Judging from the conversation of the Puritan women, what are their conceptions about sin, morality, and punishment, The Scarlet Letter?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the depiction of the women standing before the scaffold in Chapter 2 of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne points to the irony of a Puritan sect that has fled England because of religious persecution to be so desirous of inflicting mental persecution because of religious reasons upon one of their own community. Ironically, in this theocratic commonwealth, there is no tolerance for sin of any kind; therefore, those who stand and wait for the punishment of Hester feel compelled to proclaim their innocence by denouncing her, lest any of them become suspect in  showing sympathy for her.

In their declamations of Hester, a sanctimonious older woman suggests more violent torture, as aspect of the early Puritans that Hawthorne found so reprehensible.  This "hard-featured dame of fity" tells the other women,

If this hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded?  Marry, I trow not!"

Another woman suggests that a Hester Prynne should have been branded on the forehead because she believes that Hester does not care about what she must wear on the bodice of her dress. Then, it is a younger woman, a mother of a small child herself, who remarks that Hester will always feel "the pang of it...in her heart."  To this show of sympathy, a woman cries out that Hester has brought shame upon the entire community and should die, 

"Is there not a law for it?  Truly there is,....Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!"

It is evident from the statements of most of the women that sin should be punished severely else members of the community "go astray." Clearly, they perceive punishment as the only deterrent to sin, having embraced the Calvinistic precept of the depravity of man, a precept which strongly influenced Puritanism.  Within this Puritan community in which the women reside, there must be a close vigil kept upon the inner and outer events of their lives.  Indeed, the Puritan village is like the people: clad in gray, severe, "sad-colored" with a prison door always looming before them.  Hester Prynne has dared to express her passion, and the women are dismayed by this now overt display of the weakness of emotion, equating it all to the most grievous of sins that should be severely punished.

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The Scarlet Letter

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