Puritan Hypocrisy in the Scarlet Letter

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Hypocrisy of the Puritans
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward (New American Bible Matthew 6:16).” The Puritans that settled into Massachusetts in the seventeenth century were some of the most religious people to be seen throughout History. Prior to landing in America they had already abandoned two countries in order to “purify,” their Puritan religion and find a place where they could be guided by faith alone. The basis of Puritanism was predestination, the belief that one was already predestined to go to heaven or hell. The Bible clearly states that hypocrites have already received their reward, meaning they will most likely go to hell. Certainly the Puritans in Massachusetts would look down upon such people, who appear gloomy to display their sacrifices to others, yet the most holy Puritans in Massachusetts were the biggest hypocrites of them all. A person looking to critically analyze literature has many different options and angles he or she could take. One of these is historical, in which the critic attempts to explain or analyze the novel through the events of the time period of the book or the time period of the novel. Influenced by stories of the Salem Witch Trials and Anne Hutchinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne presented his ideas of religion in the time period the novel was written. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Puritan hypocrisy is a theme that prominently seen throughout the novel through actions and beliefs of the Puritan community.

One of the best examples of Puritan hypocrisy occurs in the very last line of the novel, the message engraved into Hester and Dimmesdale’s gravestone, “On a field, sable, the letter A, gules,” (Hawthorne 203). On a black field, the letter “A” is boldly red. The irony is in the fact that the Puritan’s describe their community as a field of black. The teachings of the bible state that Jesus Christ is the “Light of the World,” (Gillis), so why would a faithful people ever call themselves a community without light? In fact the royal red of the scarlet letter remains true, and at the end of the novel its meaning changes from a symbol of shame to a symbol of awe and goodness to be revered. In a truly holy setting, the congregation should be a royal color and the stains should have been sable. Hawthorne chose to represent the congregation the way he did not only to symbolize the hypocrisy, but also to show the truth behind it.

The truth is that along with not being as righteous as the people said they were, the actual town of Boston, where the story takes place, was not as perfect as it was intended to be. The first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, intended for the colony to be “A city upon a hill,” (Hall). If that was so, it was pretty hypocritical that the first thing they did was to build a place to punish people for wrongdoing. In the perfect society why would there even need to be a jail? The Puritans knew that they were not even close to being perfect, and that’s why they sealed their new prison with a heavy oak door “studded with iron spikes.” (Hawthorne 35). It was a symbol that separated the supposedly perfect society from those who didn’t conform. Sometimes the people who were locked up were even trying to improve the colonies cult-like attitude, like Anne Hutchinson, and all they managed to do was confirm it. This cult-like attitude came in part from the fact that everybody was hiding something.

A point that is brought up many times by Dimmesdale is the idea that a hidden sin is much worse than one that is publicly displayed (Bloom). At first this may seem to be in disagreement with the bible in that hypocrites show the effect the sin has on them, and truly righteous people hold back their sins. It is the other way around. Ever since Hester put the letter on her chest she felt no...
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