Inquiry Common Task 2: Inquiry Research Project
The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, presents the story of the adulteress Hester Prynne, during the early colonization of America by the Puritans. In telling the story of her ordeal for her crime, Hawthorne’s purpose in writing The Scarlet Letter was to make a portrayal of his Puritan ancestors as unjust hypocrites. To do this effectively, Hawthorne, includes elements of general Puritan society, belief, custom, and practice, to make the story as realistic as possible. Hawthorne was very successful in this inclusion, and The Scarlet Letter indeed presents a very realistic portrayal of Puritan society.
The Puritans arrived in New England in the 1630s, populating the Massachusetts Bay Colony that was founded by John Winthrop. They came to avoid the corruption of and persecution by the Church of England. In America, they attempted to found a society based strictly on Biblical law. There, they employed a rigid system of discipline based on the Bible’s law, in order to punish transgression and thereby provide for England an example of an ideal society (“Literature and Its Times” 351). Citizens charged with having behavior and beliefs contrary to the Bible’s law were harshly and publicly punished and shamed, for it was believed that G-d punished a community for the sins of one, and that therefore the society must show G-d that they tolerated no illicitness (“Literature and Its Times” 355, “Puritans (1600-1754)”. At the same time, as Calvinists, they held the seemingly contradictory belief that no amount of faith or works could achieve salvation; only G-d’s choice, whether gracious or capricious, could achieve one’s salvation (“The Puritan Mind –Religious Beliefs”).
These elements of Puritan belief and practice are clearly evident in thework. That civil and religious law were one and the same is clear when one woman, regarding Hester’s adultery, remarks, “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there no law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book” (Scarlet Letter 38). This same passage also shows that the sins of one were believed to tarnish the whole community - “shame upon us all” (ibid). For her crime, Hester is publicly shamed, as was done in Puritan society, when she has to stand “on the scaffold of the pillory, an infant on her arm, and the letter A, in scarlet, fantastically embroidered with gold thread, upon her bosom!” (Scarlet Letter 43). In addition, regarding the letter, Hester was told, “Woman, it is thy badge of shame!” (Scarlet Letter 76). Historical research shows that, “Hester’s public punishment reflects an actual practice of the time. The prevalent theory of period held that punishing lawbreakers in public would shame them and discourage them from committing future misdeeds” (Literature and Its Times, 355). So Hawthorne very effectively and accurately presents how Puritan society was based on Biblical law and was very zealous in publicly punishing transgression.
Other elements of Puritan society are also clearly evident. In the novel, Mr. Wilson makes a comment on something he had seen “shining through a richly painted window, and tracing out the golden and crimson images across the floor” (Scarlet Letter 76). But he goes on to say, “But that was in the old land.” (ibid). The novel’s commentary notes, “That is, England, where the Puritans had found offense in the stained glass and ‘graven images’ of churches and cathedrals” (ibid). Thus, in keeping with their strict adherence to Biblical law, the Puritans faithfully followed the law forbidding graven images commanded in Shemot (Exodus) 4:5. And so, Hawthorne accurately captures this element of Puritan practice, adding to the authenticity of his presentation of Puritan society.
Hawthornealso accurately depicts the political structure of Puritan society. Puritan towns were governed by “a system of rule by a governor, a deputy governor, and several assistants, who were collectively known as the ‘magistrates’. These officials were able to make whatever decisions they wanted…” (“Literature and its Times” 352). Hawthorne recounts the discussion of several women, in which one talks of the “sentence…the worshipful magistrates have awarded” (Scarlet Letter 38). This agrees with historical fact that the magistrates were in fact the ones to hand down the sentence, and the descriptor “worshipful” correctly suggests the magistrates were held in the highest regard. When Hester stood on the scaffold, “looking down on the platform” were “the Governor, and several of his counselors, a judge, a general, and the ministers of the town” (Scarlet Letter 41). Their tremendous legal authority is suggested by the fact that “When such personages could constitute a part of the spectacle…it was safely to be inferred that the infliction of a legal sentence would have earnest and effectual meaning” (Scarlet Letter 41-42). Clearly, Hawthorne accurately depicts the state of affairs in Puritan political rule.
