Nathaniel Hawthorne presents a critical view of the Puritans in The Scarlet Letter. How does Hawthorne use various rhetorical strategies to characterize these early settlers?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Nathaniel Hawthorne uses rhetorical strategies to characterize the early Puritans by acknowledging their rigid moral values and by using both logical reasons and emotional appeals to his readers. In Chapter 2, "The Marketplace," Hawthorne sets the stage for the action by mentioning the "early severity of the Puritan character."

  • Ethos  [Acknowledgement of values of the Puritans]

At the beginning of this chapter, Hawthorne acknowledges the inculcated values of the Puritans, describing the "grim rigidity that petrified the physiognomies of these good people" as they fasten their eyes upon the iron door of the prison. They are a sect that has "chain of ancestry" with "a moral diet not a whit more refined" than it has been since its incipience.

  • Logos [Appeals to reason]

Hawthorne points to the pillory as the "very ideal of ignominy" for the Puritans. This device, he continues, is the most outrageous humiliation because it "forbid(s) the culprit to hide his face for shame." But, he adds that the Puritan leaders have not subjected Hester Prynne to this confinement of her head, "the most devilish characteristic of this ugly engine"; instead, they have more reasonably made her stand on the scaffold.

In addition, Hawthorne argues that the Puritans have not become "corrupt enough to smile, instead of shuddering" at the sight of Hester so humiliated. They do not, he remarks, possess the "heartlessness of another social state" which might derive sadistic pleasure and "jest" at this spectacle. "Accordingly, the crowd was somber and grave." There is, then, a "stern dignity" to the audience.

  • Pathos [Appeals to emotion]

Despite the consideration given to Hester by not forcing her into the pillory, Hester suffers the embarrassment of having to stand before the entire community with a scarlet A upon her bosom. As she is placed in shamed display upon the scaffold before the Puritans, Hawthorne contrasts their "stern dignity" with the inner feelings of Hester. With poignancy, Hawthorne describes this mother with her baby as a picture that resembles the "Divine Maternity," reminding any Papist, who by some oddity, might be in the audience.

Further, as she continues to stand in ignominy, Hester recalls her childhood in England and her mother's "anxious love" for her. With this passage, Hawthorne evokes a sympathy for Hester as she recalls her hopes of a better life in the New World, hopes that are interrupted by the "rude market-place of the Puritan settlement, with all the townspeople...leveling their stern regards at Hester Prynne." 

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