The Puritan Society in N Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
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The Puritan Society in N. Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"
In the introductory sketch to Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel the "The Scarlet Letter", the reader is informed that one of the author's ancestors persecuted the Quakers harshly. The latter's son was a high judge in the Salem witch trials, put into literary form in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" (Judge Hathorne appears there). We learn that Hawthorne feels ashamed for their deeds, and that he sees his ancestors and the Puritan society as a whole with critical eyes. Consequently, both open and subtle criticism of the Puritans' practices is applied throughout the novel.
Hawthorne's comments have to be regarded in the context of the settlers' history and religion. They believe that man is a creature steeped in sin, ever since Adam and Eve's fall from innocence. To them, committing the original sin strapped human beings of their own free will, so that God now decides about their lives. Everything that happens is seen as God's will, and providence plays an important role.
Through the sacrifice and righteousness of Christ, however, there is a chance for people to be saved. One cannot definitely know who will be saved, although pious and faithful people are of course more likely to. The experience of conversion, in which the soul is touched by the Holy Spirit, so that the believer's heart is turned from sinfulness to holiness, is another indication that one is of the elect. Faithfulness and piety, rather than good deeds are what saves people. If someone has sinned, public confession is believed to take some of the burden of this sin off him.
The initial reason for the Puritans to leave their homes was the treatment they had to suffer from in their native England. They were brutally persecuted and were not allowed to practise their religion, because they said that the beliefs taught by the Anglican church were against the Bible. When they arrived in the New World, they were confronted with numerous threats from the outside. Their trying to take land away from the Indians caused many fights and attacks. Moreover, they had to deal with the total wilderness surrounding them. Under these frontier conditions, they needed harmony and peace inside the community in order to survive.
As a result, Hawthorne's founding fathers immediately saw the necessity to set up a prison, right next to the graveyard in order to keep their settlement together and stable. This shows that "the city upon a hill" and "God's visible kingdom on earth" could not be put into practice without punishing and persecuting others. The prison's door is made from heavy, antique oak and is secured with iron spikes. The age of the wood symbolises another reason why the Puritan ideas could not be realised without violating human nature, namely that they came to a New World, but built their settlement on an antique, even anachronistic basis. Their pessimistic belief that the human species is doomed and has no free will also contributed to the failure of their Utopia. The heavy look of the door also shows that people do not accept their punishment, and Hawthorne suggests that in its strictness, the Puritan code of law is against human nature. These rules and regulations are mostly directly taken from the bible, going so far that religion and law can be called almost identical. This is the reason why people look at deeds we would not even consider crimes as if they were capital sins, showing the same gravity during the public punishment. Their modes of punishment are "outrages against human nature", as culprits are publicly humiliated on the pillory, not being able to hide their faces. Hawthorne criticises this method of punishment in particular and the Puritan society in general with irony by calling the pillory "as effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship as the guillotine in France". As has been pointed out in the introduction, this mode of confessing and suffering publicly was seen as a way to help the culprit.
These cruelties show the discrepancy between the way the Puritans behave and the original idea of Christianity. Most of them, for example the "morally coarse" women who cry at Hester, are not capable of forgiving, mercy or neighbourly love. They claim to be pure
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The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Puritans, Hawthorne, Scarlet, The Ministers Black Veil, Arthur Dimmesdale
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