Critical Essays The Puritan Setting of The Scarlet Letter



Nathaniel Hawthorne had deep bonds with his Puritan ancestors and created a story that both highlighted their weaknesses and their strengths. His knowledge of their beliefs and his admiration for their strengths were balanced by his concerns for their rigid and oppressive rules.The Scarlet Letter shows his attitude toward these Puritans of Boston in his portrayal of characters, his plot, and the themes of his story.

The early Puritans who first came to America in 1620 founded a precarious colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts. While half the colonists died that first year, the other half were saved by the coming spring and the timely intervention of the Indians. These first settlers were followed ten years later by a wave of Puritans that continued in the 1630s and thereafter, until, by the 1640s, New England had over twenty-five thousand English settlers. The second group in the 1630s settled in the area of present-day Boston in a community they named Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is this colony that forms the setting of The Scarlet Letter.

City upon a Hill

The Puritans left the Old World because they wanted to "purify" the Church of England. Their chief complaints were that the services should be simpler and that religion should contain an intense spiritual relationship between the individual and God. In England, the clergy and the government mediated in the relationship between the individual and God. Because the Puritans chose to defy these assumptions, they were persecuted in England. A group of them fled to Holland and subsequently to the New World, where they hoped to build a society, described by John Winthrop, as "a city upon a hill" — a place where the "eyes of all people are upon us." In such a place and as long as they followed His words and did their work to glorify His ways, God would bless them, and they would prosper. Hawthorne, of course, presents the irony of this concept when he describes the prison as a building already worn when the colony is only fifteen years old.

Hawthorne's viewpoint of this society seems to be disclosed in several places in the novel but never more so than in the Governor's house in Chapter 7 and during the New England holiday in Chapter 21. On Bellingham's walls are portraits of his forefathers who wear the stately and formal clothing of the Old World. Hawthorne says that, "All were characterized by the sternness and severity which old portraits so invariably put on; as if they were the ghosts, rather than the pictures, of departed worthies, and were gazing with harsh and intolerant criticism at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men."

Obviously, it does not bode well to be too happy in the colony, or reprimand is sure to follow. In the recounting of the New England holiday set aside to honor a change in government, Hawthorne describes the non-Puritan parade-goers in the most joyful of terms. Their dress, their behavior, and even the happiness on their faces is very un-Puritan-like. He writes, with his pointed understatement, that "the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single holiday, they appeared scarcely more grave than most other communities at a period of general affliction."

Hawthorne's gift for ironic understatement should be balanced by the sense that he feels connected to his Puritan ancestors and admires a number of their qualities. Consider the description he gives of them in his Custom House preface. He sees them, like the old General he describes, as people of perseverance, integrity, inner strength, and moral courage. He also shares a concern for their disdain toward his need to take on a commercial job that contributes little to the community in spiritual profit. In addition, note Hawthorne's condemnation of the tax supervisor who has no sensibility or spiritual compass.

Man and Salvation

These early Puritans followed the writings of a French Protestant reformer named John Calvin (1509-1564), whose teachings saw the world as a grim conflict between God and Satan. Calvinists were a very introspective lot who constantly searched their souls for evidence that they were God's Elect. The Elect were people chosen by God for salvation. According to Puritans, a merciful God had sent His son, Jesus Christ, to earth to die for the sins of man, but only a few would be saved. The rest, known as the "unregenerate," would be damned eternally.

The Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that all mankind was depraved and sinful because of Adam and Eve's fall in the Garden of Eden. Because Adam and Eve were willful and disobedient to God, they brought upon mankind the curse of depravity, sometimes called Original Sin. For this reason, The New England Primer (1683), which was used to teach reading in Puritan schools, began with "A: In Adam's Fall / We sinned all." Most Puritans could be sure of eternal punishment in hell; the few that were "elect" would go to heaven.

Church and State

Those who were male and members of the church could vote. In addition, ministers guided the elected officials of the colony; consequently, there was a close tie between Church and State. In The Scarlet Letter, those two branches of the government are represented by Mr. Roger Wilson (Church) and Governor Bellingham (State). The rules governing the Puritans came from the Bible, a source of spiritual and ethical standards. These rules were definite, and the penalties or punishments were public and severe. Hester's turn on the scaffold and her scarlet letter were similar to those who were branded or forced to wear an M for murderer. The stocks were a form of public indictment — and, therefore, deterrent — of bad behavior. Those who disagreed with the laws of the colony were banished, persecuted, and, in some cases, executed.

