What is Hester Prynne’s punishment? What do the Puritan magistrates hope to accomplish with this punishment?

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Payal Khullar eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Nathaniel Hawthorn’s novel The Scarlet Letter, the lead character Hester Prynne commits the sin of Adultery. In her husband’s absence from that place for several years, she begins an affair and gives birth to a child.

The Scarlet Letter depicts a time period around 17th century in Boston when the American society was engulfed in stern Puritanism. As we understand, a sinner is someone who violates the laws of religion. He may or may not be a criminal. A criminal is subjected to punishment, but not a sinner. But as per the American Puritanism, the religion was the only law of the land. A child without marriage is a severe sin, adultery. This is why Hester Prynne is called for punishment.

After asking her several questions about the child and father, Hester is rendered a punishment to carry the scarlet letter A on her breast. The letter “A” stands for Adultery.  She has to carry this batch of shame on her bosom for a lifetime.

This is a punishment she gets for adultery and also for maintaining the secret of her lover’s identity. Through this punishment, the Puritan magistrates ensure that seeing this letter anyone will become aware that Hester is guilty of committing the sin of adultery and is hence subjected to ridicule, humiliation and harsh criticism. Her public shame will set an example and induce fear amongst others, making sure that no one dares to challenge Puritan doctrine.

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The Scarlet Letter

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