How are the Puritans of Boston first portrayed?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The opening chapters of The Scarlet Letter can indicate much in way of how the Puritans in Boston are portrayed.  The "sad- coloured garments" in the first chapter reveals how Hawthorne perceives the Puritans in Boston.  They are dreary and almost despondent.  Hawthorne describes their social setting in these terms. This is reflected in their architecture of the prison- house door, one that is "studded with iron spikes."  Hawthorne's description is almost draconian in how he evokes a lack of hope in the edifice around which the Boston Puritans have gathered.

In describing the vision of "Utopia" the Boston Puritans envisioned, Hawthorne remarks that there was a recognizable development of both a prison and a cemetery.  This illuminates the sadness with which he views the Boston Puritans. In this condition, the only light is the growth of a rose bush, something that he connects to Anne Hutchinson:  "...it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson."  It is interesting to note that Hawthorne uses "saint" to describe someone who was seen as an outsider by the Boston Puritans. For Hawthorne, beauty and the divine is the opposite of the Boston Puritans, individuals who claimed to be ushers of both in their supposedly ideal community.  In this, the description of hypocrisy within the Boston Puritans is evident and a theme that Hawthorne will develop throughout the narrative.

As we see Hester, Hawthorne brings out further description of the Puritans in Boston.  While the men were draped in "sad coloured garments," Hawthorne brings out a fattened cow description of the women:  "There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport or its volume of tone."  For Hawthorne, these women sat in judgment of Hester, reflective of how they refer to one another as "gossips," women who understand their construction of power through intimation and suggestion, as opposed to anything related to fact or evidence.  Their savagery is evident in how they describe Hester in terms of action and words. Hawthorne's description of this atmosphere is indicative of the sad cruelty he sees intrinsic to the community of Puritans in Boston.  The contradictory element of justice in the community is also seen in Hawthorne's description of the Boston Puritans as individuals who “grown corrupt enough to smile, instead of shuddering" at the barbaric treatment of Hester.  Hawthorne contrasts this with the image of Hester herself:  "this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity."  As with Anne Hutchinson's description, Hawthorne suggest a beauty intrinsic to those who were maligned and silenced by the community of Boston's Puritans.  The corroded community's ugliness is something that Hawthorne is able to describe through articulating the beauty of its outsiders.

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