As I was reading Scarlet Letter, I was realized that we can’t be perfect and there is no perfect utopia. Why did the Puritan society think that they are a utopia? But let’s understand the Puritan life and people. Puritans felt that the English Reformation had not gone far enough to get away from Catholics. Puritans adopted a reformed theology. The term puritan was not coined until 1560s. Puritans appeared as a reforming movement during the reign of Elizabeth I.
The Puritans was fundamentally anti-Catholic. Puritans usually migrated to New England as a group (often in families), a pattern different from other colonies where young, single men often came on their own. Puritan men of the generation of the Great Migration (1630–1640) believed that a good Puritan wife did not linger in Britain. Although without property in New England, a wife had some real authority in the family, although hers derived from different sources from her husband’s. Because the laws of God explicitly influenced the earliest laws of the Massachusetts civil code, a husband could not legally command his wife anything contrary to God’s word.
Puritan marriage choices were influenced by young people’s inclination, by parents, and by the social rank of the persons involved. Upon finding a suitable match, husband and wife in America followed the steps needed to legitimize their marriage, including: 1) a contract, comparable to today’s practice of engagement; 2) the announcement of this contract; 3) execution of the contract at a church; 4) a celebration of the event at the home of the groom and 5) sexual intercourse. Problems with consummation could terminate marriage: if a groom proved impotent, the contract between him and his bride dissolved, an act enforced by the courts.
The courts could also enforce the duty of a husband to support his wife, as English Common Law provided that when a woman married, she gave all her property to her husband and became a feme covert, losing her separate civil identity in his. In so doing, she legally accepted her role as managing her husband’s household, fulfilling her duty of “keep[ing] at home, educating her children, keeping and improving what is got by the industry of man.”
New England differed from its mother country, where nothing in English statute required schoolmasters or the literacy of children. With the possible exception of Scotland, the Puritan model of education in New England was unique. John Winthrop in 1630 had claimed that the society they would form in New England would be “as a city upon a hill”; and the colony leaders would educate all. These were men of letters, had attended Oxford or Cambridge, and communicated with intellectuals all over Europe; and in 1636 they founded the school that shortly became Harvard College.
Besides the Bible, children needed to read in order to “understand…the capital laws of this country,” as the Massachusetts code declared, order being of the utmost importance, and children not taught to read would grow “barbarous” (the 1648 amendment to the Massachusetts law and the 1650 Connecticut code, both used the word “barbarism”). By the 1670s, all New England colonies (excepting Rhode Island) had passed legislation that mandated literacy for children. In 1647, Massachusetts passed a law that required towns to hire a schoolmaster to teach writing.
Forms of schooling ranged from dame schools to “Latin” schools for boys already literate in English and ready to master preparatory grammar for Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Reading schools would often be the single source of education for girls, whereas boys would go to the town grammar schools. Indeed, gender largely determined educational practices: women introduced all children to reading, and men taught boys in higher pursuits. Since girls could play no role in the ministry, and since grammar schools were designed to “instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university,” Latin grammar schools did not accept girls (nor did Harvard). Most evidence suggests that girls could not attend the less ambitious town schools, the lower-tier writing-reading schools mandated for townships of over fifty families.
In modern usage, the word puritan is often used to describe someone who has strict views on sexual morality, disapproves of recreation, and wishes to impose these beliefs on others. This popular image is more accurate as a description of Puritans in colonial America, who were among the most radical Puritans and whose social experiment took the form of a theocracy. The first Puritans of New England certainly disapproved of Christmas celebrations, as did some other Protestant churches of the time. Celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659. The ban was revoked in 1681 by the English-appointed governor Sir Edmund Andros, who also revoked a Puritan ban on festivities on Saturday nights. Nevertheless, it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region. Likewise the colonies banned many secular entertainments, such as games of chance, maypoles, and drama, on moral grounds.
They were not, however, opposed to drinking alcohol in moderation. Early New England laws banning the sale of alcohol to Native Americans were criticized because it was “not fit to deprive Indians of any lawful comfort allowed to all men by the use of wine.” Laws banned the practice of individuals toasting each other: it led to wasting God’s gift of beer and wine, as well as being carnal. Bounds were not set on enjoying sexuality within the bounds of marriage, as a gift from God. In fact, spouses (albeit, in practice, mainly females) were disciplined if they did not perform their sexual marital duties, in accordance with 1 Corinthians 7 and other biblical passages. Puritans publicly punished drunkenness and sexual relations outside of marriage.
