In The Scarlet Letter, explain the Puritan attitude toward luxury and how Governor Bellingham and Revered John Wilson responded to it.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Puritan attitude toward luxury is partly based on their beliefs and partly on their circumstances. Believing as they did in an austere and exacting God who has created this earthly plane to test our souls, the Puritans denied themselves sensory pleasures in an effort to achieve salvation. Couple this with an equally strong conviction that the Devil is a pervasive and active agent who dangles such pleasures before us to win our souls from God and the revulsion of Puritans toward luxury is understandable. Additionally, the Puritans had undergone severe deprivation over the first decade and a half that precedes the novel. To some degree, then, they made a virtue of necessity.

Why then can Bellingham and Wilson be such blithe conspicuous consumers? Perhaps the congregation needs the visible representatives of divine power to serve as a reminder for the glories to be had hereafter. Certainly the flock's worship of Dimmesdale before and after his confession suggest that men of God were not held to the same code of conduct that ordinary people were. In keeping with the spirit of the Romance, our narrator is reluctant to make a pronouncement either way. Rest assured though, the inherent inconsistency in the Puritan moral code is not left to our interpretation. This society provides the perfect foil for Hester Prynne's painful, heroic redemption.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It becomes abundantly clear that Arthur Dimmesdale is not the only character in the novel who is living a kind of double life. Ostensibly at least, Puritanism eschewed luxury and embraced a simple, plain kind of lifestyle. And yet, as Hester Prynne and Pearl go to and enter Governor Bellingham's house, it is clear that in spite of his society's professed rejection of luxury and indulgence, a taste for the good things life has to offer persists in private behaviour.

Note the description we are given of Governor Bellingham at the beginning of Chapter Eight:

The impression made by his aspect, so rigid and severe, and frostbitten with more than autumnal age, was hardly in keeping with the appliances of worldly enjoyment wherewith he had evidently done his utmost to surround himself.

It is clear that the Reverend Wilson shares this belief as well:

The old clergyman, nurtured at the rich bosom of the English Church, had a long-established and legitimate taste for all good and comfortable things; and however stern he might show himself in the pulpit or in his public reproof of such transgressions as that of Hester Prynne, still, the genial benevolence of his private life had won him warmer affection than was accorded to any of his professional contemporaries.

This professed disavowal of luxury combined with the private embracing of it seems to point at the central hypocrisy of Puritanism, as its proponents certainly do not spare themselves any luxury they can obtain. It also points towards the double life lived by so many characters, and establishes Hester Prynne as being, in some senses, more honest than other characters in the book - she openly confesses and owns up to her "sin" whereas other characters are not so forthright.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial