Hawthorne’s Criticisms of Puritan Society in The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne a considerable amount of time after the Puritan era. Throughout the novel, one can see criticism toward the hypocritical, intolerant, and judgemental characteristics of the Puritan religion. Hawthorne implies that the majority of the conflicts in the story are a result of the strictness of Puritan beliefs. The Scarlet Letter is not only about  Hester’s sin but also about the unfair and harsh nature of  Puritan society.

First, Hawthorne  begins with discussing how judgemental the Puritans are of other religions and toward those being punished. He writes, “On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking or ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern dignity as the punishment of death itself.” (Hawthorne 12). He is saying that in the present, Hester’s sin wouldn’t be such a tragic incident, However, the Puritans saw this as a serious issue warranting death.  The Puritans jump straight to the conclusion of punishment for sin without any consideration of the “sinner’s” feelings or who else may be involved. One can see that this is true due to the fact that a jail and cemetery are readily available in the town where Hester lives. Hawthorne expresses that the Puritans are quick to place blame on one another.

Hawthorne also criticizes the religion’s intolerance of all people who do not hold the same beliefs. The Puritans’ beliefs is that those who do not convert to their religion will most certainly burn in the flames of hell. Hawthorne writes, “… disporting themselves in such grim fashion as the Puritan Nature would permit, playing at going to church, perchance, or at scourging Quakers, or taking scalps in a sham-fight with the Indians.” (Hawthorne 70). This shows that even the Puritan children have a disrespect for other religions. They are taught one way only, from the Bible, and any other way would be a sin to them.

Finally, Hawthorne makes a criticism upon which the entire story is based. He mocks the fact that even the most “holy” Puritans, the leaders and in this case ministers, are the worst sinners of them all. The reader can see this because Dimmesdale is an eloquent and respected minister, yet he is the one who committed adultery with Hester and did not confess his sin. When Dimmesdale finally does try to admit his sin in front of his congregation, people are in disbelief. They believe he is just trying to be humble and praise him for this. Hawthorne says, “The minister well knew- subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that he was!” (Hawthorne 98). He means that Dimmesdale is perhaps the most sinful in his church and knows this. It is not that Dimmesdale does not want to confess his sin, but it’s almost impossible for him because he is of such high rank in the church.

Hawthorne develops the scarlet letter into a symbol of not only Hester’s sin, but the society that she lives in. He uses the story of The Scarlet Letter to demonstrate to the reader how close-minded the Puritans are and how much corruption secretly plagued their religion. He wants to emphasize that the reason Hester had so much difficulty with becoming part of society again is due to how the Puritans of Boston view her. Without Hester being put in this negative light, The Scarlet Letter would carry little historical significance.


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