If we define ethics as the study or performance of the morally correct, then we will see that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is not really a novel about “ethics.” In fact, for the most part, Hawthorne makes the enforcers of law and justice in seventeenth century Puritan society look out of touch with human nature and sometimes just plain silly.
Early in the novel, as Hester Prynne emerges from prison with the letter “A” on her breast, she is closely watched by several of the older women. Hester is on her way to the scaffold to be made a public spectacle before she is given her freedom. Several of the women believe that her punishment is too lenient. In their opinion, the community’s ethical standards are too lax:
The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch—that is a truth . . . at the very least they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead.
Another woman, also in favor of a more severe brand of ethical retribution, interprets Hester’s crime in terms of how it makes the town look:
This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it?
So, ethically speaking, the colonial, Puritan Boston is not of one mind regarding the appropriate punishment of Hester Prynne. However, the town has made a public event of Hester’s punishment. A procession of citizens follows her from the prison to the scaffold. Kids have even been let out of school. It’s interesting to note, however, that the students do not really know what is going on.
A crowd of eager and curious schoolboys, understanding little of the matter in hand except that it gave them a half-holiday, ran before her progress, turning their heads continually to stare into her face.
For such a supposedly egregious violation of ethics, one might expect schoolboys to know what the cause of all the fuss was about. The fact that they do not undermines the idea that Hester Prynne is such a danger to society.
Finally, later in the novel, we see that Hester has, by virtue of her kind and sympathetic service to the sick and needy in the community, transformed the meaning of the scarlet letter:
Such helpfulness was found in her—so much power to do and power to sympathize—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet “A” by its original signification. They said that it meant “Able”; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.
By reversing the meaning of the letter A to something positive, Hawthorne has cast doubt on the ethical judgment of the town leaders. In the end it Hester who is good and kind, and yes, perhaps even ethically righteous in her own way.
The town as a whole is so religious that a married woman, whose husband has never appeared in the town, then becomes pregnant must be put to shame. They know her husband did not help her conceive, so she must have had an affair. The letter A is symbolic throughout the story and the meaning evolves over time.