One aspect of Puritan society that Hawthorne takes liberties with is the exact punishment for adultery. While he correctly represented the societal belief that, “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die” (Scarlet Letter 59), Hawthorne does not follow through with the death sentence, or any other of many commonly instituted punishments for adultery. While it has been recognized that “perhaps only on one occasion were a pair of adulterers put to death…”, it still remains that, “…adulterers, were, at the very least, beaten, branded imprisoned, fined, and banished from Massachusetts Bay.” (“Crime and Punishment in Massachusetts Bay”). So why did not Hawthorne punish Hester with a more traditional punishment given to adulterers? Perhaps Hawthorne believed that being too strict on Hester would interfere with his developing his story in the direction he wanted (ibid). Other scholars have discovered that the application of the death penalty for adultery was quite controversial. Though the New [Law] Code of 1641 said “the adultery and adulteress shall surely be put to death”, this happened against Governor Winthrop’s wishes, and even thereafter, application of the death penalty was not a surety. Perhaps Hawthorne was playing into this historical debate when he had it announced that “[the] magistracy…they have not been bold to put in force the extremity of our righteous law against her. The penalty thereof is death. But in their great mercy they have doomed Mistress Prynne to stand only a space of three hours on the platform of the pillory and…to wear a mark of shame upon her bosom” (Scarlet Letter 45). Hawthorne even had certain townspeople complain about the failure to apply the death penalty, such as when one townswoman said, “This woman…ought to die…Then let the magistrates, who have made of it no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!” (Scarlet Letter 59). Whatever the reason for Hawthorne’s not choosing thetechnically required death penalty for adultery, whether because it would conflict with his intended direction for the story, or because Hawthorne wished to present a historical debate within his story, he chose to punish Hester with the “A”. But in fact, this is not too historically inaccurate as may first seen apparent, as “Public punishments included…placing a mark on the lawbreaker’s hand or cheek or a bright letter on his or her clothing” (“Literature and Its Times” 355). So while the punishment of placing an “A” on the clothing of an adulterer may not have been a common punishment for adulterers, it certainly could have reasonably happened given the realities of Puritan society. And so, while Hawthorne’s presentation of Hester’s punishment in this aspect may not totally accurate, it isn’t altogether inaccurate either. And as said, perhaps his purpose was to include the historically realistic controversy surrounding the death penalty for adultery.
Many literary critics also support the assertion that the society represented The Scarlet Letter is accurately representative of real Puritan societies.Ernest W. Baughman, notes that “publicconfession was required by both church and state for a variety of sins and crimes in the Massachusetts Bay Colony…, [and] in Virginia thirty years before Hester’s humiliation on the pillory” (“Public Confession and the Scarlet Letter”). He goes on to say, “The Puritans took quite seriously the admonition of James: ‘Confess your faults to one another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed’ (James 5:16)” (ibid). It is quite certain, then, that the Puritans laid great stress on the need for public confession. In regards to The Scarlet Letter, this same critic then notes that “In the novel both colony and church officers urge Hester to confess” (ibid). Hawthorne’s presentation of Hester’s appearance and public shaming on the scaffold was then quite in line with what would have happened in the real Puritan society.
Another critic, David Sorrells says that “Civil and religious authority in Puritan Massachusetts agreed closely. As long as the wills of the Puritan elders and the civil magistrates were in accord, the Puritan community was a virtual theocracy” (“Sorrells on The Scarlet Letter”). He also notes that “The Puritans were preoccupied with punishment and death; even the opening chapter of the Scarlet Letter addresses the necessity for a jail” (ibid). Both of these elements of Puritan society are clearly represented in The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne – the townspeople and magistrates were very concerned with Hester’s crime, and went to great lengths to punish her, by standing her on the scaffold of public shaming and requiring her to wear the “A”. Therefore, then, Hawthorne’s presentation of the magistrates as very powerful, and the society as concerned with crime and punishment, are both quite in line with Sorrells’s research.
