Portrayal of Puritan Society in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

Portrayal of Puritan Society in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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Portrayal of Puritan Society in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

 
    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

Hester.

 

 

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.

 
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