What are the limits on individual freedom in "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne?
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In one sense, the characters in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne have all the freedom they could want, since we know they can leave this Puritan community at any time. Even Hester could have left, taken off the scarlet letter, and gone to a new community or back to New England--and no one in Boston could have or would have stopped her. Hester had
the world before her,--kept by no restrictive clause of her condemnation within the limits of the Puritan settlement, so remote and so obscure,--free to return to her birthplace, or to any other European land, and there hide her character and identity under a new exterior, as completely as if emerging into another state of being,--and having also the passes of the dark, inscrutable forest open to her, where the wildness of her nature might assimilate itself with a people whose customs and life were alien from the law that had condemned her....
We know that she stayed, but she could have gone; that is the ultimate freedom, and everyone in Boston has it.
In another sense, the people who choose to live under Puritan laws and restrictions have a very narrow kind of individual freedom. They must obey not only the laws of the city but the laws of God--and everyone in town gets to be their judge, jury, and punisher.
We know that people in this community could only wear certain types of clothing, were supposed to stay away from the forest, were expected to attend church, and had to behave with a certain propriety, among many other restrictions and prohibitions.
We learn in chapter one that certain "crimes" are punishable by public whipping or worse: "as sluggish bond-servant," an "undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to civil authority," a person who speaks heresy against the faith, an inebriated Indian, and a witch. Hester is punished on the scaffold and with a scarlet token for adultery, though her proper punishment should have been death. This readiness to punish anyone who steps outside the boundaries of acceptable Puritan behavior severely limits individual freedom at the most basic level--one does not have the right to be lazy or insolent, and holding a different religious view will ensure a prompt ejection from the town. This demonstrates the severity of the people as well as the intolerance of the Puritans for behaviors which they deem to be sinful.
We know that all of these rules and restrictions did not create sinless people; in fact, we meet characters who are witches, lechers, gossipers, and haters. Most of them are just plain unkind, and their children are no better. An environment which severely restricts individual freedoms is not the kind of place most people want to stay for long, which is why Puritanism did not survive.
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