Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter

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  • 0:01 Hawthorne's Roots
  • 1:03 The Puritan World
  • 1:33 Sin and Punishment
  • 2:53 The Devil Is Just…
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson examines Puritanism in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece, 'The Scarlet Letter.' See how the author uses Puritanism as a tool to criticize moral hypocrisy in all its forms.

Hawthorne's Roots

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, is, in many respects, the author's way of exorcising family demons. In the story of Hester Prynne and the Puritan society in which she lived, Hawthorne is really exploring the world of his own ancestors.

Hawthorne was one of the leading figures of the American Romantic movement. In this book, he's obsessed with morality, and with the nature of sin, hypocrisy, and judgment. In The Scarlet Letter, the shadow of Hawthorne's forefather, John Hathorne, looms large. John Hathorne played an unapologetic and pivotal role in the Salem witch trials, which led to the execution of 20 accused witches in 1692. But in The Scarlet Letter, John Hathorne's famous descendant suggests that it is not the accused who bears the greatest guilt; the greatest sin often lies with those who do the condemning.

The Puritan World

The Puritans embarked on the Great Migration to the New World in the 17th century to create a new Christian society, one that would be a shining city upon a hill, purified of the secular and religious contamination they believed had contaminated society and the Church of England in particular. This city would be a beacon for all the world, illuminating and fulfilling God's word; both His commandments and His promises.

Sin and Punishment

It's not easy to be a flawed human being in a world aspiring to be without sin. For the Puritans, the sin of one community member was the sin of all, ensuring that God's chastisement would fall on the entire community. Collective guilt, then, meant collective and very public punishment. Enter Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter. Hester has violated the commandment forbidding adultery. Her husband is presumed dead, but Hester has just given birth to a daughter, Pearl.

The novel opens with Hester's release from prison; she is brought to the scaffold in the town square, where she is publicly shamed. There, she receives the scarlet A, signifying the sin of adultery, which she is to wear for rest of her life.

This public and prolonged punishment is a sort of collective purification. If the sinful individual is made to atone, then maybe the community can itself be washed clean. And if the sinner is especially stubborn, and Hester's refusal to name her child's father is taken as a sign of stubbornness, of disobedience to the church, the community, and its moral well-being, then her punishment must be that much more severe and enduring. If the sinner doesn't repent of her own accord, in other words, then the community will force her into it.

The Devil Is Just Around the Corner. . .

If, for the Puritans, sin and redemption were the whole community's business, it's probably because they saw moral threats at every turn. The Puritans believed in the intrinsically sinful nature of mankind and in demonic forces as an ever-present threat. Satan sought human souls, and there was no telling when he would strike or what form he would take. Satan's most powerful tool, the Puritans believed, was his power to beguile, to tempt and deceive.

And so the Puritans had to be on constant guard against sin, keeping themselves, their loved ones, and their community pure from the slow, creeping contamination of sin, which was so insidious, it could destroy a heart, a mind, a family, a community, or even a nation and one would never even know until it was too late.

The subtlety of sin is most apparent in the two men in Hester's life: Hester's long-lost husband, Roger Chillingworth, and Hester's lover, Pearl's father Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.

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