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In the introductory sketch to Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel the "The Scarlet
Letter", the reader is informed that one of the author's ancestors
persecuted the Quakers harshly. The latter's son was a high judge in the
Salem witch trials, put into literary form in Arthur Miller's "The
Crucible" (Judge Hathorne appears there). We learn that Hawthorne feels
ashamed for their deeds, and that he sees his ancestors and the Puritan
society as a whole with critical eyes. Consequently, both open and subtle
criticism of the Puritans' practices is applied throughout the novel.
Hawthorne's comments have to be regarded in the context of the settlers'
history and religion. They believe that man is a creature steeped in sin,
ever since Adam and Eve's fall from innocence. To them, committing the
original sin strapped human beings of their own free will, so that God now
decides about their lives. Everything that happens is seen as God's will,
and providence plays an important role.
Through the sacrifice and righteousness of Christ, however, there is a
chance for people to be saved. One cannot definitely know who will be saved,
although pious and faithful people are of course more likely to. The
experience of conversion, in which the soul is touched by the Holy Spirit,
so that the believer's heart is turned from sinfulness to holiness, is
another indication that one is of the elect. Faithfulness and piety, rather
than good deeds are what saves people. If someone has sinned, public
confession is believed to take some of the burden of this sin off him.
The initial reason for the Puritans to leave their homes was the treatment
they had to suffer from in their native England. They were brutally
persecuted and were not allowed to practise their religion, because they
said that the beliefs taught by the Anglican church were against the Bible.
When they arrived in the New World, they were confronted with numerous
threats from the outside. Their trying to take land away from the Indians
caused many fights and attacks. Moreover, they had to deal with the total
wilderness surrounding them. Under these frontier conditions, they needed
harmony and peace inside the community in order to survive.
As a result, Hawthorne's founding fathers immediately saw the necessity to
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set up a prison, right next to the graveyard in order to keep their
settlement together and stable. This shows that "the city upon a hill" and
"God's visible kingdom on earth" could not be put into practice without
punishing and persecuting others. The prison's door is made from heavy,
antique oak and is secured with iron spikes. The age of the wood symbolises
another reason why the Puritan ideas could not be realised without
violating human nature, namely that they came to a New World, but built
their settlement on an antique, even anachronistic basis. Their pessimistic
belief that the human species is doomed and has no free will also
contributed to the failure of their Utopia. The heavy look of the door also
shows that people do not accept their punishment, and Hawthorne suggests
that in its strictness, the Puritan code of law is against human nature.
These rules and regulations are mostly directly taken from the bible, going
so far that religion and law can be called almost identical. This is the
reason why people look at deeds we would not even consider crimes as if
they were capital sins, showing the same gravity during the public
punishment. Their modes of punishment are "outrages against human nature",
as culprits are publicly humiliated on the pillory, not being able to hide
their faces. Hawthorne criticises this method of punishment in particular
and the Puritan society in general with irony by calling the pillory "as
effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship as the guillotine
in France". As has been pointed out in the introduction, this mode of
confessing and suffering publicly was seen as a way to help the culprit.
These cruelties show the discrepancy between the way the Puritans behave
and the original idea of Christianity. Most of them, for example the
"morally coarse" women who cry at Hester, are not capable of forgiving,
mercy or neighbourly love. They claim to be pure Christians, but what they
actually practise is a perversion of what Christianity really is. Together
with their difficult situation and their religion, the suffering they had
to endure in England partially explains their behaviour. They were brutally
persecuted themselves because they were thought to endanger the present
order, now they persecute others for exactly the same reason. The Quakers,
who believe that God can speak through every man and woman and that
everyone can be enlightened by God, are harassed because their beliefs
question the hierarchy of the Puritan church.
