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The Scarlett Letter
In “Institutes of the Christian religion”, John Calvin stated that humans are weak and corrupt. Because of the Bible’s tale of original sin, women will be silenced and deemed inferior in compensation for Eve’s mistakes for centuries to come. No women signed the “Mayflower Compact”, nor were they permitted to vote, own property or became members of the clergy in New England. In Nathienal Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, an intelligent woman like Hester Prynne was already at a disadvantage the moment she was born into Puritanical Massachusetts, just because of her gender. The setting of Puritan Massachusetts in the 17th Century was an accurate was to portray Puritan convictions and their society.
Clergymen were leaders of the Puritan society. Ministers were usually wealthy and educated and therefore regarded with respect by the common people. these clergymen were at the top of the Puritan social scale. When Hester was being sentenced on the scaffold, the governor stepped down to allow Reverend Dimmesdale to speak: “The responsibility of this woman’s soul lies greatly with you,” Governor Bellingham said. Because Hester was part of Dimmesdale’s congregation, as a sinner, her future lied in his hands. Hester’s refusal to speak the name of the father was expected by the Puritan people. What she did to protect the man who impregnated her was not surprising. Women were not supposed to speak out , as Anne Hutchinson, who was forced to leave the Massachusetts Bay colony because she voiced her disagreement with the Puritan faith.
The pastor who Hester was protecting was a young man highly educated at Universities in England At this time, in the 1600s, a new form of sermon became popular, called the “jermiad”. Dimmesdale’s eloquent way of speaking and religious fervor had given him a respectable place among the clergymen. Hawthorne describes him as a person of very striking aspect and an expressive mouth His voice was tremulously rich, sweet, deep and broken. when the young pastor spoke, people felt it in their hearts and even babies were soothed. Although early for his time, Dimmesdale had many qualities similar to the pastors of the “Great Awakening”, which started in Massachusetts. Dimmesdale can be compared to Jonathan Edwards, who was the deepest theological mind to live in America. Dimmesdale had the voice and intelligence to touch his audience like the evangelical preacher George Whitefield. this preaching style was harsh to sinners, like Hester. The similarities suggest that Hawthorne perhaps modeled this character after the preachers of the “Great Awakening”.
The whole concept of a mother raising her daughter alone is a challenge to the Puritan society. The family was the center of New England life, and the people were able to reproduce often. The saying “the people were fertile, but the soil was not” is true about the Massachusetts Bay colony. Women were married by their early 20s, as Hester was, and typically gave birth every 2 years. A married woman could experience up to 10 pregnancies and have 8 surviving children. Childraising was a full time occupation for women. Children grew up with loving families and received guidance from their extended families. Hester’s illegitimate daughter, Pearl, grew up in a secluded area with only her mother. Hester was a single mother and a seamstress for an occupation. She supported her child and herself, without a man’s help, which was rare during that time. the Puritans felt she was not teaching Pearl properly, and tried to take her away from Hester until Dimmesdale convinced them otherwise. Pearl was Hester’s pride and her weakness. Her name is an allusion to a Bible verse, and also symbolizes the child’s value, and importance to Hester, even though the young girl was often wild and a bit peculiar.
Single mothers and windows were a deviation from the norm in Puritan Massachusetts. They did not conform to the accept rigid status with families of their own, whether it be by choice or not. They were ostracized and ridiculed. Witchcraft persecutions began in England and influenced the colonies. In 1692, 20 people and 2 dogs were legally killed for being involved in what was supposedly witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. these witch hunts stemmed from discontent within the church and classes. it was often the wealthy elite women who were
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