What has been the impact of the Puritan society on the characters in The Scarlet Letter?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a literary examination of the psychological effects of sin, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is renowned for its interpretive challenges. Nevertheless, the author's admonition in Chapter XXIV, "The Conclusion," to

Be true! Be true!Show freely to the world if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!

runs counter to the Puritan credo. For, in the Puritan world, there was no allowance for sin since Puritans believed that Jesus Christ had been sent to earth to save a particular group of people known as the "elect"; the others were damned.  And, since no one knew who was saved or damned, people had to live exemplary lives or seem to in order to remain in good standing with the community. In fact, the greater the sin, the greater the hypocrisy as in with Arthur Dimmesdale, for instance, who must hide his sin of passion in order to remain as the spiritual leader of the community, and Roger Chillingworth who, under the guise of a caring physician, probes the soul of the Reverend Dimmesdale in order to discover the knowledge he seeks. But, one can only hide one's sins for so long; after some time, the degeneration of the spiritual being affects the physical and the Reverend Dimmesdale ails; pale and weak, he holds his hand over his heart. Likewise, Roger Chillingworth, craven and dark, seems the "black man" to little Pearl.  In fact, in Chapter XIV, Chillingworth admits that his dark, secretive work that "burrow[s] and rankles[s]" the soul of Dimmesdale has evolved him into a "fiend."

Because secret sin corrupts both soul and body, Dimmesdale finds himself agonizing over his hypocrisy; Chillingworth deteriorates, while Hester--albeit having lost her beauty and having been stigmatized--finds worth in her acts of charity and kindness. Her spirit is not conquered and, in an effort to save the tortured minister, she encourages Dimmesdale to return to England with her. But, after this plan is foiled, the minister must remain; however, he is compelled to relieve his tortured conscience, so he makes a public confession, revealing his mark of shame to the public, and is "true."  But, the exertion this confession has requred brings him only death.  Chillingworth, who has subsisted on his revenge against Dimmesdale, is lost as well after the minister escapes him. So, only Hester who has publicly acknowleged her sin remains; however, her survival in the Puritan community depends upon not just her repentance.  In Sacvan Bercovitch's The Office of The Scarlet Letter, the author contends,

The Scarlet Letter "is a story of socialization in which the point of socialization is not to conform, but to consent. Anyone can submit; the socialized believe. It is not enough to have the letter imposed; you have to do it yourself."

Whereas in Chapter XIII, Hawthorne writes, "The scarlet letter had not done its office," by Chapter XXIII, Pearl's "errand as a messenger of anguish was fulfilled" as her father confesses and acknowledges her publicly, and, years later, the Puritan Hester returns from England to Massachusetts and has "taken up her long-forsaken shame" where there is a more compliant life for her. Completely socialized in Puritanism, Hester

had returned, therefore, and resumed of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,--resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale.  Never afterwards did it quit her bosom.

When Hester dies and she is buried in a grave next to that of Dimmesdale marked with an engraved escutcheon, marked with a sable A.


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The Scarlet Letter

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