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The question of how to act if accused of adultery was relevant to Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter and still has relevance in today's society. Working under the belief that the accusation is false, the next most important aspect to consider would be the person making the accusation. If it was just a coworker or someone I did not have a close relationship with, I would not take their accusation very seriously, whether it were true or not, because their opinion does not matter very much. If the person making the accusation was a family member, I would be very upset that they doubted my integrity, but I would also have to look inwardly to see if there was any part of my actions or behavior that was questionable. If the person making the accusation was my spouse, I would feel much in the same way that I did if my family made the accusation, but on a much more personal level. I would feel regret that I had let our marriage drift so much that my spouse would believe I was possibly having an affair and immediately take action to reconcile our relationship.
I assume you are referring to Hester’s society. Adultery is not well-regarded in our society either! If I was actually involved in an adulterous affair, I am pretty sure I would not want to face people. I am just like that. I don’t like confrontation or people talking about me. I would take the baby and run, and make up some back story about a husband who died so that no one would know the difference in my new locale.
I would try my best to cover it up. As a man, that would be much easier for me than it was for Hester with her child. I do not think that I would have the moral courage to stand up to society and face the criticism and the ostracization that would come my way due to my actions.
The bottom line is that none of us could know how we would react if we were in that situation unless and until it happened to us. It sounds good to say that I hope I would stand up for myself and defend my innocence to those making the accusation, but I don't know if I'd have the courage to do so if really put in that situation.
To be accused of adultery and to be guilty of that accusation - I can't imagine myself in that position enough to even be able to guess how I would react.
I think the most human reaction is to, as pohnpei has observed, cover it up. I would like to think that I could stand up to society and suffer the consequences, but the reality is that the least painful thing for everyone involved might be for the act to remain a secret, or as secret as possible. Having made such a terrible mistake, I would try to keep it from ruining my life, and the lives of those around me.
I'm assuming I'm not guilty--just accused. I'd make sure my spouse knew that it wasn't true! On the other hand, if I was guilty, I'd probably try to talk my way out of it for awhile until guilt overwhelmed me and I confessed. In my case, that probably wouldn't take too long!
My reaction would be determined by several factor--whether I'm guilty, whether adultery is considered criminal in my society, whether it's considered immoral but not criminal, and whether I'm responsible for anyone else (children).
If I am not guilty, than I would fight until I was exonerated. If I am guilty, and it is a criminal offense, I would argue that I committed an immoral act that carries its own consequences but not one that should be punished by imprisonment. If I'm guilty and have children, I would most likely strive to relocate to a place where I could begin anew so that my children would not have to suffer the sins of their mother.
In today's society, for me, it would depend primarily on who accused me. Coming from a strongly religious background, if my husband or parents accused me of this, I would take it very seriously and go about disproving the statement because they are people I care about. If one of my kids approached me with the rumor, we'd have an intelligent and rational discussion as to why it wasn't true...and why someone might be tempted to make up such a thing. If my pastor expressed a concern, we would have a discussion, but she knows me rather well, and I feel I could depend on her support...as well as that of my close friends. I am such an open book that I think most who know me would chuckle at the idea.
If my family (and especially my husband) was supportive and believed me, I think I would probably do my best to ignore it. It is hard to fight rumors and innuendo. If people are going to lie, what can you do but live a life that speaks more to who you are than a rumor does?
However, if I lived during the Puritan era, when women were so harshly judged (if you kissed your husband in public, didn't go to church every Sunday, laughed during service, or God forbid, were accused of witchcraft without a second thought), my response would be, I'm sure, very different. There would be great fear. I would also (I hope) have enough support from my husband that we might sell the cow, pack up the house and kids, and move—joining a different kind of church as well!
If I were accused of adultury in Hester's society (whether the accusation was true or false), I think I would have likely responded very similar to the way she did. It would have made me become a very private person. I would have moved to the outskirts of town, and sought friendship in very few people (perhaps people like Mistress Hibbins).
Unlike Hester, I might not be so full of guilt (though this is hard to say as I didn't grow up a Puritan). I would have poured myself into my child, and to raising someone who wasn't afraid to stand up for the truth. I would have been more honest with my child than Hester could have been, and probably more honest with myself, but I don't think I would have attempted to continue the affair.
The fact is that if you were accused of adultery in Puritan colonies, as Hester was, you would be terrified. The penalty for adultery was death. Hester got out of the death penalty by a technicality. Others in Puritan Colonies did not. To be accused by Puritans was virtually the same as being convicted because it was necessary to have a witness(es) give a sworn statement of the act. Here is an excerpt from a true account regarding a young woman named Mary Latham from the not so pure Massachusetts colony:
"The woman proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin, and at length attained to hope of pardon by the blood of Christ, and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice. The man also was very much cast down for his sins, but was loath to die, and petitioned the general court for his life, but they would not grant it...
They were both executed, they both died very penitently, especially the woman, who had some comfortable hope of pardon of her sin, and gave good exhortation to all young maids to be obedient to their parents, and to take heed of evil company."
I would most likely move away from the colony after my punishment is over if I were Hester. And i would also be quicker with telling Dimmesdale the truth before Chillingworth catches on so we could have a somewhat happy ending.
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