Man Against Nature’s Law in The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s way of bringing attention to the American Puritan societies of the 1600s and sharing his views on them. Although his transcendentalist background was reflected in some of his views that opposed those of the Puritans, Hawthorne did a good job of not letting those personal views alter the historical context of his writing. Aside from the fiction that was included in some of the characters and parts of the story line to help create a framework in which Hawthorne showed his points rather than telling them, the story he told was true and expresses his true views on the topic. Without a doubt, Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter with some intention of putting the American Puritan societies of the 1600s on a pedestal for the world to see so that he could expose the weaknesses that he saw within their society to all. However, he also wrote it as a way to compare eras under the disguise of a seemingly simple story of a sinner in a devoutly Puritan society.
In the novel, a Boston colony was the Puritan society that Hawthorne used as the setting of the story. At no point did he tell the reader what the society was like or how it worked, but rather showed them through what was said or done by the characters within it. For example, the first time that the main character, Hester Prynne, was introduced was when she had to walk from the prison to the scaffold to begin her punishment for committing adultery. In the midst of this, Hawthorne included dialogue between people in the crowd in regards to Prynne’s punishment.
One such remark was made by a Puritan man explaining the situation to a stranger, “…they have not been bold to put in force the extremity of our righteous law against her. The penalty thereof is death. But, in their great mercy and tenderness of heart, they have doomed Mistress Prynne to stand only a space of three hours on the platform of the pillory, and then and thereafter, for the remainder of her natural life, to wear a mark of shame upon her bosom’ (Hawthorne51).” Had Hawthorne left out dialogue he would have had to flat out tell the reader the severity and strictness of the Puritan society. However, by using dialogue he drew a greater reaction because it showed that not only the leaders in this society are this strict and devout, but also the average citizens. The dialogues, thoughts, and references between the characters, and in some cases the narrator, serve as Hawthorne’s method for portraying his points by showing, not telling.
The most prominent point that Hawthorne needed to bring forth in The Scarlet Letter was regarding the lack of humanity and human nature within the Puritan society. Hester Prynne was an embodiment of this idea for the entirety of the novel. Before being arrested and receiving a life-long penalty for her sins and crimes, Prynne was accepted in her society and treated like a true member. However, as soon as her sins were made known and used to make her into an example of sin for her society to see every day, Prynne was practically removed from her society altogether as if she had never been a part of it. The scarlet letter on her chest alienated her from society, which was worse than death. “[The letter] had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself (Hawthorne 44).” Hawthorne gave examples multiple times throughout the story in which he exposed over and over again the lack of human nature to be decent to others despite their past wrongs.
Even towards the end of the novel many years after Prynne was sentenced with the scarlet letter, it continued to keep her isolated from the rest of society, “Unscrupulous as it was, however, it could not bring them nearer than a circuit of several yards (Hawthorne 191).” Here Hawthorne highlights not only the lack of human nature once again by showing how people keep their distance from Prynne as if she is inhuman, but also how the lack of change in the society’s view of her despite the amount of time that has passed remained unchanged as a result of their extreme intolerance, especially towards a sinner like her. In regards to Hawthorne’s being a transcendentalist and having some of those ideas to blame for the conflicts he saw within the Puritan society, it did not help that there were other religious societies during the 1600s, such as the Quakers, who handled things in a way that made the Puritans look merciless.
The Quakers were pacifists who were extremely tolerant compared to the Puritans and represented more closely the beliefs of a transcendentalist than a devout Puritan. For this reason, Hawthorne would have been more understanding of them and in comparing the two societies definitely seen far more wrong with the Puritans than the Quakers. Hawthorne’s issues with Puritan society directly reflect the ideas and movements of the era in which he lived and wrote The Scarlet Letter. Living in the transcendentalist era and being a transcendentalist, Hawthorne experienced the shift of education from church to institution. He looked to intuition and imagination for knowledge instead of looking to religion. For this reason it was not surprising that he saw problems in the way the Puritans were so devout and intolerant.
The Puritans lived for only religion and Hawthorne lived for knowledge and intuition gained any way but religiously. Transcendentalists like Hawthorne believed that all people were equal and held equal opportunity for anything in life, which was another topic for conflict between his views and the Puritans’. In their society no type of equality existed, as it was basically the samehierarchical structure that they all left England to escape, but then they ended up rebuilding under a different name and different laws.
The Puritans’ extreme intolerance also played a huge role in the equality conflict. In the first chapter when Hawthorne refers to “…the sainted Ann Hutchinson (Hawthorne 40)” it proves that he was not a supporter of the Puritans or at the very least their intolerance. Ann Hutchinson was a woman who challenged the Puritan authority in Boston as God’s elect and by preaching in her own home and debating the role of women. Her reward for doing her own thing outside of the church was to be tried and convicted of heresy by the Governor John Winthrop who is a character in The Scarlet Letter, excommunicated from the church, and banished to New York. In that is yet another example of inequality and intolerance that conflicts with the transcendentalist beliefs of Hawthorne’s.
In writing The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s goal was not purely to bash the Puritans for what he saw wrong in their society, but also to in a way use them as an example in which the advancements of society could be seen between the eras of Hester Prynne and his own. Hester Prynne did exist as Hawthorne’s way of evoking all of the issues that he saw within the societies of the American Puritans of the 1600s because all of the wrongs happened to her in the story, but she also represented his beliefs as a transcendentalist. Prynne’s ability to persevere through all of the embarrassment and guilt that came with wearing the scarlet letter took a lot of bravery and courage on her part, and Hawthorne made her that way for a reason.
The feminist movement that took place just before Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter is represented through Prynne. Just as women in Hawthorne’s time were standing up for themselves, holding their own, and breaking cultural barriers Hester Prynne did the same in a way that fit into her era. By enduring her punishment instead of running, supporting herself and Pearl despite the agony going into town caused her, and raising Pearl alone Prynne did break barriers of the time and hold her own ground. Hawthorne’s ability to make The Scarlet Letter a novel of his era while simultaneously remaining one of the past makes it into so much more than the story of a sinner in a Puritan society.