However, there is one critic that held the view that Hawthorne’s presentation of crime and punishment in The Scarlet Letter was not so accurate after all. He says, “In Hawthorne’s Puritan world, the only decision-makers standing between Hester and the gallows are the all-powerful magistrates. Their word is law, their discretion untrammeled. If the colony has a fully developed criminal justice system…we don’t hear about it. Instead, the entire apparatus of the Puritan Rule of Law in The Scarlet Letter is signified by this small group of powerful men…” (“Scarlet Letter and Criminal Justice – Korobkin”). Korobkin, therefore, is asserting that in the novel, Hawthorne made the power of the magistrates in matters of criminal justice far greater than their true power in Puritan society. She says that, instead, “While Hawthorne’s fictional magistrates are the criminal justice system, their historical counterparts’ authority was significantly limited by the colonial jury’s verdict-making powers, on the one hand, and the colony’s prescribed criminal procedures, on the other.” (ibid). According to the 1614 Body Of Liberties, “A person accused of adultery would have been tried by a jury of twelve freemen in a trial court where magistrates sat as judges.” (ibid). The effect of this, she says, is that “it enlarges and concentrates the magistrates’ power over the townspeople while putting in their hands enormous discretionary authority. This erases any semblance of participatory or democratic government and replaces it with an image of authoritarian oligarchy” (ibid).
Hawthorne’s presentation of Puritan society and belief is largely an accurate depiction of that society. He accurately presented a society in which law is based on the Bible and members of the society aggressively punish transgressions so as to prevent their recurrence and show G-d that the community absolutely does not tolerate any crime. However, in presenting the workings of the legal system itself, Hawthorne may have gone too far. While Hawthorne’s magistrates would seem to agree with Sorrells’s notice that the incredible power of the magistrates turned Puritan society into a “virtual theocracy”, they certainly do not agree with Korobkin’s equal note of the fact that Puritan society, during the time of the events in The Scarlet Letter, did in fact have a developed legal system complete with juries and judges and other such legal institutions, even if they were based within a theocratic legal system. However, one must be careful in drawing a conclusion - as Korobkin and Sorrells are so diametrically opposed in their opinions of Hawthorne’s depiction of the Puritan legal and political system, their statements must be weighed against each others, preventing a clear-cut conclusion regarding the accuracy of Hawthorne’s depiction. If however, Hawthorne did indeed exaggerate the power of the magistrates and misrepresent their power, it likely has to do with Hawthorne’s purpose in writing the novel. His intention was to defame his Puritan ancestors, one of which was a judge for the Salem Witch Trials, presenting their hypocrisy in the story of the novel. Perhaps, in striving to reveal the faults of Puritan society and law, Hawthorne went too far, and presented an unfair caricature of their legal system.
As was earlier implied, Hawthorne could most certainly have not used a different setting for his story, as his entire purpose was attacking the society of his Puritan ancestors. Were he to place his story in a different setting, it would have completely failed the purpose for which Hawthorne wrote the novel.
So, overall, Hawthorne’s presentation of Puritan society in The Scarlet Letter was successful. He correctly depicted their emphasis on following Biblical law and zealously punishing all transgression, usually publicly. While he may have misrepresented the legal system, for the most part, his use of the historical backdrop of Puritan society was successful and accurate.
Baughman, Ernest W. “Public Confession and The Scarlet Letter.” New England Quarterly 40 (1967): 532 550.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Seymour Gross, et al. 3rd ed. New York London: W.W. Northon & Company, 1988.
Johnson, Claudia Durst. “Crime and Punishment in Massachusetts Bay The Crime of Adultery in Massachusetts Bay.” Understanding the Scarlet Letter. Literature In Context Online. 7 Apr. 2005 <http://www.gem.greenwood.com>.
- - - . “The Puritan Mind The Religious Beliefs.” Understanding the Scarlet Letter. Literature in Context Online. 2002. 7 Apr. 2005 <http://www.gem.greenwood.com>.
Korobkin, Laura Hanft. “The Scarlet Letter of the Law: Hawthorne and Criminal Justice.” Novel 30.2 (Winter 1997): 193 218.
Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson, eds. “The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Literature and Its Times. Detroit New York Toronto London: Gale, 1998. Volume 1 351 357.
“Puritans (1600 1754).” American Eras. 1997 1998. Science Resource Center. Thomson Gale. Springbrook HS Lib., Silver Spring, MD. 6 Apr. 2005 <http://infotrac.galegroup.com/>.
Sorrells, David J. “Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.” Explicator 53.1 (Fall 1994): 23 25.