To what extent can The Scarlet Letter be considered as an attack on Puritanism ?

The Scarlet Letter can be considered an attack on Puritanism because it questions the one-dimensional moral judgments of the Puritans as well as their treatment of the socially ostracized.

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In The Scarlet Letter, author Nathaniel Hawthorne questions the moral system of the seventeenth-century puritans. The Puritans were obsessed with notions of sinfulness: they saw the world as fallen from grace and punished sinners harshly. They tended to embrace a Calvinist theology, which claimed that God predestined certain people to a place in heaven and others to eternal damnation in hell. This created a rather one-dimensional view of human nature. Hawthorne criticizes these views through the actions of the Puritan community in The Scarlet Letter, which are almost always defined by a startling lack of empathy and nuance.

Hawthorne's book has little sympathy for the harsh morality of the Puritans. In fact, they seem outright opposed to Christian morality as presented in the gospels. The iconic image of Hester shamed on the scaffold for her adultery evokes the story of Christ rescuing the adulteress brought to be executed publicly, but rather than refraining from judgment as the gospel narrative commands, the Puritans ostracize Hester and demand she be defined by her sin for the rest of her life. Even when she tries helping the poor or doing other charitable work, she is shunned and reviled. Such actions are in direct violation of Christian notions of mercy.

The Puritan characters are also presented as incapable of nuance or compassion. At one point, they try to take Pearl from Hester's care when the child does not correctly repeat Puritan catechism back to them under questioning. Rather than see this as a child being mischievous (she claims she was plucked from a bush at the prison door), the Puritan authorities see it as proof of both Hester and Pearl's inherent depravity. Overall, this black-and-white moralizing defines Hawthorne's presentation of the Puritans and could be seen as a scathing indictment of their theological and moral belief systems.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 25, 2021
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