Criticism In The Scarlet Letter

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Nathaniel Hawthorne creatively uses The Scarlet Letter published in eighteen-fifty in order to address and criticize issues that he did not find acceptable. Issues Hawthorne hinted in The Scarlet Letter of the eighteen-fifties that carried from the sixteen-hundreds were of the Puritan society, such as the harshness of the people, the various religious aspects, and his feelings about the punishment of sin. Through this, it could be safely inferred that Hawthorne is also attempting to work out his own issues due to his ancestral Puritan background. As he did not agree with many of their beliefs and was not proud of his family’s background. He even added the extra ‘e’ in Hawthorne so he could create a new identity for himself and not associate with his family, the Hawthorns who played a role in the Salem witch trials. Hawthorne even goes as far as to show himself through the narrator who is also from Puritan descent and has unease of attempting pursuing a career in writing because his ancestors would find it frivolous and degenerate.

This novel taking place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the sixteen-hundreds is criticizing the hypocritical and corrupt ways of the society throughout the entire novel which is demonstrated through the main character, Hester Prynne, and other important characters as well. Hawthorne even uses the narrator and Johnathan Pue to write the story and put it out there for everyone to read. Even though the narrator states it will not have factual evidence, it will be full of faith and possibly even shed light of how the Puritans really were during this time.

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Hawthorne is criticizing the harshness of the society during the sixteen-hundreds, using Hester as a prime example of the way the society mistreated her. When it was discovered that Hester committed adultery, other women in the town formed together and gossiped about Hester, stating that she should have been put to death for her sin even if her husband was dead (Hawthorne 50). They continuously act foreign to her as they push Hester away and mistreat her as if they were above her religiously and morally. Even the town’s children sensed the different ways her daughter Pearl and Hester were treated. Upon seeing everybody else in the town exclude them and act as if they were better than them, they believed that it would be okay for them to treat Hester and her daughter as unequals as well as their parents and other role models had shown them that it was okay to do so by also doing so. Hester reached out to the society and always treated them well, even when they would mistreat her, creating insight on how strong of a character she was to deal with their unmoral criticisms. Reflecting back on how harsh the society shames others for their sins, it seems that they shame women more than they do men in the novel. Hester was treated awfully for her sin by the society when she openly took fault for the sin that she had committed, while Dimmesdale kept his secret until the day he was lying on his deathbed. Upon this, the society did not think very differently of the minister, as some even tried to excuse his actions.

Hawthorne is criticizing human nature as hypocritical. A key example of this was in the beginning of the novel, everyone hated Hester and treated her terribly as if she was an outsider or outcast within the city and their strict religious beliefs. They believed that she did not deserve to be shown respect. Even the people she donated clothing to despised her and would mock her along with make fun of her. Not only did they show no remorse for mistreating Hester, but brought Pearl in on it just because she was a child born from adultery. She was always treated as an outcast with the other children. When Chillingworth died, he left all of his property to Pearl. The town seemingly all changed their minds, as it was said that Pearl then could have even found a husband there within the town. In the end, Hester was also treated differently as the scarlet letter on her chest was viewed differently when she returned.

In order to understand the hypocrisy of the society in the Puritan church, all readers must first understand their beliefs. They believed God expected them to live according to the scripture, otherwise known as the Bible. In the Bible it states “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive” (Matthew 6:12), however, in The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne shows the reader that the Puritan society is unforgiving in nature as they call Hester Prynne ‘able’ as stated with “the town had finally accepted her as more than a sinner with a scarlet letter on her chest” (Hawthorne 147). Yet, she is still under their scrutiny shown by their actions as in the crowd before the sermon they all look at her with cold stares still focusing only on the scarlet letter upon her chest. The community takes it upon themselves to judge Hester for her sin with more punishments than just the scarlet letter, releasing their judgment for her by making snarky comments when she walked by or mocking her. But towards the end, the other women even went as far as to seek out advice from her about their own sins, as they seemed to admire Hester and look up to her because of her strength during the whole ordeal.

Hester did not believe that the law could deal with sin as distinct from crime as she makes a whole paragraph about it saying “the scarlet letter has not done its office” (Fuiorea 55) as Hawthorne seems to feel as though placing the scarlet letter on Hester’s breast, the magistrates has usurped the function of God. However, in the scripture, it states “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4) This relates to how the Puritan church decided to ‘play God’ rather than listen to the truth within the scripture about judgement and sin. They decided to take it into their own hands and twist the words into what they wanted and what best fit their beliefs and what they wanted. They used it to justify their actions of punishment and judgement.

In conclusion, Hawthorn uses characters in The Scarlet Letter to criticize many religious aspects that the puritans had in the society during the sixteen-hundreds along with how the eighteen-hundreds were still reflecting on the same punishments, and the harsh judgemental society as they repeated the same footsteps earlier puritans had. They also used the narrator and Johnathan Pue to include statements in regards to hoping it will shed light on the situation and how the Puritans were hypocritical and unjust, even though the events occurred a century before Johnathan Pue and 200 years before the narrator himself. This shows how Hawthorne feels about the society in the eighteen-hundreds as he feels that they still criticized every little thing they could find.

Works Cited

  1. FUIOREA, Elena. “Struggle and Spiritual Awakening in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Nathaniel Hawtorne’s The Scarlet Letter.” Revista Transilvania, no. 2, Feb. 2014, pp. 51–58. EBSCOhost,,uid,cpid,url&custid=s1176192&db=a9h&AN=96372917&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  2. Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 1804-1864. The Scarlet Letter. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.:Signet Classic, 1988.
  3. The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: Translated out of the Original Greek, and with the Former Translations Diligently Compared and Revised. William Williams, 1979, The New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: translated out of the original Greek, and with the former translations diligently compared and revised.   


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