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The Conflict of Societal Rules on Community-The Scarlet Letter

Updated on June 23, 2009


The Scarlet Letter

The Conflict of Societal Rules on Community

                The separation of church and state is a fine line on in most societies.  To define the limitations on the rightful roles that the church or civic leaders play is a challenge for most communities.  When considering the ramifications of the puritan religion’s roles observed in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”, you have to contemplate whether there is too much responsibility allowed for the church.  Knowing the Puritans left their homeland to escape religious persecution, makes it hard to imagine the community allowing the church to hold such a tight grip on the actions and standards of the everyday life that the puritans lead.  The question remains if the roles of the church should be separated from the magnitude of legal matters.  At the same time, you have to wonder, should sin, especially those of a primal nature, be prosecuted by law or left as a moral dilemma.  Nathaniel Hawthorne showed a dislike almost revulsion towards the protestant puritan’s infusion of church and law which is made obvious in his work “The Scarlet Letter.”  Moreover, the adverse affects that seclusion and maltreatment have when dealing with a discriminatory lawmaking body that is polluted by the governing of church decree and the conversion it compels on the population as well as an individual. 

                When we are introduced to the character Hester Prynne , Nathaniel Hawthorne give us a view into her darkest hour just after she had received her condemnation and the symbol of her offence, The scarlet letter A as an adornment to her chest, forward for all to see.  Parading her harshly through the courtyard through the waiting populace to endure the further humiliation of being on display .Then to be publicly chastised for her sin while clutching to the child, which becomes more of a representation of the wrong that she has committed then any icon the magistrate has placed upon her.  When she is placed on the scaffolding to be judged, mocked and humiliated by the condemnatory onlookers.  The community was in habit to expect punishment of the severest as well as demonstration or public display regardless of the austerity of the crime.  “. . . as befitted a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful.”  (Page 35).  As Hester Prynne stood on the platform, perched above so all could see she was addressed from an even higher platform where the magistracies were ceremonially collected.  The decision was passed down that Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale would be the one to deal with the sinner and her soul was placed in his hands.  “Hester Prynne,” said Mr. Wilson one of the elder clergymen, “I have sought, I say, to persuade this godly youth, that he should deal with you . . . before these wise and upright rulers, and in hearing of all the people, as touching the vileness and blackness of your sin.”  (Page 45).

                Conflicted by the child and the product of the sinful action she participated in Hester Prynne has a difficult time coming to terms with the ability to allow there to be a certain amount of unconditional love for Pearl.  This would be an example of the indirect punishment allowed to manifest by the individual knowing the moral ramifications of the act and the concurrent outcome.  This is not a punishment passed down by the laws or the church but by the belief in the sin that caused the child to come into being.  The clergy inflicting its authority through the governing body is almost a moot point when the actual self-punishment is enforced by the societies instilled perspective.

                Nathaniel Hawthorne also gives us a very interesting opening into the ability to infect the government with an unknown agent of self-motivation with the character of Roger Chillingsworth.  Chillingsworth enters the story as an outsider at the moment of Hester Prynne’s judgment and instead of announcing that he is in fact her husband, he asks who she is.  He goes further to entangle himself into the society as a much-needed physician and trusted learned man to the governing bodies.  The fact that his true profession is alchemy leads you to believe that he is a person after not only monetary status but a being seeking a mystery.  The relentless way he tries to pry the sin of Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale’s sin and his determination to find out whom the man was the shared in Hester’s transgression shows a very compulsive obsession.  All that he did was with a deliberate and fiendish notion of prolonging and observing the suffering of Hester Prynne and Mr. Dimmsdale.

                The allowance of religion to influence the government leaves them both with a vulnerability to corruption and independent interpretation.  It gave Dimmesdale the power to judge the one person with the same sin as he atoned for.  Roger Chillingsworth was welcomed into a certain power without a sense of rationality.  Pearl was a living symbol and martyr.  Moreover, as for Hester Prynne, whether it is the governing bodies or the church, no one applied and endured more punishment on her then herself.









Work Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Toronto: Dover, 1994.



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