In The Scarlet Letter, judging from the conversations of the Puritan "goodwives", what punishments would they like to see?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The ladies that appoint themselves to be posted outside the prison door where Hester Prynne is held are anything but meek. With the exception of a very few wives, the big majority had a collective campaign against her that filled them with a lot of anger.

Hawthorne has a very subtle way of pointing out the many differences between Hester and the women. The way is by using lush details to describe Hester. She is tall, distinguishable, attractive, sophisticated, has long hair, and is apparently very feminine.

Contrastingly, Hawthorne points out that the "goodwives", are "ruddy", "round", and somewhat rough. That they are the product of "beef and ale" generations, and that they are as tough in the inside as they are in the outside. This is why it comes to no surprise that one of the goodwives, "a hard-featured dame of fifty" as she is described, reacts the way that she does:

I'll tell ye a piece of my mind. It would be greatly for the public behoof if we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute, should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne.

The women are complaining that "not enough" punishment was given. They are correct. Death would have been the punishment for Hester's crime. However, in chapter III, "The Recognition", we learn that the magistrates considered mitigating factors against it. One factor was age or better yet, the immaturity of her age. The other was that Hester was new to the village and was new to the lifestyle in it. The other was that Hester's husband was considered dead in the first place, what adultery did she really commit? If anything, the real problem Hester had was Pearl.

In the words of another woman described as an "autumnal matron"

 "At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead"

And in the words of another woman whom Hawthorne describes as "the ugliest" and "most pitiless" of them all,

 This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die.

In not so many words, the goodwives wanted Hester dead. They wanted to see physical pain inflicted upon her, and that she is tried in public, punished in public, and even be killed if she has to be. The women were showing scorn and perhaps even jealousy. They wanted to take matters into their own hands. Maybe some felt their husbands could have been involved with Hester, or would have wanted to if given the chance. They definitely see Hester as a threat to their womanhood, to their looks, and perhaps even to their marriages. Therefore, the consensus was to make Hester suffer as much as possible.

Read the study guide:
The Scarlet Letter

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