Nathaniel Hawthorne brings to The Scarlet Letter a notion of sin and guilt that seems to stem from his experience and knowledge of Puritan theology and religious practice. In "The Custom House" Hawthorne communicates his apprehension for the persecutory impulses of his ancestors who "have mingled their earthly substance with the soil, until no small portion of it must necessarily be akin to the moral frame wherewith, for a little while, I walk the streets" (1309). It is evident that his attempt to distance himself from those figures of his past suggests that he criticizes the cold and inflexible Calvinistic theology of the Puritans, which was cruelly carried out by his ancestors. And although he sees their actions with contempt, he seem to carry psychological guilt for the "persecuting spirit" that transpired for more than one generation: "At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them -as I have heard...may be now and henceforth removed" (1310).
Therefore, in The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne criticizes Puritan theology as rigid and inflexible. He suggests that when religion is built upon legalism and chastisement without compassion, it becomes a prison of guilt that sucks the life out of believers instead of being a means to help restore sinners. Hawthorne uses The Scarlet Letter as an allegory that shows that the Puritan's lack of compassion is a sin that far surpasses the sins of passion.
From the beginning of The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne seems to criticize the coldness of the Puritan community as he describes "the bearded men, in sad-colored garment...
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...ything to its own mighty claims! The only sin that deserves a recompense of immortal agony!"(1057). The Scarlet Letter, as an allegory, invites the reader to reflect on this idea. It is obvious that Hawthorne's intention is not to glorify sin in the life of the individual. Nevertheless, his message seems to communicate that the path an individual chooses after coming in contact with sin indicates the true character of that person while suggesting that Puritanism who guarded against sin so zealously, inadvertently is guilty of this "unpardonable sin."
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. The Norton Anthology of American
Literature, Fifth Edition. W.W. Nina Baym, Editor. Norton & Co. New York,
----- "Ethan Brand" Nathaniel Hawthorne: tales and Sketches. Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, N.Y. 1982.
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