The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were the most active of the New England persecutors of Quakers, and the persecuting spirit was shared by the Plymouth Colony and the colonies along the Connecticut River. In 1660, one of the most notable victims of the religious intolerance was English Quaker Mary Dyer who was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for repeatedly defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony. She was one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs. In 1661 King Charles II explicitly forbade Massachusetts from executing anyone for professing Quakerism. In 1684 England revoked the Massachusetts charter, sent over a royal governor to enforce English laws in 1686, and in 1689 passed a broad Toleration act.
Sin and knowledge are linked in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible begins with the story of Adam and Eve, who were expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As a result of their knowledge, Adam and Eve are made aware of their humanness, that which separates them from the divine and from other creatures. Once expelled from the Garden of Eden, they are forced to toil and to procreate—two “labors” that seem to define the human condition.
The experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin results in expulsion and suffering. But it also results in knowledge—specifically, in knowledge of what it means to be human. For Hester, the scarlet letter functions as “her passport into regions where other women dared not tread,” leading her to “speculate” about her society and herself more “boldly” than anyone else in New England. As for Dimmesdale, the “burden” of his sin gives him “sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his heart vibrate[s] in unison with theirs.” His eloquent and powerful sermons derive from this sense of empathy.
Hester and Dimmesdale consider that their own sinfulness on a daily basis and try to reconcile it with their lived experiences. The Puritan elders, on the other hand, insist on seeing earthly experience as merely an obstacle on the path to heaven. Thus, they view sin as a threat to the community that should be punished and suppressed. Their answer to Hester’s sin is to ostracize her. Yet, the Puritan society is dull, while Hester and Dimmesdale’s experience shows others. Strangely enough, these qualities are shown to be incompatible with a state of purity.
C.D. Johnson writes in her article, called, Impotence and Omnipotence in the Scarlet Letter, that:
The tragedy of The Scarlet Letter-a tragedy carried forward by the guilt of the male adulterer, the vengeance of the cuckold, and the community’s punishment of the female transgressor-proceeds not so much from Hester’s adultery as it does from her arranged marriage with an impotent man (Johnson, 1993).
Hester faces her adultery alone not brings in the male adulterer with her down. “Chillingworth, ironically named Roger, is old even when he and Hester marry and he does not father a child by her. He admits from the first that he shoulders some blame for the whole tragedy” (Johnson, 1993). Even thou Roger did not father the child, he takes the blame for the tragedy and sending Hester ahead of him.
Who is truly to blame for the tragedy, Hester, Roger or Dimmesdale? As I read the book, I think to myself that Hester takes most of the blame for the tragedy and that she would not let anyone else take the blame for the tragedy. Hester did not want anyone to know who the father of her baby was. I think that she want the shame all for herself and not share with anyone else. I think the reason why she did this was because she did not want her husband to know and she also did not want the community to know and they would think differently about their young pastor.
“A reading of the novel as a tale shaped by impotence is initially invited by Chillingworth, a character who fits the classic stereo-type of the impotent man-an old man who marries a young wife, a husband who has been cuckolded” (Johnson, 1993). Chillingworth (Roger) marries Hester and sends her before him to the New World. Chillingworth wishes he had gone with her instead and none of this would have happen. Then we would not have the Scarlet Letter.
For Hester, standing on the “platform of the pillory” (Hawthorne, 2003; 1850) is a symbol of trying to stay strong. To the community, they believe that whoever is “standing on the platform of the pillory” and is in the pillory is a disgrace to the community, their family and to themselves (Hawthorne, 2003; 1850). Hester would not admit to the crowd about who the father of the baby. Only she and the father of the baby know who it is. As Hester is standing on the “platform of the pillory” (Hawthorne, 2003; 1850), she remembers her life in “Old England” (Hawthorne, 2003; 1850). She was having memories of her parents (Hawthorne, 2003; 1850) and other simple memories that she has of her old life (Hawthorne, 2003; 1850) in England.
