In the book The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the story of the adultery of Hester Prynne. In developing his story, he uses many images to give the depth of his character and to help explain the plot. Many of these images are religious and natural ones that undermine Puritan ideals. Hawthorne uses these images to show his dislike for the austerity of the religion.
To undercut the Puritan religion, Hawthorne uses many religious images. Early in the novel, he describes Hester and her baby as “… this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of the Divine Maternity” (pg. 53). The Divine Maternity refers to the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary. The Puritans feel that because of her unfaithfulness, Hester is someone to scorn and look down upon. By comparing her to the Virgin Mary, Hawthorne shows that, despite her sin, Hester really is a good and holy person.
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A little later in the book, Mistress Prynne, concerning Roger Chillingworth, says, ” Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the forest round about us” (pg. 71-72). The Black Man is another name for the Devil’s messenger or the Devil himself. The Puritans believe that Roger Chillingworth is a good man, they’re helping the Reverend Dimmesdale restore to his former good health. This image shows instead that Chillingworth has darker and more evil intentions than the facade observed by the village. Roger is there to torment the Reverend for his sin. Also, later in the story, a man observing Roger “… would have no need to ask how Satan comports himself when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won to his kingdom” (pg. 127). This passage also shows the wickedness of Chillingworth’s character that is not observed by the Puritans.
About halfway through the book, Hawthorne says that Dimmesdale’s fellow clergymen lacked “… the gift that descended upon the chosen disciples at Pentecost” (pg. 130). The gift refers to the Holy Spirit. The Puritans believed that their clergymen were the holiest, having spent many years acquiring knowledge of their faith and being spoken to by God. Hawthorne undermines them by saying that despite all their knowledge, they lack the most important thing needed by a reverend, the gift of the Holy Spirit. This meant that the preachers lacked the ability to preach with their hearts and therefore were unable to really reach their congregation.
In another part of the book, Reverend Dimmesdale says of himself “… I, in whose daily life you discern the sanctity of Enoch… am utterly a pollution and a lie” (pg. 132). The Puritans also say of him, ” The godly youth… the saint on earth” (pg. 132). Enoch ” walked with God” and was taken into heaven without dying. Puritan people believed that, out of everyone in their village, Dimmesdale was the holiest and sinless of them all. Little did they know that he is the one who should have been sharing the scaffold with Hester Prynne, whom they had condemned. Even when he tried to tell them, they refused to let it into their minds that he could have done such a terrible act.
Hawthorne also uses a natural image to undercut the Puritans. Right at the beginning of the story, he describes the front yard of the prison as “… a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation… But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems” (pg. 45-46). Hawthorne uses this passage to symbolize the Puritans and Hester. The Puritans believe that they are godly and right and that Hester is a horrible, sinful person. However, Hawthorne believes otherwise. He uses the unsightly, thorny vegetation to represent the Puritans, their harsh religion, and their extreme punishment of Mistress Prynne. The rose-bush represents Hester. He shows that despite her sentence, her grievous sin, and being rejected by the town, she is as beautiful as ever and still a better person than the Puritans are.
As you can see, Hawthorne undermined Puritan ideals many times in his book through the use of religious and natural images. His comparison of Hester and baby to the Divine Maternity and of the Puritans to unsightly vegetation really shows his dislike for what these people believed. While religion was an important part of the Puritan’s life, it shouldn’t have limited them from seeing the true character of the people around them.
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