Sinfulness of the Puritans in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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Sinfulness of the Puritans in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter


Nathaniel Hawthorne brings to The Scarlet Letter a notion of sin and guilt that seems to stem from his experience and knowledge of Puritan theology and religious practice. In "The Custom House" Hawthorne communicates his apprehension for the persecutory impulses of his ancestors who "have mingled their earthly substance with the soil, until no small portion of it must necessarily be akin to the moral frame wherewith, for a little while, I walk the streets" (1309). It is evident that his attempt to distance himself from those figures of his past suggests that he criticizes the cold and inflexible Calvinistic theology of the Puritans, which was cruelly carried out by his
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Furthermore, Hawthorne introduces the prison, which stands prominently amidst the Puritan community, as a metaphor for Puritan cold and inflexible theology that holds believers captive:

Before this ugly edifice...was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigwig, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. (1331)

This metaphor invites readers to ask: who guards this prison? -a question that Hawthorne answers as he develops the characters of Cillingworth, Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl.

Chillingworth's unrelenting coldness represents the inflexibility of the Puritan community that guards this prison. Also, as the character that has detached his heart from his mind, Hawthorne tells us, is the biggest sinner: "We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world...That old man's revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!" (1411). Dimmesdale's words are a window into Hawthorne's notion of sin, which is here explored.

Chillingworth's first meeting with Hester, in the dark confines of the jail apartment, establishes the darkness of his persecutory spirit. This darkness is further revealed even when he tries "to mask this expression with a smile; but the latter played him false,…