The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne expresses the aspects of relationships, religion, community, discipline and punishment in the puritan community of 17th century Boston.
Relationships between men and women were very constrained and that is what made adultery such a bad sin in the eyes of everyone in the community. Religion seemed to govern overall, people would look up to reverends and the community believed that fate was their destiny. Public discipline and punishment were used to discourage everyone else from committing the same crime or sin as the offending “criminal” did. The community was to follow the beliefs of god and to do their duties the best they could, yet were there to criticize and punish all who disobeyed the religion or laws. In 17th century Boston, everything was very strict and everyone was expected to follow the laws, which makes Hester’s sin such an excellent example of the beliefs of that time period. The first scaffold scene is very important because the scene sums up the beliefs of the general public at that time, and gives a perspective of what Hester Prynne must deal with. At the beginning of chapter two, the scene is described as “it could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit,”(47) showing that the whole town was there for a ruthless public punishment.
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The crowd was not there for execution though, but there for public punishment of Hester Prynne who had committed adultery. A townsman describes Hester’s punishment to a stranger as, “they have doomed Mistress Prynne to stand only a space of three hours on the platform of the pillory, and then thereafter, for the remainder of her natural life, to wear a mark of shame upon her bosom.”(58) This scene shows the weight of values and morals upon society in the 17th century and how public punishment was not only used as a punishment but as a way to discourage others from committing the same crime. The community was key in this punishment because it helped alienate Hester and further her pain. The punishment brings forth Hester’s underlying pain, “[Hester] sent forth a cry she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real.”(55) This pain only breaks surface once, yet throughout the whole story, Hester must deal with the shame and emotional pain of the scarlet letter. The stranger sums it up best with the quotation, “Thus she will be a living sermon against sin until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her tombstone.”
Since religion was such a key part of their lives, anyone who did disobey their god was looked down upon. What made religion ironic in this story was how everyone looked up to a reverend that had committed the same sin as someone they looked down upon severely. Dimmesdale says, “before the judgment-seat, thy mother, and thou, and I, must stand together! But daylight of this world shall not see our meeting!”(134) The reverend knows his sin and wants to be punished with Hester and Pearl, yet not until what he calls “judgement day.” In the 17th century, Puritans believed that there was a stern God who had decreed in advance the fate of each person for all time. Therefore, there were not many people felt they could do to become a better person in God’s eyes but do his bidding with their jobs. To increase their chances of getting to go to heaven the townspeople would often get one step closer to God by getting close to a religious leader, which was bad for Arthur Dimmesdale who was probably farther away from God than everyone else because of his sin. Relationships were looked upon as something sacred and a woman should be loyal to her husband. Once married it was considered a horrible offence if you were un-loyal to your spouse.
“They have not been bold to put force the extremity of our righteous law against her. The penalty, therefore, is death.”(58) A townsman explains that the penalty is death for her crime (showing the harshness of the 17th century), yet that the other party in the affair must have played a strong role in tempting her, so they just sentenced her to the letter on her chest and three hours on the scaffold.
The stranger shows how most people reacted when only seeing one of the guilty two parties upon the scaffold, “it irks me, nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity should not, at least, stand on the scaffold by her side.” Women still did not have that many rights, so anything Hester said in her defence would have just have been ignored. Relationships were not supposed to be broken unless by divorce, even if the husband was at the bottom of the sea-where Hester’s husband was believed to be.
Through relationships, religion, community, discipline and punishment the reader can get a better understanding of what was expected of townspeople in the 17th century. The Scarlet Letter shows the pain and suffering a woman went through when she broke her marriage, and disobeyed her religion. She then was sentenced to a public punishment to be humiliated, tormented, and alienated by the community around her. Fate drove religious society in the 17th century Boston would not accept the sin of any kind and the punishment for adultery was death. Instead, the community branded Hester Prynne with the letter “A” for the rest of her life and made her stand in front of the whole community as an example for everyone that sin and corruption were not accepted in their society.
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