How is Puritanism and colonial society presented in The Scarlet Letter?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The opening chapter of this novel, following the narrator's account of his time in the Customs House, makes a very interesting observation about the New World that the Puritans voyaged to, with such hopes of creating a new Garden of Eden where they could follow God as their conscience dictated without fear of persecution:

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetry, and another portion as the site of a prison.

Thus it is that the opening chapter of this book features "A throng of bearded men, is sad coloured garments and grey, steeple-crowned hats," gathering around the prison. Hawthorne could be viewed as poking gentle fun at Puritanism and colonial society here. In spite of their grand dreams of establishing a utopia, or a perfect place in the New World, they have to accept that the frailty of human nature makes it vital that they construct a cemetry and a prison. In spite of grand hopes for a "new start" and a "blank slate," human nature is not so easily changed, and crime and deviance still exists and still needs to be punished. Note too the way in which the Puritans themselves are presented as being rather serious and depressing, both in the colour of their garb and with their beards, but also with the fascination that the prison exerts, shown by the large crowd gathered around the prison as the novel begins.

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The Scarlet Letter

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