How do 1850s beliefs about morality and justice apply to The Scarlet Letter?

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One of the things that is important to remember is that publicly, there was far more of a taboo on an illegitimate child, on sex outside of marriage, etc., but these things happened quite frequently.  People just didn't discuss them openly and they also were more likely to feel that...

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there were real consequences in the form of damnation, etc., that would be applied to those who flaunted the religious and moral rules of the time.

But Hawthorne and other authors of the time were interested in challenging some of these mores and some of these taboos.  So bringing out the story of Hester Prynne and the reactions of the town and the hypocrisy of many of the so called leaders is an important commentary on the social fabric of the time and challenging some aspects of it.

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During the pre-civil war era, America at large was still very Puritan in its Christian beliefs. That is to say, if one were to be seen fishing on Sunday, such action was considered a violation of the Sabbath, and sure, swift, punishment from God was assumed to be coming the angler's way. What's more, fashion remained very conservative, and deviation from societal norms was considered a form of sin.

It was also believed that if one were guilty of any crime, not only would God's justice be applied, but man's justice, as well. Hangings were not uncommon, and often the sentence was carried out on those who were in fact innocent, but suspected of running afoul of the law.

Revenge was considered just and fair retribution for wrongdoings against one's self, family, or property. If a man were hauled into court for killing someone's livestock, a righteous defense would be to say that the victim had, at one time, committed an equal wrong against the defendant.

Forgiveness was a biblical concept, and while it was known and admired, it was not practiced with the same veracity as other biblical ideals.

Overall, the 1850s remained a time of frontier-style justice, despite the progress of the country.

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