In Hawthorne’s view the Puritans in New England were very legalistic. The Puritans emphasized strict obedience to God’s law and took God’s wrath in to their own hands by punishing those who strayed away from their socially accepted standards and beliefs. They believed that legalism was the best way for them to properly follow God. Hester’s punishment for adultery included wearing the scarlet letter on her chest and standing on top of the scaffold for public scrutiny. Hawthorne stresses this legalism to show the discontinuity between the Puritans beliefs and the way that they enforced them. They believed in a religion of grace, yet they stressed punishment and even believed it to be “effectual to salvation” (Hawthorne 58). Hawthorne used the theme of legalism to stress the hypocrisy and unforgiveness, two other themes of the novel, of the Puritans.
In the way that Hawthorne described them, the Puritans were not forgiving. If a person, like Hester Prynne, was caught doing something that the believed to be both wrong and socially unacceptable the Puritans would not forgive – they would punish and humiliate The theme of unforgiveness becomes evident from the beginning of the novel when Hester is standing on the scaffold. “Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders at the scaffold” (Hawthorne 43) was the description used to show the lack of forgiveness by the New England Puritans. They viewed unforgiveness and public humiliation as ways to force others to align themselves with their mandatory Puritan beliefs. Hawthorne emphasized their lack of forgiveness to show their hypocrisy. They believed in a God who was gracious and forgave, but they did not reenact this spiritual philosophy in real life. However, eventually the Puritans came to their senses. Hester is forgiven as Chillingworth apologizes and dies. He shifts the burden of his guilt from private to public, allowing Hester to now have the ability to fall away from the public eye of scrutiny enforcing their legalistic philosophy as she no longer feels required to be publicly shamed.
Another theme of the novel is identity. Hester struggles with how she defines herself, and how she wants others to define her. Her struggle began in the beginning of the book when she “drew all eyes” (Hawthorne 46) and stepped “on the scaffold of pillory” (Hawthorne 51) with an infant in her arms and the scarlet letter on her chest and became a physical representation of sin. From then on, Hester wanted to show others who she actually was. She stayed on the edge of town instead of leaving so that she would be able to contact Dimmesdale and Chillingworth and eventually reconcile herself. She realized that it was best to have your own identity than to have one that others have placed upon you, like the scarlet letter. Eventually, Hester does this. When Reverend Dimmesdale died on the scaffold Hester had her transgressions acquitted by the members of her community. As she became a woman of legend, her identity that she had made for herself was the own that most prominent prevailed.
Another character who wrestled with the idea of identity was Dimmesdale. He was revered as a symbol of righteousness by the community. The Puritans believed him to be a much more moral person that he was. His sin was eating away at him on the inside, but he did not want to tell people about it because that would ruin his reputation. However, he eventually had no choice. The lie that he was projecting on to the town had tormented him for as long as he could handle. He finally went on to the scaffold and told everyone the truth that he had been hiding. By this final reconciliation, Dimmesdale let the truth out. Hawthorne was trying to explain that even through the truth may cause pain, it is better to be oneself and have a true identity than it is to have a false identity that society has forced through because of the currently prevailing ideas that the majority deem to be socially acceptable.
Hawthorne describes the New England Puritans as very hypocritical. Hester, although the one being punished strictly, was one of the communities hypocrite. She had a child while she was still married, breaking accepted mutually accepted rules on marriage. She was a hypocrite because she her beliefs and her actions differed. Through this, Hawthorne is showing that the best people, even those who seem to be snubbed by life’s realities, are still hypocrites. He wanted to stress that no one is perfect.
The Puritan society in general was hypocritical. They punished, but they did not forgive; while their religious beliefs taught forgiveness instead of punishment. They publicly stated to believe in one thing, but they often tended to act opposite it. This was especially true for Dimmesdale. He was in charge of teaching the community, and was therefore looked upon highly as someone who deserved respect. However Dimmesdale did not tell his congregation the truth. He led a different life in public than he did on the inside. Through this, Hawthorne was trying to explain how people, even those most trusted, are not always who they say they are. He was trying to explain how people can be misguided by others who do not really belief the things that they say. When Dimmesdale does come forth as Pearl’s father, she switched from hating him to loving him, and now she would approach him. Through this example, Hawthorne explains that the truth is always the best.
The Scarlet Letter
The scarlet letter is what was pinned to Hester’s chest as her punishment for committing adultery. Hawthorne described it as looking like “fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread…” (Hawthorne 46). It was a beautiful object. In the beginning of the novel, the A literally stood for “adulterer”. However, through Hester’s persistence at trying to bring better to herself and Pearl, many later believed it to mean “able”, as she had been able to overcome many obstacles. The scarlet letter had shifted from a symbol intended to shame Hester to an object that the very sight of would bring feelings of reverence and respect by the rest of the community.
The scarlet letter was described as very beautiful. Its beauty was used to show how Hester made good out of bad. She was forced to wear the scarlet letter, but instead of feeling pity for herself she made good out of a situation that was difficult and forced on to herself. Through this, Hester controlled her future. She took her artistic talents and made herself a life out of it through quality sewing. Through the decoration of the scarlet letter, she lifted herself above her community as someone who was different. Through this, she no longer had to follow their hypocritical traditions, because she was above it.
The Prison Door
The prison door first appeared in the first chapter of the novel when Hester was in jail. Its age was stressed, and it was described as something that “looked more antique than any thing else in the new world” (Hawthorne 41). The door was iron, which showed the unforgiveness of the Puritans. Those in the prison were not shown mercy. The door’s antiquity showed how the Puritans were stuck in the past. They had an old prison to hold those whom had committed crimes that should no longer be crimes. They punished harshly for socially unacceptable actions, while others societies at the time had moved past that discriminatory and unforgiving correctional system.
The unforgiving demeanor of the prison door was also used to serve as a stark contrast to the rosebush next to it.
The forest brought out the controlling nature of the Puritans. The Puritans wanted everyone to follow their accepted standards, and if they did not, like Hester, they would be looked down upon. The forest was also something that was beyond their control. It did not believe in or follow their doctrines, so they instinctively feared it, because it was different. The forest symbolized evil to the Puritans because it was unknown. It was outside their bubble of strict legalism and unforgiveness that kept everything as it was expected. When people came out of the forest, usually Indians or witches, bad things happened. Hawthorne used the forest to show the Puritan hate of unexpectedness and change. It showed how they were unwelcoming of differences and social irregularities.
The rosebush was shown growing next to the prison door in the first chapter of the novel. Hawthorne stated that the rosebush “may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may me found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow” (Hawthorne 42). He adds the rosebush to symbolize how good can come out of evil; the bush was growing right next to the prison – the place where they unforgivably placed those who were supposedly evil. The placement of the rosebush is ironic, because prisons are associated with punishment, not usually flowers – which are often associated with forgiveness. The red of the roses is similar to the color of Hester’s scarlet letter. Therefore, the rosebush parallels Hester and the jail parallels her punishment. Just as a rosebush was able to grow in the midst of the punishment of jail, so was Hester able to blossom as an individual who rose above societal norms in the midst of public punishment and shaming.