Crime and the Scarlet Letter

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Sadomasochists Will Not Be Satisfied With The Scarlet Letter

“Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). Puritans carried this Biblical credence to the very letter. Puritans were all about order in their society, achieved through strict laws and rules. The love between a married couple equated moral and religious duties (eHow), and so when adultery was committed, it was seen as the ultimate sin. Though murder might have something to say about that, adultery was a capital offense in Puritan society. Thus, people who committed adultery could be put to death (eHow). Of course, the possibility of public humiliation always exists, which is exactly what happens in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

Hester is forever brandished with the letter ‘A’ on her bosom as visible punishment for committing the heinous act of adultery with an unknown third-party. Now that Hester wears the ‘A’ on her person, the question now becomes whether the punishment correlates to the severity of the crime, in this case being adultery. Compared to the possibility of execution, simply wearing a letter on her chest seems to be the equivalent of “getting off the hook”. However, public punishment is not the same as private punishment. In Chapter 5, we see Hester talking about staying in the town instead of leaving: Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom. If we are to base the correlation between punishment and the severity of the crime solely on Hester’s public punishment, her guilt, then no doubt is the punishment not suitable for the crime of adultery. Relatively speaking, Puritan...
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