Hester and Mister Dimmesdale knew the secret about what they did and so do the reader and the writer. Mister Dimmesdale is a reverend and he wants Hester to speak the name of her fellow sinner (Hawthorne, 2003; 1850). Hester would not tell who it was because she knew and so she would never speak the name of the man who did the sin with her. Hester wants to bare this secret alone. Hester thinks that she is the only one to blame for her sin and no one else. Why is Hester doing this to herself?
Hester took herself and the child to cottage and lived there. The cottage was on the outskirts of the town. She did not want to be bothered by the townspeople. The child’s name was Pearl (Hawthorne, 2003; 1850). Pearl will always wonder who her father is. There is no question about that. Pearl will always question her mother about it.
“Although he had once attracted Hester, [Mister] Dimmesdale is scarcely charming to the reader. His sexuality appears to ebb as his physical strength and moral vigor diminish” (Johnson, 1993). Dimmesdale did attract Hester but there is nothing to Dimmesdale at all. He is a plain man. “The sexual encounter between Dimmesdale and Hester has already occurred, at least a year before Chillingworth arrives, and Reverend Dimmesdale has now deliberately chosen to conduct himself “as if priestly celibacy were one of his articles of church-discipline” (p. 125)” (Johnson, 1993). It has been a year before Chillingworth comes that the encounter had happen between Dimmesdale and Hester so Pearl is only a few months old when Chillingworth comes into the picture.
“Although [Nathaniel] Hawthorne devotes much attention to the importance of speech and public speaking in The Scarlet Letter, he is also interested in the effects of silence” (Person, 1989) that mainly Hester brings to the story. Hester’s silence makes the book and makes major points about her past and her future. “The plot of The Scarlet Letter depends upon a conspiracy of silence among Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth” (Person, 1989). Maybe the main point of the Scarlet Letter is the conspiracy of silence between the three of the four main characters.
“Hester refuses to identify Pearl’s father in the opening scene and then takes an oath of silence when Chillingworth asks her not to reveal his identity” (Person, 1989). She wants to bears it alone because she knows who the father is and she does not reveals Chillingworth who is her husband. “In fact, when she recognizes her husband on the outskirts of the crowd during the opening scene, his first gesture to her is to lay his finger to his lips and thus warn her not to give him away” (Person, 1989). Hester sees her husband during the opening scene but does not say anything.
”Hester’s refusal to tell Pearl her father’s name also causes her to seek her father” (Person, 1989). Hester does not even tell her daughter, Pearl, who her father was. “And from the opening scene, where she holds out her arms at the sound of Dimmesdale’s voice, Pearl centers her attention on him” (Person, 1989). Could baby Pearl think that Dimmesdale is her father? Hester had an affair with Dimmesdale and Dimmesdale could be the father of Pearl.
“Admittedly, because Hester exercises her freedom in private- speculatively-she seems to have little effect on the Puritan community” (Person, 1989). Hester thinks that she has little effect or impact on the Puritan community. “Through her good works she may cause people to alter the meaning of the scarlet letter from Adultress to Able….but she does not change Puritan values, nor does she alter the balance of power between herself and Puritan authority” (Person, 1989). She changes people’s minds about the meaning of the scarlet letter but she does not change the values the Puritans hold so dearly.
“Chillingworth becomes her accomplice as much as she becomes his-indeed, the agent of her revenge, who makes Dimmesdale pay the price, the “hard justice,” for her silence” (Person, 1989). Chillingworth and Hester wanted to get revenge against Dimmesdale.
Eisinger, C. E. (1951). Pearl and the Puritan Heritage. College English , 12 (6), 323-329.
Hawthorne, N. (2003; 1850). Scarlet Letter. New York: Barnes and Nobles Publishers.
Herbert, J. T. (1988). Nathaniel Hawthorne, Una Hawthorne, and The Scarlet Letter: Interactive Selfhoods and the Cultural Construction of Gender. PMLA , 103 (3), 285-297.
Johnson, C. D. (1993). Impotence and Omnipotence in the Scarlet Letter. The New England Quarterly , 66 (4), 594-612.
Person, J. L. (1989). Hester’s Revenge: The Power of Silence in The Scarlet Letter. Nineteenth-Century Literature , 43 (4), 465-483.
Thomas, B. (2001). Citizen Hester: The Scarlet Letter as Civic Myth. AMERICAN LITERARY HISTORY , 181-211.