American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was born in Salem, Massachusetts, and was a descendent of John Hawthorne, one of the Puritan judges that sent innocents to a brutal death in the witch trials for which the city became infamous. Hawthorne was deeply influenced by the Puritan legacy of his native New England, and he used this time and place as a lens through which to examine the human heart—especially in the context of group dynamics. Group dynamics refers to how humans influence each other when they are in a group setting rather than as individuals. It is important to remember that although Puritanism as a form of organized Christian religion did not last very long, the strict judgmental attitudes that were its dark side continued to characterize New England for many years to come.
I believe that one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s purposes in writing A Scarlet Letter was to demonstrate the harm that a severely judgmental society can cause. By selectively using Bible teachings to create fear of eternal damnation without the counterbalance of Jesus’s teachings on forgiveness and the importance of not judging others, Puritan society missed the point of what it means to be a Christian. In dread fear of being judged themselves, people in a group setting can be all too eager to find a scapegoat—someone else on whom they can focus their anxieties, punish, and exclude. The term “scapegoat” comes from the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament of the Bible. After a religious leader had forgiven the people of their sins, a goat was released into the desert to symbolically take their sins far away.
Another purpose of A Scarlet Letter, I believe, is to provide a noble contrast to the dark side of Puritanism. Hester Prynne has a child out of wedlock and this is a very big sin in the eyes of her society. Yet, she comes to embody the idea of redemption—a fundamental Christian principle. She accepts her punishment with grace and rises above her circumstances. Hester lives her life with dignity and goodness, and she brings a new definition to letter A when she returns to Boston and voluntarily wears the shaming sign. Through Hester’s acts of kindness and charity she becomes a shining example of what it means to be a real Christian.