Puritanistic view on adultery in “The Scarlet Letter”

Published 15 Feb 2017

The psychological and moral issues of the book, written more than 150 years ago, are still relevant to contemporary society. By breaking the community’s morals and standards, a woman had suffered for the rest of her life and reaped the fruits of sin in her own child. In “The Scarlet Letter” Nathaniel Hawthorne explores the realms of the sense of guilt as experienced by three principal characters – Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth – living in the seventeenth-century Puritan society. The thrust of Hawthorne’s classic is that isolation and morbidity are the results not of man’s living in sin but of his living in a Puritan society.

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The Puritans, who were believed to use the ‘pure’ Bible interpretations and were known for their intolerance to theater, music, and extravagant dress, however, excluded traditional practices of the church, when they migrated from England. In the new colony, the society, religion and government turned out to be in close cooperation. The past experience of punishment and religion-based laws, which were enforced, have created a certain aura in the Puritan society and affected all spheres of Boston life. Therefore, every citizen was involved in justice system, the Church and community at one time, and his reputation was a sole foundation for the Puritan society.

So, adultery, committed by married woman, became publicly known, and, as an intolerable action, this act deserved the severest punishment. Goodwives – the members of the Church and ladies with good reputation – have been arguing about it, while waiting for Hester Prynne. For them she was nothing but malefactress, who caused scandal in Reverend Master Dimmesdale’s congregation, who brought shame upon the whole society, and she deserved death or, at least, a brand on her forehead. (Hawthorne chapter 2). In this case, both the Scripture and the statute-book supported the resolution. It was the standpoint of the Puritan society.

The Puritanistic view was that Hester must either die or wear the sign, which would represent her sin and remind her and the society all she had done. The shame on the scaffold and the scarlet letter was not considered as a fair punishment for such an unacceptable crime. They excluded any idea of forgiveness and mercy; for them, adultery was a grave and unpardonable sin, a heavy burden in this life and eternity – the Puritans have already predetermined her destiny. Virtue, based on dedication, prayers and inner examination, had provided peace and organization in church and government; it was the Puritan culture they molded and strictly followed.

The community, Hester Prynne had lived in, had shaped her character and insights. While Hester was standing on the scaffold, surrounded by the raged crowd, subconsciously she realized that the society was involved in the crime and her life now, as it would stay involved in the future. The Puritan concepts became a part of her, and Hester’s existence would now be interrelated with the sin of adultery and the beliefs and perception of the society. However, Hawthorne stresses that “morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding than in their fair descendants” (Chap. 2).

The church-members have stated judgment, turning the blind eye towards the Lord’s words: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (NIV John 8:7). Hawthorne parallels God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness in the very beginning, telling that “the condemned criminal, as he came forth to his doom”, was given a chance to enjoy “the fragrance and fragile beauty” of the rose-bush – in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him” (Chap. 1). But, the scarlet letter “A” upon Hester’s bosom separated her from normal human relations and imprisoned her in a ‘self’ sphere. The strict and pitiless Puritans made a prison in Hester’s heart and depicted pessimistic future for human suchlike.

Nevertheless, Hester in her “moral agony” found comfort in “her pride, her daring” (Bloom 34). Her inner strength was enough to stay in the community that turned its back to her, instead of looking for another place to start a new life. After imprisonment, she made her mind to redeem the sin of adultery by good deeds, kindness, generosity, credit, and alienation. Hester Prynne has proven that she was worth of social trust and normal life. Her sin gave her “sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts” (Chap.5), she felt the problems of others and helped needy ones; Hester really cared about the people, disregarding their attitude and gratitude. Living in isolation, she made the best she could to drive away the Puritan idea that sin permanently misrepresents the human personality.

On the other hand, Dimmesdale was not as good in this situation as Hester was. Since the very start his took a position of a liar and was hiding the burden till his death. For Puritan society Arthur Dimmesdale was a minister, a brilliant preacher and sinless man. Just like the Puritan society at a whole, he was intolerant to weaknesses of other people, but loyal to his own sins. While Hester, with his own child, was standing on the scaffold, he dared to ask her to speak out the father’s name. By his own words, Dimmesdale doomed himself to tortures and the burden of guilt – “better were [to stand there beside thee] than to hide a guilty heart through life” (Chap.5).

