Although Nathanial Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in the middle of the nineteenth century, he wrote it using a style and subject matter that accurately reflected the ideals and way of life of early colonists in Puritan-influenced New England. While some of the concepts included in the story may be difficult to understand when looking at them from a modern point of view, when these things are placed in their historical context, they become much easier to understand. For example, the idea that Hester could not just run off with Reverend Dimmesdale seems somewhat crazy to the modern world because she hadn’t seen her husband since she left England and didn’t want to marry him to begin with.
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Today’s world would not have a problem with a woman who left her husband under less onerous circumstances.
However, the Puritan society in which Hester was supposed to have lived would have considered this a damnable offense and would necessarily ostracize Hester from all polite society for the rest of her life, regardless of what else she did. To understand this context, then, it is necessary to look at the religious, social, and environmental factors that restricted Hester in the 1600s.
Puritanism dictated just about everything involved in colonial life in 1600s New England, even including how people talked with each other, how they dressed, and what kind of relationships they had. “In addition to believing in the absolute sovereignty of God, the total depravity of man, and the complete dependence of human beings on divine grace for salvation, they stressed the importance of personal religious experience” (Bowden, 2004). Because of this connection to personal religious experience, Hester knew she would not be able to run away from her marriage vows to marry another even if she did stretch them in her relationship to Reverend Dimmesdale. As a Puritan herself, she had to remain in the village as a married woman as was agreed upon in her marriage to Dr. Prynne, aka Roger Chillingworth, until she had confirmation that he was deceased.
Anything less would have violated her own road to salvation even though she had not married him voluntarily. While it is often easy to attribute Hester’s difficulties to her society alone, it must be remembered that Hester herself was a believer in the Puritan religion. Once Hester’s secret was out, it was obvious to the entire village that Hester was not provided with the same degree of faith as the rest of the villagers and was therefore a greater sinner. To win her place in heaven, it was necessary for her to suffer the lowest status on earth to do penance for her past deeds. Although Hester hates her scarlet letter, she wears it both because she is convinced she has committed the worst sin, but also because the society in which she lives will never allow her to forget that she is the worst sinner of them all. This is the reason Hester returns to her old home in the end, taking up her stigma and the scarlet letter until her death.
The Puritans held a strict social order that took into account each other’s perceived righteousness.
Therefore, those who were considered closer to God had a higher social rank in society from those who were considered to be closer to sin. Thanks to the story of Adam and Eve, men were perceived to be closer to God than women and religious men were closer to God than those who worked the fields. “Though not theocracies, most colonies in New England were dominated by Puritan mores and doctrine” (Clark, 1999). Understanding this makes it easier to see how Reverend Dimmesdale could not be seen to be associating himself with Hester after Pearl was born because she was a fallen woman and he was the highest moral authority in the village. They came from opposite ends of the social spectrum, one representing extreme sin and the other representing ultimate righteousness. Pearl’s crime was in simply being born. She was born without a father, in obvious and undeniable violation of her mother’s wedding vows as well as the word of God.
Socially speaking, this meant that she was touched by the devil himself and was therefore unclean and unworthy to associate with the other children in the village or to be treated with any kind of humanity by the other villagers.
With all this harsh treatment of not only herself, but also of her child, it is difficult for a person in modern times to understand why Hester didn’t just pack up and leave for another town.
This is in large part because of the technological advances of the time and the interdependence the colonies had with one another. Colonies were not necessarily so separated from each other to the point that Hester could not have made the journey to the next town on her own. However, if she had, there was no guarantee that there would be a home waiting for her to move into. “Building homes and establishing farms required intensive and often backbreaking toil” (Jones, 1853), meaning unless a wife was expected, there was no reason for a home to be standing empty awaiting a tenant. However, even had she overcome that obstacle, trade that existed between the Puritan colonies would have ensured her scarlet letter would have followed her no matter where she went as long as she stayed within her religious framework. In addition, colonists found it necessary to rely upon each other for sustenance through the long, cold winters of the New England environment.
“New Englanders evolved an intricate web of interdependence to meet the demand for labor, working for neighbors who sold their labor in return” (Jones, 1853). Although Hester’s crime was considered one of the worst crimes that could be committed, it would not have served the colony to have her locked away in prison, nor would it have been possible for her to have rebuilt her life elsewhere. Finally, it was considered necessary for colonists, especially female colonists, to stick close to the settlement as a measure to protect themselves against possibly hostile Indians. This is seen in The Scarlet Letter as it becomes evident that Roger Prynne was detained from rejoining his wife because he had been captured by Indians and had only recently secured his release before stumbling into Salem.
Restricted by these environmental concerns of living in a sparsely populated new colony in the wilderness, the rigid social hierarchy and the even stricter tenets of Puritanism as it was practiced both by the villagers and believed by Hester herself, there was little option throughout the story for any other outcome. The base portion of human nature brought Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale together because of their loneliness and their natural human attraction.
However, the higher calling of their religion, society, and environment necessarily kept them apart. Had just one of these elements been different, the outcome might have been much different. Hawthorne stays true to the literature of the period by presenting a story that both explores human nature as something destined for evil and that delivers a sermon of sorts regarding what it takes to live a ‘good life.
Bowden, Henry Warner. “American Puritanism.” 2004. Believe. Web.
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Clark, Michael P. “Puritanism.” Encyclopedia of American Literature. Steven R. Serafin & Alfred Bendixen (Eds.). New York: Continuum Publishers, 1999, pp. 921-24. Web.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1992.
Jones, Abner Dumont. “Cotton Mather.” The Illustrated American Biography. New York: J. Milton and Company, 1853, p. 59. Web.