Those who are at the top of this hierarchy, most of them learned scholars
and men of great intellect, are highly respected by the citizens and are
seen as "mortals in fellowship with angels." The respect they earn even
goes so far that they can directly grasp political power. Hawthorne shows
that concerning some of these clergymen, this respectability and piety is
only a veneer. They do not practise what they preach, Wilson for example
surrounds himself in luxuries which are entirely forbidden to the normal
citizens. Furthermore, the reader learns that Hester's scarlet letter gives
a "sympathetic throb" when she passes by one of the ministers, showing that
he has sinned also.
Besides the clergy and the soldiers, the statesmen are the third group of
the tripod that forms the fundament of Puritan society. Although not as
learned as the ministers, they also are respected by the citizen. Like the
clergymen, some of them also enjoy the pleasures forbidden to the general
public, see for example Governor Bellingham's house. They are leaders
because of their experience, their hereditary reverence and firm character,
not because they are intelligent or give new ideas and impulses to the
community. As they can be easily replaced, they try their best to do what
they think will help and protect the community, showing some of the better
sides of the Puritan society. They are influenced by their traditions,
portraits are hanging everywhere, as if critically regarding their
descendants' actions. Therefore, they do not change their mind easily.
Together with the conviction that faith counts more than good deeds, this
accounts for the fact that they need a very long time to start accepting
The multitude of "simple" people does not feel suppressed by these leading
classes as in most other countries at that time. On the contrary, they
support them and the law. "General sentiment gives law its vitality",
Hawthorne puts it critically. They are proud to be members of a community
"where iniquity is dragged out to the sunshine". In spite of the cruelties
they are capable of, Hawthorne in some cases attests them a "large and warm
heart" and even "tearful sympathy".
Generally, the common people are characterised by their gloominess, but on
the New England Holiday before the election, they seem to come to life. It
is on that day and during the procession that their English origins show.
Hawthorne detects a "dim reflection of former splendour", a reflection that
wore off entirely in the course of time; the next generations were not at
all capable of celebrating freely. Interestingly, the single day of the
year on which Hawthorne depicts the Puritan crowd in high spirits is also
the day on which the contrast between the Old World they originate from and
the New World they have come to and to a certain extent created becomes
most obvious. The New World is full of purity and piety, strong emotions
and feelings have to be suppressed. Only when the settlers' roots are
discernible from their actions, the discrepancy between past and present
can be conveyed to the reader.
The election day is also the only time of the year when "uncivilised"
people like Indians and sailors add a little colour and "depth of hue" to
the scene. Surprisingly, the rather wild and rough sailors are not frowned
at, although they do not act according to Puritan laws. Those who chose to
are even able to become integrated in the Puritan society, Hawthorne
informs the reader, because a certain amount of respect is paid to them due
to the hard battle with nature they fight every day.
Nature is generally seen by the Puritans to be something that has to be
fought, as it presents the complete opposite to Puritan nurture. Only in
the forest can Hester and Dimmesdale be "themselves", and Pearl, a symbol
of nature, is the subject of many rumours. The townspeople consider her to
be the devil's offspring. It is revealing that when Pearl grows older and
inherits property from Chillingworth, Hawthorne says that she could easily
marry into a reputable Puritan family.
All in all, it can be said that Hawthorne draws a differentiated picture of
Puritan society. Although harsh criticism of their practises prevails, he
tries to see at least some good will and other favourable features of his
ancestors. Nevertheless, he hardly manages to.
Works Cited and Consulted
Brodhead, Richard H., "New and Old Tales: The Scarlet Letter," Modern Critical Views Nathaniel Hawthorne, New York, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
Dibble, Terry J., Cliff Notes on The Scarlet Letter, Lincoln, Cliff Notes, Inc., 1988.
Fogle, Richard Harter, "The Scarlet Letter," Hawthorne's Fiction The Light and The Dark, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1975.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: St. Martins, 1991.
Matthiessen, F.O., "The Scarlet Letter," Critics on Hawthorne, Readings in Literary Criticism: 16, Coral Gables, University of Miami Press, 1972.
Matthiessen, F.O., Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Scarlet Letter, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Halls Inc., 1968.