The Scarlet Letter: Are the Puritans really like that?

Nathaniel Hawthorne accurately portrayed the colonial Puritans of Boston in his book, The Scarlet Letter, and what their actions and reactions would have been to Hester Prynne committing adultery, and the events thereafter, which also conform to what we know about the Puritans and how they were fastidiously against sex in any form. Not hardly. In The Scarlet Letter, we see Hester Prynne, who is put on trial for committing adultery (from which came a baby girl, Pearl) after her husband had been missing for four years, and presumed lost and drowned at sea.

This fits our thoughts of the Puritans and what they thought of sex, and how they probably would have reacted to Hester’s committing adultery. Hester Prynne is led from a prison door, carrying an infant and wearing a scarlet “A” she has meticulously embroidered. She stands on the scaffold in the public square of Salem, Massachusetts, where she is ridiculed and scorned by the townspeople. That’s extremely doubtful. It was actually the 19th Century American Victorians, at the exact same time in which Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, who were prudish to a point beyond belief, especially in things about sex in ny form.

As an example of the extent of their prudishness, to the Victorians, words such as legs, breasts, and bulls became limbs, bosoms, and male or gentlemen cows. In fact, in the years before the Civil War, a South Carolina newspaper refused to print birth notices, and a woman in New Orleans never changed her clothes without turning her picture of Andrew Jackson to the wall. Many reviewed Dickens and Dumas (and some even The Scarlet Letter itself) as “Trashy Literature”. The Puritans would have, quite frankly, been aghast at this.

In fact, the Puritans were quite forthcoming in things involving sex- they expressed themselves frankly, not shyly. Of course, the Puritans did have a strict moral code; however, this mostly centered around them finding religious purity in their lives. To be sure, chastity before marriage was an unbroken rule, and faithfulness to one’s spouse in marriage was as well. However, would the Puritans have acted as they did towards Hester? Probably not. The Puritans, in reality, glorified marriage and sexual union within marriage and took a very dim view of celibacy.

A Boston congregation even expelled one of it’s members because he hadn’t had sex with his wife for over two years. If married men arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony without their wives, the magistrates ORDERED them to either leave, or send for their wives immediately, with no exceptions. Divorces were also permitted Puritan New England, and the divorce laws there were the easiest in the Western world. In The Scarlet Letter, it is revealed that Arthur Dimmesdale, the new reverend of the Salem church, is the father of Pearl and the person who committed adultery with Hester.

However, once again, an unmarried man, especially a reverend of Dimmesdale’s age (men were married as young as 15 and 16) would have been required to have been married, even if he was the reverend. The fact that he wasn’t, and even if given he had just arrived in Salem when he had sex with Hester, that would amount to eight years he was unmarried, which was intolerable. Moreover, Hester Prynne’s husband has been missing for three years when Pearl was conceived, and the magistrates of Salem would have most likely permitted (or possibly have even insisted) that Hester divorce her usband, especially if she had intended to marry Dimmesdale.

Neither Hester, nor Dimmesdale, had to go elope in the forest, when, by all accounts, it should have been perfectly fine for them to have been married, and especially easy for a powerful figure such as Dimmesdale. In the “Custom House” section of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne leaves the judgement of his story’s truth to the readers. Was it pure fiction, or mostly fact? Does this paper prove or disprove anything? The judgement still rests on the readers…

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