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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter satirizes many flaws in humans and in society, but two of his most important targets seem to be spiritual pride and the inability to forgive. One might argue, for instance, that both the Puritan society the book depicts and the particular character of Roger Chillingworth are both guilty of these failings. Many of the Puritans in the book display a kind of spiritual pride or arrogance. They set themselves up as judges and presume to act almost as substitutes for God. They preoccupy themselves with the sins of others rather than focusing on sins of their own.
One of the first indications that Hawthorne will be subtly satirizing this kind of attitude appears in the chapter titled “The Marketplace,” which describes the townspeople waiting for Hester Prynne to emerge from jail. The narrator reports the following comments by a member of the crowd:
“Goodwives,” said a hard-featured dame of fifty, “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. What think ye, gossips? If the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not!”
Much about this paragraph seems ironic. Thus, the fact that the women are called “goodwives” is appropriate to the speech of the period, but it is clear that this woman considers herself a “good wife” in the literal sense. She is proud of her virtue and seems unwilling for forgive the failings of Hester. In this sense, she is “hard-featured” not simply in physical appearance but in spirit. She is rigid, judgmental, and vindictive. She is proud of her social standing and of her standing in the church; she takes great pride in her reputation and believes that she has the right to judge and punish others. Mature in age, she is in many ways immature spiritually. Her pride in her “good repute” is in fact rather shameful; profound humility would better become her. She presumes that she knows better and can judge better than the magistrates who have decided on Hester’s punishment. In short, she is full of the kind of pride that afflicts Chillingworth, Dimmesdale, much of the Puritan community, and (Hawthorne believed) most human hearts.
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