Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne [...] ways in which the book is a critique of Puritanism. "The Scarlet Letter" was written in 1850, but it takes place in the 1600s, when Puritanism was at its height in New England. Hester Prynne, the heroine of the novel, is ostracized by a very strict and proper Puritan society, because of her affair with the Revered Arthur Dimmesdale. Puritan society had strict moral codes, and when they were violated, there was no forgiveness. Hawthorne used the book as a strong critique on Puritanism that lasts until this day, and shows just how unbending the founders of New England were in the ways of the world.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's view of Puritanism is clear in "The Scarlet Letter." He shows it as an unyielding, strict, and highly moral religion that allowed little deviance from established values. He also shows the Puritan leaders as moral judges, who reigned over their towns like monarchs, and had little room for unique thinkers or divergence from their prescribed rules and regulations. The Puritans themselves were some of the first settlers from England who came to the New World to escape religious persecution, yet they reverted to persecution of their own who they did not deem "fit" or "moral." Because of her affair with Dimmesdale, Hester is deemed unfit for the society of Boston, and she has to wear a scarlet letter "A" (for adultery), for the rest of her life. She has a child from the affair, named Pearl, and she stays in Boston to continue her penance, when she could simply leave and leave the letter behind, as well. Hester's story is especially memorable because she is really a strong and moral woman, who wants to raise her child with meaning and love, and has the strength to stand up to the community's censure. Hawthorne writes,
Whenever mother and child appear they are greeted by the Puritans, old and young, with cold and silent contempt, or hootings and epithets of infamy. If they appeared in church, all shrank from them, and the language of every one was, "Come not near me! I am holier than thou!" In no crowd did Hester stand in fear of being jostled. She was the moral leper whom no one dared to touch -- the blazing emblem of the virtuous indignation of an entire community. Yet Hester went quietly on her way.
Hester, the "moral leper," does not leave the community until Pearl is an adult, and as such, she endures the censure of her neighbors for years. Another critic notes that Hester suffers greatly because of the religion's intolerance, and the scornful nature of the people who practice it. He writes, "The truth was, that the little Puritans, being of the most intolerant brood that ever lived, had got a vague idea of something outlandish, unearthly, or at variance with ordinary fashions, in the mother and child, and therefore scorned them in their hearts, and not unfrequently reviled them with their tongues"
Hester is continually reminded of her sin by the gossips of the town, and she has no friends, no confidants, and no one to love besides Pearl. During this time, the pious Revered Dimmesdale never confesses his part in the "crime," and has to live with his own secret feelings and guilt. However, he is never censured by the community, and so, Hester is the one who suffers the most, and openly suffers.
Hester's long travail indicates how strict the moral code of the Puritans once. There was no forgiveness in their religion, only censure and guilt. As one writer said of the Puritans, "Though Puritanism, especially the Congregational variety, made much of the communion of the saints in church fellowship, and though it has been said that no place in man's history has given greater primacy to the intellect than Puritan New England, the religious experience of the Puritan was that of the lonely, separate soul."
These "lonely, separate souls" inflicted their beliefs and moral code on the entire community, and never forgave or forgot. The religion died out in the 1800s, but the foundation of Puritanism forged America, and continues to influence thought and action, no matter how much the country denies it. That is one reason Hawthorne often wrote about Puritans and their religion. He recognized the great influence the religion had on those who founded our country, and made it great.
Hawthorne often wrote about Puritanism in his works, and many critics find "The Scarlet Letter to be the very best of his religion-inspired works. One critic notes, "He [Hawthorne] can censure and judge the events of Puritan Massachusetts while at the same time maintaining the ability to experience them through fiction."
Throughout the novel, Hawthorne quite eloquently shows the suffering of Hester and her daughter, and indicates how the pious Puritans consistently punish the innocent child as a result of the mother's sin. Some think Pearl is the child of the devil, and her father never acknowledges her until he dies on the scaffold with Pearl in his arms. It seems especially cruel to punish the child for the parents' mistakes, and that is one of the main commentaries in the novel. Hawthorne is attempting to show how unyielding the Puritans were, and how cruel they could be to their own kind. Their religion seems to be based on rules, regulations, sin, and unbending practices, rather than on love, acceptance, and caring. Perhaps that is one reason the religion died out, and Hawthorne felt so compelled to write about it and its' evils.
Perhaps the most memorable item in Hawthorne's story is Hester and her strength. She manages to make a decent life for herself and Pearl outside the parameters of the Puritan community, and this is as perplexing to the leaders as her continued residence in the town. Hester is clearly a strong and determined woman, who accepts her punishment but is not broken by it. She knows that someday she will have to leave Boston, but she stays seven years, and does not flinch when those around her treat her as if she does not exist. She is a strong woman in a time when women were supposed to be meek and quiet, and so, she is even more of a thorn in the sides of the leaders who condemn her. The reader does not feel sorry for Hester, they admire her, while they pity the Puritans who cannot accept such an asset into their community, simply because she made a mistake in life. Hester knows she must eventually leave, as this critic states, "But Hester, who rejects the Puritans and their dogma as 'these iron men and their opinions' (197), looks forward to a better time, another possibility for interpretation, not loss of faith, but change of faith. 'Leave this wreck and ruin here where it hath happened. ... Begin all anew'" (198).
She does eventually leave, and give Pearl a chance at living a normal and healthy life in England, but in the end, she returns, and takes up the letter once again. She is stronger than the people who censured her, and is not afraid of her punishment, or her fate, which really makes her more devout that the people who were so cruel and hateful to her during her life.
Hawthorne's critique on the Puritans and their beliefs is all the more stinging because he creates such strong and believable characters. Chillingsworth is indeed chilling in his dark evil, and Dimmesdale is pathetic in his guilt that he cannot acknowledge. Hester is proud and memorable for her courage and strength, and Pearl is simply enchanting. She is the proof that even though she was conceived in sin, her life is angelic, and her mother is responsible. She is not a child of sin, she is a child of hope, and embodies everything good about the culture, because she has been raised far from the rigid rules of the Puritan fathers of the town. She is pure and good, and Hawthorne uses her to illustrate how damning the rules of the community could be, and how they repressed people into becoming something they were not meant to become. The characters all embody decent beliefs, yet they are considered "evil" in the community, while the real evil, Chillingsworth, is accepted as a pious and upstanding member of the Puritan code. The best characters are those who are "guilty" in the Puritan's eyes, while the worst are those they accept with open arms. Hawthorne uses this juxtaposition to make the reader fully aware of the folly of the Puritans and their beliefs. It is quite clear from the novel that Hawthorne does not endorse or appreciate the Puritan way of life, and using these memorable characters, he indicates just how cruel and unbending they could be, and how they really hurt the society they were trying so hard to create anew. They were no better than the persecutors in England…