In The Scarlet Letter, what is the perception of America's Puritan settlers and their vision of right and wrong?

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herappleness's profile pic

M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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In the novel The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, one could easily summarize the perception of America's Puritan settlers and their vision of right and wrong with one simple phrase: "Holier than thou".

This is why. 

In several instances throughout the story you can sense a huge tendency for hypocrisy and blatant double standards.

First, there is a council of elders, of which Dimmesdale is a member, whosejob is to chastize and judge people on the scaffold, and allow others to participate in their public humiliation.

Even more galling is the fact that Dimmesdale, the father of Hester's secret, illegitimate child, was the one who put Hester on the scaffold himself! No matter how smoothly he tried to let the public humiliation go, nor how much he tried to help, the fact remains that he was there to openly ask Hester to expose the father of the child.

The town also has a resident witch. She openly meddles in everyone's business predicting things, and aggravating Hester, of all people. The council of elders knows her, and they speak to her frequently. Yet, it is Hester who gets the heat because she had a child out of wedlock...when she had thought that her husband was dead at sea!

Hence, the conclusive answer is that the settlement is not consistent, nor fair, in the treatment of people who make mistakes. Even though Hester's innocence is kept in a cloud of doubt in the story, it is impossible to think that every single settler who comesto humiliate another person at the scaffold is a pure soul. Therefore, as stated previously, their attitude can definitely be summed up as being "holier than thou".

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Chapter XXI of The Scarlet Letter, a chapter entitled "The New England Holiday," Hawthorne writes satirically of the Puritans' one holiday of the year:

Into this festal season of the year—as it already was, and continued to be during the greater part of two centuries—the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single holiday, they appeared scarcely more grave than most other communities at a period of general affliction.

This holdiay, Hawthorne writes, is the one day of the year in which the people do not wear "the blackest shade of Puritanism."  In fact, Hawthorne as narrator portrays the Puritanic gloom from the first chapter which opens with a throng that stands in

sad-colored garments and grey steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods,... assemble in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

That a prison is necessary to enforce Puritanism points to the failings of this religion.  For, with such severe penalties as those that are imposed upon sinners, hypocrisy arises with the community, as clearly exemplified by Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingsworth, who both subjugate their hearts to the intellect.  Thus subjugated, the essence of a person "withers like an uprooted weed left in the sun," Hawthorne writes.  This is why Hester's hair has lost its luminousness; she is compromised between independence and conformity by her punishment. 

With Hester as silent voice to the hypocrisy of Puritanism, she demonstrates the wrongs of such a patriarchal society that hypocritically denies the very humanity of its members as it will admit no sin. Modeled after Anne Hutchinson who was condemned as a religious heretic and excommunicated for her dissent.  Likewise, in The Scarlet Letter, Hester represents the threat of anarchy. Thus, in her public sin, Hester is the scapegoat for the transgressions of others because she has resisted the demands of the Puritanical culture.  Hawthorne's final exhoration, and statement of theme, is clearly against this Puritanical hypocrisy: 

"Be true!  Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!"

For Hawthorne as a Romantic, sin occurs when one denies one's own nature or forces someone also to conform to a foreign code of principles or behavior.  Clearly, Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter is an indictment against the gloom of Calvinistic Puritanism, as well as an expression of his ancestral guilt.

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