Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hester Prynne and the Puritans

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Hester Prynnes life was difficult and unique, with many trying events and circumstances that changed her and separated her from the common people. Great rifts eventually formed between her and the community in which she lived. These differences could be put into two categories the outward distinction, and the inward change. The outward distinction is easy to identify. It is Hesters adultery, and it is signified in the scarlet letter A and her daughter Pearl. The inward change is much more subtle and harder to express. It is the alteration in Hesters mind and soul that could be said to have originated from the day of her public shame. Outwardly she seemed to have repented and reformed, embracing the Puritan theology wholeheartedly, but in her mind and heart she was a different person and had turned away from the Puritans way of life. Not only had she turned away from the Puritans, but she had turned away from God, too. This was shown in some of the things that she did.

To first understand how Hester was separate from the society around her, one must understand the society itself. The Puritan way of life, which was supposed to be unique, was not really all that different from the societies found everywhere in Europe at that time. Probably the most distinctive thing about it was that, though elsewhere this was a big part of society, the Puritan life was based almost entirely upon religion. The Puritan life was almost entirely ruled by laws, being that one of their beliefs was that strict discipline was good for people. He [the Puritan] thought God had left a rule in His word for discipline, and that aristocratical by elders, not monarchical by bishops, nor democratical by the people.1 These laws were from the Bible, and the leaders of the people though just barely not the official government, were the church leaders. The Scarlet Letter states, a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were ... thoroughly interfused..

Because of this close intertwining of church and state and mans tendency to become corrupt, things tended to go toward extremes. There was probably less tolerance in Puritan New England for the smallest differences of opinions than there was almost any where else in the world. John Cotton, a minister in New England, said that, Here members of the church have suffered whippings for having a whim of their own. This is ironic, considering that most of the people in New England because they had fled from oppression and wanted religious freedom.

These negative attributes were stressed by the Puritans enemies, as shown in a litany They [the Puritans] are Blind-hearted, Proud, Vaine-glorious; Deep Hypocrites, Hateful and Enuious; Malitious, in a full high excess, and full of all Uncharitableness.

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This was not quite the atmosphere that Hester was in, but helps to paint a picture of what it might have been like. However, because of this environment, she changed inwardly. Many people in that day had probably begun to strongly associate punishment with repentance. Perhaps this is even what Hester herself did. Unfortunately, they are entirely different things. Notice that Hester never completely repented of her adultery. Arthur Dimmesdale put it perfectly when he said, Of penance, I have had enough! Of penitence, there has been none!5 Hesters sin still remained, and finally surfaced again seven years later, when she talked to Dimmesdale in the woods and urged him to run away with her. This harbored sin altered her view of the world around her and of God.

Hester continued acting like the repentant sinner, devoting some of her work for the poor, teaching Pearl about the Bible, etc.; but it was more mechanical than intellectual. Why shouldnt she? In fact, she was probably trying to convince herself, as Arthur was doing, that she had really repented and changed. This isnt to say that she wasnt a good person anymore, she was, probably more so than before, she had just lost touch with God, and didnt seem to be striving very hard to return. This was shown when Mistress Hibbins said to Hester, Wilt thou go with us tonight? There will be a merry company in the forest; and I well nigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should make one. Hester answered, Had they taken her (Pearl) from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Mans book too, and that with mine own blood!6

Not only had Hester changed spiritually, but she had changed mentally as well. Hawthorne wrote, The links that united her to the rest of human kind ... had all been broken.7 The scarlet letter seemed to have an effect on Hester. The effect of the symbol ... on the mind of Hester Prynne herself was powerful and peculiar.8 She broke away from the strict Puritan point of view and began to have new perspectives. The worlds law was no law for her mind .... She assumed a freedom of speculation ... which our forefathers, had they known it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter. She might have given up her mask of submissive outcast, and become like Anne Hutchinson, but one thing held her back; Pearl. Had little Pearl never come to her from the spiritual world ... she might have come down to us in history,... as foundress of a religious sect.10

It is obvious that Hester was very different from the others in the Puritan society. She inwardly rejected their views, even though she tried to blend in perfectly outwardly. She even rejected their religious views when she didnt repent for her adultery. Who knows? She might have repented with Arthur on his dying day upon the scaffold. The book is not clear on this point. However, it is clear that Hester was unique, a victim of many sore trials and temptations. She was the exception in the uniform crowd of the Puritans.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Logan, Iowa The Perfection Form Company, 17.

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