Obviously, these rigid Puritan standards had both good and bad outcomes. The colony would not have survived without the faith, hard work, courage, and perseverance of these early religious believers. They feared Indian attacks and had to survive lethal diseases, starvation, and the harsh New England winters. They also formed a society in which the rules were very clear. There were few gray areas in the standards of behavior expected by the Puritans and taught early to their children. These stern and introspective Puritans provided a rigid structure that was repressive to the individual but that enabled the colony to survive those early years when order and faith were needed.

On the other hand, the society built by the Puritans was stern and repressive, with little room for individualism. In this society, the "path of righteousness" was very narrow and taught through stern sermons on guilt and sin. The irony, of course, is in the difference between public knowledge and private actions. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, both "sinners" for their part in this drama, are valued and revered members of this repressive community, while Hester is an outcast because of her publicly acknowledged sin. These "iron men and their rules" provide a backdrop for Hawthorne's story that keeps the conflict alive because public appearances and penance were dramatically important parts of the Puritan community.

In contrast, the forest — seen by the Puritans as the haunt of the Black Man or devil — was a place of little law and order. Those who chose to follow evil signed their name in the Black Man's book and chose a life of sin. Mistress Hibbins symbolizes this world in The Scarlet Letter. And, in fact, she says, "Many a church-member saw I, walking behind the music, that has danced in the same measure with me." These Puritans may speak of branding Hester Prynne in one breath but dance to the devil's music in the forest in their next breath. The meeting between Dimmesdale and Hester takes place in the forest, away from the stern, repressive laws of society. There they can discuss a central conflict of the novel: the needs of human nature as opposed to the laws of society. This conflict is seen even in the early chapters.


The wrath of the colony toward malefactors is brutally obvious in the first scaffold scene in Chapter 2. The "good women" of the colony discuss the community good that could be realized if they were in charge of public punishment. "At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead." Another woman in the crowd who is the "most pitiless of these self-constituted judges" points to the scriptural basis of their law in the colony: "This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!"

The Puritans had great difficulty in loving the sinner and hating the sin in Massachusetts Bay Colony. When Chillingworth asks a person in the crowd about Hester's crime, he is told that the sentence was softened from death by "their [the magistrates and ministers'] great mercy and tenderness of heart" because she is a beautiful widow and probably was "tempted to her fall." The scholar/doctor says this penalty is wise because she will be "a living sermon against sin." The only softening of community opinion is from the young woman in the crowd who says that no matter how Hester might cover the letter on her dress, she will always know inside that she is a sinner.

How do the magistrates and ministers — mighty pillars of the community — feel about Hester's sin and their statutes? In Chapter 3, Hawthorne describes Bellingham and the others sitting around Hester and says that, although they are "doubtless, good men, just and sage," it would be impossible to find men less capable of understanding the behavior of Hester Prynne. Mr. Wilson, representing the religious realm of rule, discusses the "vileness and blackness" of Hester's sin and reports that only the intervention of the minister, Dimmesdale, has persuaded him that the minister is a better judge of arguments that will cause Hester to reveal the name of the child's father. Dimmesdale's voice, which affected his congregation "like the speech of an angel," also exhorts Hester to name the father. In a speech filled with hypocrisy and desiring to force Hester to make the decision about his public confession, he challenges her to reveal his name:

"Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, except to tempt him — yea, compel him, as it were — to add hypocrisy to sin? . . . Take heed how thou deniest to him — who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself — the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!"

While the community calls for Hester's blood, those who are equally sinful remain silent. The irony of public appearance and private knowledge are themes throughout this story. The only escape from public scrutiny is the forest. The lovers are caught up in a web of lies and deception. They can safely meet and discuss Chillingworth's identity and their plan of escape in the forest, haunt of the Black Man. Here Hester and Dimmesdale plan their escape to Europe where they can follow their hearts and forget the rigid rules of their Puritan society. But the Puritan conscience is too deeply ingrained in Dimmesdale, and though he dabbles in sin on his way back to the Puritan stronghold, he is still a Calvinist at heart. If he is to remain true to himself and honest, as Hester says he must for his conscience's sake, then he must go back to the world in which he is comfortable, even if it eventually means his public humiliation and death. He would not feel at home in the forest where the laws of nature surpass the bars that imprison individuals in Boston.

In the end Hester escapes the iron rules of Massachusetts Bay Colony, later to return of her own volition. She assures other sinners that "at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness." This is Hawthorne's way of saying that this stern and joyless society will eventually move more toward the laws of nature as a basis for public and private behavior. By the end of the novel, his sympathies lie with Hester as a prophetess of a better time and place where personal relationships can be based on more compassionate beliefs.

In choosing Puritan New England as his backdrop, Hawthorne has provided a rich texture for his drama of human suffering. His ending, written in the nineteenth century, seems a hopeful sign that future generations will move toward a less gloomy, less repressive society where human compassion and tolerance will balance the community laws.