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In his classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, author Nathaniel Hawthorne explores the themes of legalism, sin, and guilt, themes that all relate to Puritanism. Legalism, or over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, is the guiding force of the Puritan community in which Hester Prynne is punished. Obedience to the law, not faith in God's grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption for the Puritan community. This neglect of mercy is what controls Hester's life and affects little Pearl.
For one thing, Hester is made to live on the edge of town and is ostracized further as she is marked with the scarlet A upon her bosom. When people encounter her they move to the side or look away. The other children mock and taunt Pearl. When Hester and Pearl arrive at the governor's hall, Governor Bellingham and the Reverend Wilson laugh and call Pearl a little bird of scarlet plummage, an elf-child, a naughty fairy. Worse yet, some of the Puritans hold that she is a "demon offspring."
Another way in which Hester is treated by the community is in its ostracism. While she sews for many of the prominent members of the community, she is never allowed to make a wedding dress or any of the accoutrements. While the Puritan code never truly overcomes Hester's independent passions, she does acknowledge her guilt and boldly displays it to the world. Her elaborate embroidery, her dressing of Pearl is such bold color, and her wearing of the A long after she needs to all demonstrate Hester's willingness to follow Puritan legalism. She tells Dimmesdale in their meeting in the forest,
"Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast, and did hold fast, through all extremity...A lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side."
In accepting her guilt, Hester Prynne learns from her sin, and Pearl becomes more human after her father, Mr. Dimmesdale, acknowledges her. Hawthorne writes,
The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,--stern and wild ones,--and they had made her strong...
As a result of the legalism of The Scarlet Letter's magistrates and the guilt from her sin, Hester emerges from her experiences as a woman capable of helping many others; she attains respect and finds some contentment. Her daughter Pearl becomes truly human and lives a full life in England.
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