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In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, he draws the reader's attention to the society of the Puritans, which was a combination of church and state. The Puritans had left England to avoid persecution by those who were intolerant of their strict beliefs and lifestyle. Ironically, when they arrived in the colonies, they went about doing exactly the same thing: showing intolerance for others.
In understanding the power of the scarlet "A," we must have an "appreciation" for Puritanism in general. Hawthorne is said to have been greatly influenced by the fact that his grandfather had been a part of the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. Hawthorne looked very carefully into the heart of Puritanism.
In a historical context...
[The Puritans] sought to establish an ideal community in America that could act as a model...for what they saw as a corrupt civil and religious order in England...Directed toward the realization of such an ideal, the Puritans required a strict moral regulation...
In light of the worldview of the Puritans, it is safe to say that there was no room for imperfection within their ranks. People were punished if they fell asleep during worship, failed to attend worship, or failed to act in a sober manner in church. One fine for failing to do so was paid with tobacco, which was "the currency of the colony." The theocracy present among the Puritans is seen as ministers were required to remind their congregation of the laws that bound them simply with regard to church attendance:
...parishioners were reminded that failure to attend church twice each day was punishable...first...by the loss of a day's food. A second [time]...by a whipping and a third by six months of rowing in the colony's galleys.
Proper behavior was expected of adults and children. The Puritans were extremely harsh, their laws particularly rigid and inflexible. A sea captain who returned home on a Sunday, after being away for three years, kissed his wife in public and was sentenced to "several hours of public humiliation in the stocks."
A thief might been branded or hanged, even if stealing food. Petty crimes dealing with lesser offenses (public drunkenness, etc.) might well land one in the stocks or pillory. Punishments were generally delivered in public—humiliation an additional source of suffering for the "criminal."
The basis of the law was found in the presence of sin. And Puritans believed that sin was everywhere. So were those who watched each other for any indication of wrongdoing. (This, of course, was the mindset in the advent of the witch trials in Salem.)
Sex was an area of concern. Bestiality resulted in hanging (while the animals were also "executed"). Adultery was also a criminal offense. One young married woman convicted of adultery was sentenced to hang, as was one of the men who confessed having been with her. Hester Prynne was not hanged because she was pregnant, but was forced to wear her shame publicly each day in the form of a scarlet "A" on the bodice of her gown.
So the scarlet "A" is not synonymous of Puritanism per se, but its lack of tolerance and humanity, its penchant for exposing a person's sin for all to see, and a lack of understanding with regard to the New Testament's message of forgiveness. The scarlet "A" brings to mind the harsh treatment by Puritans for those within their own community, and reminds us of a group of people who found satisfaction in punishing each other. Their religion eventually disappeared.
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