What is ironic about the colony that is the setting of this novel?Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Scarlet Letter, the Puritan colony that has been intended to be, as John Winthrop said in 1630, "a city upon a hill" setting an example of moral behavior for others, is instead a Massachusetts colony that has as its first building a prison, whose rusted and ponderous door clearly indicates that everyone in the colony does not live the exemplary life expected. 

However, this exemplary life is one that is fraught with denial, denial of the human passion that dwells in the human heart. Somehow though, a symbol of this forbidden passion, a rose bush, ironically grows "out of the stern old wilderness" outside the prison door, perhaps out of the dirt from the "footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson,"  Hawthorne writes.  A Puritan independent who led Bible discussions for women that later appealed to some men, Hutchinson was later tried and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for being a dissident.  Ironically also, her implicit rejection of state authority to prescribe religious interpretations was later incorporated into the American Constitution.

In another sharp irony, Hawthorne describes the Puritan Hester as beautifully resembling a Papist (the foes of the Puritans) depiction of the Madonna with Child, an almost sacrilegious depiction since Hester has had a child out of wedlock.  Then, too, the Reverend Dimmesdale, a Puritan minister who should be unmoved by the scandalous sin, seems emotionally moved by the appearance of Hester and child upon the scaffold as he stands holding his heart.

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The Scarlet Letter

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