Saturday, December 5, 2009

How Puritans are Portrayed in the Scarlet Letter: And Why It's Important Today

What if you had a secret that could kill you if you shared it? In Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlet Letter, such a secret tortures one of the main characters. His guilty conscience puts him through agony while he keeps the secret to himself; but his fear of shame and possible death prevents him from telling it to anyone. Why does his secret cause him so much pain? It is because he lives in a Puritan society, in seventeenth-century Boston where the punishment of sin is strict and severe. Hawthorne's portrayal of Puritans puts them in a bad light, making them look cruel, judgmental, narrow-minded, and altogether unlikable.

Hawthorne first portrays Puritans in a bad light in the lengthy introductory, where he speaks of one of his Puritan ancestors. He describes him as having “all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil.” Because the author uses the word “evil” to describe them, we automatically think of them as bad guys in the story; although, since he does say they have “good” traits as well, we don't go as far as despising them – at least not yet. He continues to describe his ancestor as “a bitter persecutor” that is remember by the Quakers as having “hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many.” Clearly Hawthorne wanted to stress that the Puritans were not altogether evil; however, they were certainly the last people with whom anyone would want to hang around!

In the next sentence, Hawthorne speaks of his ancestor's son, who “made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him.” The author's use of the word martyrdom is interesting. It almost elevates the witches as heroes, and the Puritan judges who condemned them as the cruel, merciless enemies. In fact, this is not the last time in this book where Hawthorn portrays a sinner positively, and the person who condemns the sinner negatively.

Later Hawthorne writes, “I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties...” He then prays that “any curse incurred by them... may be now and henceforth removed.” If he took the time to actually pray against any curse that might have passed down from his Puritan ancestors, than we can conclude that Hawthorne truly believed they were not good people!

We see more of the Puritans' cruelty represented in Chapter 2, where a group of women are disappointed that Hester, an adulterer, is not receiving a harsh enough punishment for her sin. Hester is forced to wear the letter “A” on the chest, and to stand on the town scaffold for hours as the whole town stares at her in judgment. However, these women say it is not enough. One insists that she should be branded on the forehead with a hot iron; another says she should be put to death! The story blatantly portrays Puritans as pitiless and cold-hearted, but that's not the only bad quality it gives them.

Later in the story, Puritans are revealed as being narrow-minded, and basically closed to all views and lifestyles other than their own. Also in Chapter 2, the author refers to Hester's letter “A” as being “a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.” From this quote, we learn that even the most fashionable styles in the world were frowned upon by Puritans. Chapter 21 mentions a sailor who wore an elaborate attire of ribbons on his clothing, and a hat with gold-lace, a gold chain, and a feather; then goes on to say that if any of the citizens of Boston were to dress like him, they would have undergone “stern question before a magistrate, and probably incurring fine or imprisonment, or perhaps an exhibition in the stocks.” Hawthorne wants to make it clear that the Puritans in Boston were an isolated society who thought all worldly ideas – even the latest fashions – were sinful. This gives us a hint at what their hearts may have been like; because if they judged people for simply dressing the wrong way, than how much more judgmental and narrow-minded might they have been toward people who committed more serious sins?

Another example of the Puritans' narrow-mindedness is in Chapter 24. After the character mentioned at the beginning of this paper finally reveals his secret, many people refuse to believe him – simply because they had reverenced him as sinless, and they couldn't accept that he would ever commit a crime. Even though he presents them with obvious proof, they stubbornly hold on to what they think. Unfortunately, he dies on the spot after admitting his secret, so he never gets a chance to set the unbelievers straight.

In addition to making the Puritans look like people of bad character, Hawthorne portrays them as visually unlikable people. He describes them in the introductory as “stern and black-browed”, and in Chapter 2 uses words to describe them like “grim” and “iron-visage”. The only person that is associated with beauty is the adulterer, Hester. Hawthorne says of her: “The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes.” We can judge by Hawthorne's diction in describing the Puritans and Hester that he wanted us to think lowly of the former, and highly of the latter.

Hawthorne repeats again and again throughout The Scarlet Letter the cruelty, judgmental attitude, narrow-mindedness, and numerous unlikable features of the Puritans. He shows them as condemning sinners mercilessly, refusing to accept ideas that are foreign to their ways of living or thinking, and being physically – and inwardly – ugly. However, his portrayal of Puritans is probably inaccurate, or at least exaggerated. The real Puritans had many of the wholesome traits and values that went into the founding of this nation. Sometimes Hawthorne's representation of Puritans is used as a stereotype for all Christians today. Unbelievers often assume that Christians are self-righteous and unforgiving, but we know this stereotype goes against what the Bible teaches. Leviticus 19:18 says to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and Jesus commands us in John 15:12 to “love one another as I have loved you”. Also, Romans 12:17 says to “repay no one evil for evil”. In order to fit the Puritan/Christian stereotype, one would have to behave as if he were not a Christian! While Hawthorne's image of church-goers may work in fiction, it doesn't match reality.