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Puritan Values in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”


There is no doubt that law, order, and moral norms remain the components that allow to shape the society and to control people to prevent a wide range of unwanted situations. When it comes to the life of modern society and its members, it is necessary to say that maintaining law and order implies firmly dealing with various crimes and disturbances of the peace. In case if laws are broken, there is rapid enforcement of penalties imposed under criminal law. Anyway, it is important to understand that the range of acts that could be regarded as crimes tends to be different in various periods of the history of human society. This fact, along with many other tendencies, is illustrated by Nathaniel Hawthorne in one of the most popular novels devoted to the problem of sin. The novel called The Scarlet Letter appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century but it tells about the events that took place two hundred years earlier. In his novel, Hawthorne writes about the Puritan society where rules are also set and penalties enforced, but often unfairly, prompting condemnation and shame for merely expressing one’s thoughts and emotions. Puritan rules are less than law and more like rigid standards of conduct created by the Bible. Having written his novel, the discussed author expressed his honest opinion on the society that punishes those people who dare to live by their moral standards. Just like the primary character of his novel, Hester, the author had to meet with a lot of protests and objections from those who supposed the story to be able to make the society see Puritan values as unnecessary and inconsistent.

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Work Analysis

There is an important factor that needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to literary analysis. It is a common truth that there are a lot of messages that are not conveyed directly, with the help of exact descriptions and conversational turns. Thus, to better understand the message of the novel written by Hawthorne, it is important to consider such elements as symbols and imagery together with characters and settings. Speaking about characters, it is necessary to state that the system of characters used by the author is quite simple; there is Hester who is the main lady character, her husband Roger, her lover Arthur, her extramarital child Pearl acting as a “personification of Hester’s guilt”, the governor with his sister, and the clergyman (Boonyaprasop 65). Unfortunately, as can be seen from the novel, there was nobody who could protect Hester from accusations because it was dangerous to deny moral values accepted in that area (Bell 2). As for the setting, the described events take place in the middle of the seventeenth century in England, Boston.

Unlike the majority of modern people living in developed countries, women described by Hawthorne in this novel were obliged to maintain virtue, morals, be modest, and stay in their places. Furthermore, it is impossible to say that they were openly counted as a voice in society. Another important fact that needs to be mentioned is that people who belonged to Puritan society could be punished due to a wide range of reasons. More importantly, the punishment could be caused by unwillingness to abide by norms supported and promoted by those members of the society who possessed authority. Those demonstrating such unwillingness were punished as fit by irrational law with condemnation and shame, and this is what happened to the protagonist of the discussed story, Hester (Boonyaprasop 65). Speaking about the characters of the book, it is especially important to pay attention to the discussed character, her behavior, and specific motives that determine her actions and even encourage her to look beyond moral norms and specific rules of behavior that married women are supposed to follow. Thus, it may be said that Hester acts as an example of a woman who prefers living paying close attention to the needs of her heart, and this is why the unwanted situation occurs. As for the reasons why this extramarital affair took place, it can be supposed that Hester was not a happy wife. Many things can be said about her husband but the primary fact that the author focuses on is his willingness to influence other people, especially on his wife (Hawthorne). Hester is much younger than her husband and the latter is supposed to be quite aggressive when it comes to different spheres of life. Taking these factors into account, it becomes clear that there are a lot of things preventing her from being happy with her husband; therefore, in his absence, she dares to enter into relations with Dimmesdale. Realizing the inappropriateness of his actions, he seems to torment himself whereas Hester’s husband decides to find and punish her lover.

Another important point that needs to be considered when it comes to the themes of the book and the range of means that the author uses to convey the primary message and improve the expressiveness of the novel is related to specific symbols that allow readers to better understand the topics the author wants them to consider. Thus, speaking about these symbols, it is necessary to pay increased attention to specific measures that were taken by other citizens to demonstrate that Hester was a sinner and that her actions were associated with an indelible shame. To some extent, it can be stated that those people who punished Hester for things that were not supposed to become public knowledge wanted to kill two birds with one stone. To begin with, the measures implemented to deal with “lost souls” could be regarded as effective because they could help to make people give a subject second thought to their behavior and blame themselves for violating the rules accepted by all members of their community. The external symbols used to distinguish sinners were supposed to define their inner state (Dietrick 127). In such a manner, it was sometimes possible to steer some of the “sinners” onto the right path as the majority of individuals are likely to change their opinions and accept the assumptions that they used to deny under the pressure of the crowd consisting of those people they know well. At the same time, certain traditions related to public punishment of those who do not suppose religious moral norms accepted by the members of the community to be the primary principles they live by can be seen as helpful for those people, especially children, who may want to follow the example of ones regarded as sinners.

Therefore, public punishment that Hester had to survive was an important action from the point of view shared by clergymen whose goal was to protect Puritan values and prevent people from living by different norms. As for the particular measures that were taken to make Hester suffer because of her self will, they involved punishment with the use of pillory. Apart from that, she was supposed to wear a letter “A” on her dress that meant that she had had an extramarital affair (Boonyaprasop 71). Speaking about this sign on her dress, it may be said that it remains the most important symbol mentioned in the novel. Its color also has a deep meaning especially if we consider the name given to Hester’s daughter (Bell 1). To some extent, the sign on the dress can be regarded as a more modern variant of the stigma that was usually burned into the skin of ones committing serious crimes. As for this letter, it remains a sign that gives all the people surrounding Hester a right to injure her feelings, demonstrate that they disapprove her conduct, and use her story as a negative example for children who are already supposed to know the rules of conduct supported by the members of the community.


In general, it can be stated that Hawthorne manages to discuss the problem of sin about Puritan law in a very detailed way and even show certain inconsistencies associated with it. As for its connection with contemporary culture, the traditions related to public punishment are still supported in some countries of the world where the majority of people are strong believers. Therefore, even though the novel was written more than a hundred years ago, it seems to touch upon the problems that are inextricably connected with the laws of development of human society.

Works Cited

Bell, Sophie. “Misreading the Scarlet Letter: Race, Sentimental Pedagogy, and Antebellum Indian Literacy.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 42, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-27.

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Boonyaprasop, Marina. Hawthorne’s Wilderness: Nature and Puritanism in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Young Goodman Brown. Anchor Academic Publishing, 2013.

Dietrick, Jon. “The Current Gold Coin of the New Jerusalem: Perception, Symbolization, and Money in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.” Journal of Cultural Economy, vol. 10, no. 2, 2016, pp. 127-135.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Nathaniel Hawthorne: Collected Novels: Scarlet Letter/House of Seven Gables/Blithedale Romance/Fanshawe/Marble Faun. Library of America, 2016.

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