How did Puritan ideas about crime and punishment differ from our ideas today?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Chapter XIII of "The Scarlet Letter" the narrator remarks that "the scarlet letter had not done its office," for although Hester has lost much of the passion of her life and turned to thought, as Hawthorne writes,

A woman never overcomes these problems [of existence] by any exercise of thought.  They are not to be solved.

In the Puritan culture there is no redemption for the sinner, only a consent to the norms of the rigid, grey society. In Sacvan Bercovitch's The Office of the Scarlet Letter, he contends that the "office," or goal of the scarlet letter is to "transmute opposition into complementarity."

Much like Young Goodman Brown who, after defying the cautions of his Puritanism, returns from the forest a changed, "stern...darkly meditative man who turns away from his wife, Faith, Hester Prynne gathers up the discarded letter from the brook after her hope of being reunited with Arthur Dimmesdale and replaces it.  Later, after leaving the Boston community with Pearl, she returns from England to her humble cottage and in the final chapter she

resumed--of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that period would have imposed it--resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale.

Earlier in the novel Hawthorne has remarked that

So ever it is, whether thus typified or no, that an evil deed invests itself with the character of doom.

Truly, there is doom for Hester, who can only consent to her Puritan society by holding identity with the scarlet letter,  For, after all, as Hawthorne concludes,

No man, for any considerable period can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.

Puritanism, in its rigidity and demand for conformity punishes not merely the crime, but the will and spirit of the transgressor as it reclaims this member of its society by means of the transgressor's own consent to "complimentarity."  Such a culture differs greatly from our society that holds with the redemptive power of people and the strength of the making of one's own person.

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