about the relationship between men and their reaction to sin and its consequences. He views the relationship between sin and its consequences very harshly at certain points throughout the novel. This can be seen as Hawthorne condemning society because of the fact that he portrays the puritan's throughout the novel as dealing with sin in a very harsh, almost too harsh manner.
Hawthorne opens the "Scarlet Letter," with an informative description of the Puritans around the prison door awaiting the arrival of Hester out of the prison. He describes them "as a throng of bearded men, in sad coloured garments, and grey, steeple -crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded." Hawthorn's description of these- people also gives us an insight into their personalities and characteristics. After Hester's release, "the scene was not without a mixture of awe, such as much always invest the spectacle of guilt and shame of a fellow creature". They almost took delight in seeing her punished, having thought they had "spiritually cleansed" the town, and therefore only leaving a "pure" society. They possibly took the view that if they struck fear into the citizens of the puritan society then no-one would commit any sins, for fear of the punishment they would receive.
As we start to read the novel the first thing we read about is the prison in the first scene, the prison was regarded as an important part of society as it was the first place along with a grave yard to be built. It was in place in society to maintain order but yet it seems to hold almost too high an importance amongst society, and Hawthorne condemns them and their society for this.
As the story begins the townspeople do not see Hester as a necessity but as a nuisance to get rid of. They seem to be a rather gloomy bunch of people, not portraying a lot of joy in their lives. Again we see this when Hawthorne reveals that the puritan view any form of fun as sin, "none of the a which popular merriment would so readily have found in the England of Elizabeth's time," and "all such professors of the several branches of jocularity would have been sternly repressed." These are just two of many incidents in the book where Hawthorne illustrates the Puritans opinions on "jocular" activities. Hawthorne also states that the Puritans were so strict in there ways that they even prohibited an elaborate dress code.
Another impression given by Hawthorne's first description of the puritan citizens is that they are a very sincere people. They take their laws very seriously. In the case of Hester Prynne they showed "great mercy and tenderness of heart," and saved her from death, instead they made her wear a scarlet A on her person for the rest of her life, which in a way was worse than a prison sentence or death. The Punishment for criminals was obviously necessary but most criminals serve a sentence and then are viewed as "free" but Hester's sentence was a "life sentence" and was never offered any forgiveness.
When we look at the adult Puritans and their children together, we see little difference in their attitudes. The children seem to convey their feelings in a somewhat more insensitive way; Hawthorne describes them as "being the most intolerable brood ever lived." They like their parents and under their parents influence and discipline saw Hester and Pearl as being ridiculed and outcast off society. They took great pleasure in scorning Hester and Pearl with their "hearts and more frequently with their tongues," This invoked hatred within Pearl towards these children and drove her away from making attempt to communication with the other children.
The mothers of the children in the community would point her out and tell their children not to be like her. They would use her as an example of the consequences what would happen if they rebelled against the rules of their society. "Children too young to comprehend wherefore this women so be shut out from the sphere of human charities. . . coming forth along the pathway that lead town ward; and, discerning the scarlet letter on her breast scamper off with a strange, contagious fear." However Hawthorne sets Hester up in a different way among the puritan women; she is portrayed as a rose among the thorns because of her persistency in praying for her enemies and keeping the puritan lifestyle. Hawthorne praises her for the lifestyle that she kept because it was the Puritans that had her go through her lifelong ordeal. "Except for that small expenditure in the decoration of her infant, Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself, and who not infrequently insulted the hand that fed them" which turn Hawthorne praises her further, and condemns the Puritan society for failing to recognise Hester's true character and personality. We can also see Hawthorne condemning the society through his use of imagery at the start of the novel as we see the image of a rose in the graveyard. Hawthorne here condemns the society by his use of imagery, in the way that the thorns are choking the rose. Hawthorne here shows us that Hester is not getting the chance to live among the Puritans and grow as she should. She stands out among the townspeople as a moral and good person, both physically and in her character. Instead the Puritans are choking her out and Hawthorne condemns them for this reason.
Fear was the motivation that drove the Puritans to exclude Hester Prynne from society. This new society was afraid that their core would fall apart "in a land where iniquity is searched out and punished" if they did not seek out those individuals that were immoral in their eyes. Their fear of sin and wickedness drove them in their quest to do what they felt was right. Their fault was that they only saw Hester for the crime she had committed not as the woman she was. When the community banished Hester Prynne they succeeded in upholding their morality but lost an individual and ruined her life to some degree. The community is nothing more than a collection of individuals. Since everyone within the community was subject to scrutiny, when someone one was singled out and punished the rest of the community could be relieved that they were not going to be made example off. This narrow minded attitude from the Puritans only allows them to have hatred for Hester Prynne and the need to identify her with the letter "A". This way everyone would look at her rather than one another, or to themselves.
This fear was enforced by the leaders of the puritan society. In the Scarlet Letter these leaders go by the name of Bellingham, Dimmsdale, and Chillingworth to some extent. It is these people that we see the biggest degree of hypocrisy, among the puritan society. We can see that Governor Bellingham asks Hester to make a pair of embroidered white gloves, when it is stated that earlier in the novel that fancy dress code was considered a sin by the puritan society. If something is considered a sin, then why does its "moral tag" (i.e. sin, not a sin) change as you move up through the social hierarchy But the most noticeable form of Hypocrisy is found in Dimmsdale, the minister was then regarded as a very outstanding, even godlike member of society. But yet he has been carrying a burden of knowing he has committed adultery.
This fear prevented Hester from attending. In a normal Christian society attending church would be seen as one of the most important aspects of life. t. Geree quotes that "All parts of the day were like holy to him, and his care was continued in it in variety of holy duties: what he heard in public, he repeated in private, to whet it upon himself and family," Yet we see here that Hester was made an example from the pulpit. Therefore driving Hester away from the church, Hawthorne condemns the Puritans for this, and for their hypocrisy from the pulpit

The fact that the leaders were respected in society shows a stable and necessary environment as people listened to the leaders and followed the rules and orders laid down by them. But again the other side to this is that they were hypocritical leaders and this is why Hawthorne condemns them. Hawthorne also condemns them for the harsh and intolerant treatment; especially the treatment of Hester, it is very obvious to the reader that Hester does not deserve the harsh treatment that she receives. She even tries to repay her debt to the society through charitable acts, like giving clothes to the homeless; but it seems that the harsh treatment of Hester flows straight through the society, and she does not deserve this. This is why Hawthorne shows condemnation towards the society, as it is not just the leaders, but even the lowest people like the homeless show an unnecessary attitude towards Hester.


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