Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne takes place in Puritan Boston, one of the most spiritually and morally restrictive places and religions that have ever existed. In the story, a woman named Hester has been ostracized from the rest of the citizens of Boston because she is an adulteress. She is forced to wear a scarlet letter A on her chest as punishment for her "sin." She refuses to name her lover, but as the book progresses, the reader learns who he is and that his torment may very well be worse than that of Hester.

The obsession with sin in The Scarlet Letter is very Puritan-esque. Nathaniel Hawthorne obviously knew well the oppression and adherence to religious law that marked the Puritan era. However, his main character is not put to death, as Puritan law would have allowed. This is possibly because Nathaniel Hawthorne had no story with Hester dead or because Nathaniel was aware that the law of the Puritans was harsh, but every now and then, a sinner was looked upon with the Puritan version of mercy.

Hawthorne, obviously coming from a later time than that about which he writes, is sympathetic to the two lovers he created. However, he does not paint all sinners in the book in a favorable, sympathetic light - only Hester and her lover. Others he describes as almost demonic in nature. It is rather creepy and when one really thinks about it, Hawthorne probably comes very close to describing how Puritans saw the world. In other words, the characters in The Scarlet Letter saw devils on every corner and demons in the faces of even their loved ones.

The Puritans of Boston are best left to the pages of history and the pages of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The sort of religious tyranny that reigned in Boston was not healthy. If Nathaniel Hawthorne came even close to the moral dilemmas Puritan living presented, then The Scarlet Letter is a frightening book, indeed.

Shelly Barclay

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