The scarlet token “A” on his breast left no peace and order for his heart. Neither exhausting fasts, nor physical tortures could take away the burden of guilt. Once standing on the scaffold at a night time, he felt that the whole universe was starring at him and the fear of committed sin went through his life. The eloquent Reverent Dimmesdale was a “viler companion of the vilest, the worst of sinners” (Chap.11); thus, depicting the picture of the whole Puritan society, and “the burning wrath of the Almighty” (Ibid) was upon his soul.

The Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy is a symbol of Puritanism, though an adulterer was regarded as the most holy man. His sermons were addressed to sinners, yet he was one of them; Puritans fled from English intolerance, but failed to apply tolerant attitude to weak and needy. His authoritative and impressive preaching shows the power of the Puritan Church; but his weak character and poor health evoke pity and compassion, rather than respect. Just like the Puritan Boston, ‘the light to the world’ and the ‘city on the hill’, which, at the same time, mixes old traditions and ideals, Arthur was afraid of the scaffold and public disgrace. Only in darkness, representation of this heart’s condition, his intentions came alive to make an outcry to hypocrisy.

Once again, Arthur Dimmesdale showed that Puritans consider personal good reputation as a genesis of peace and order. His success in community was gained by “his intellectual gifts, his moral perceptions, his power of experiencing and communicating emotion” (Chap.11), but it did not give him rest for his burdened soul. Though, his sin of adultery was hidden from outer world, this black secret had been destroying his heart. Hester was imprisoned by community perception of her sin; on the other hand, Dimmesdale was imprisoned by his own perception of the sense of guilt. Night confessions did not ease the pain, for the sin was not revealed to people (Bryson 87). Yet, after an astounding sermon, he publicly confessed his sin and, released from the burden of sin, died.

Elizabeth Poe, in her “Teacher’s Guide to “The Scarlet Letter”, have listed three main characters, contrasted and portrayed feelings that come up while reading: Hester Prynne – her plight can arose sympathy. Arthur Dimmesdale – his hypocrisy can provoke anger. Roger Chillingworth – his evil revenge can elicit disgust. (Poe, p.2).

The only negative character in “The Scarlet Letter” seems to be third one – Roger Chillingworth or Prynne, as he used to be. As a real husband and the only supporter of the family, he, however, refused to take the responsibility and accept his wife’s unfaithfulness. He chose the way of tortures for others and himself. As a man with a strong character, he came along with an idea of loosing the family, when he watched the scene of public disgrace and rage addressed to his ex. But, as a man of honor, he craved for revenge.

As soon as he identified the ‘fellow-sinner’, Chillingworth planed future torments he deserved. A former scholar, Roger Prynne, became a famous doctor, Roger Chillingworth; however, the bodily disease of Arthur Dimmesdale was neither cured, not eased. He wanted to drag the confession out of his wife’s lover, by sufferings and tortures, as a man without compassion, strong physically, as well as mentally. The turning point of his revenge was after Dimmesdale’s public confession – till that moment, Chillingworth was playing games on his mind.

While Hester and Dimmesdale became stronger, while suffering tortures and misunderstanding, because of the good intentions they had; Chillingworth found himself in meaningless situation after Arthur’s death. An educated scholar had sacrificed everything (his “intellect … had now a sufficiently plain path before it”) and dedicated his life to revenge (he “was really of another character than it had previously been” (Chap.11)). Besides, Hester and Arthur were a part of the Puritan society and church, while Chillingworth stayed aside from the community life. Roger had missed his chance to live a life of his own; therefore, he had no goal to live for. In Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s cases, their lives were sacrificed for the good of the society; but Chillingworth’s isolation and anti-social revenge had sentenced him to death.

Works Cited

  • Barker, Kenneth. “The NIV Study Bible”. Zondervan Publishing House. 1984.
  • Bloom, Harold. “The Scarlet Letter”. Blooms Notes. New York: Chelsea, 1996.
  • Bryson, Norman. “Hawthorne’s Illegible Letter.” Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold Bloom.New York: Chelsea, 1984.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Scarlet Letter”. The Literature Network. June 28, 2007
  • Poe, Elizabeth. “A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”. Penguin Group. 2004 <http://us.penguingroup.com/static/pdf/teachersguides/scarletletter.pdf>
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