The Scarlet Letter

Religious Oppression in The Scarlet Letter

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne has committed adultery, and her subsequent bearing of an illegitimate child has cast her beyond the pale of polite society. It is difficult for us, in the late twentieth century, to comprehend exactly what this means. She is permitted to remain in Salem, and to work among the townspeople and interact with them. But she is never to be allowed to forget for a minute the enormity of her sin. To reinforce this, she is obligated to wear on her chest a huge embroidered "A" at all times. This may, on the surface, seem like a peculiar punishment; everyone in town already knows Hester's story, and with Pearl in tow it would be difficult for Hester to act as if the thing never happened. But the wearing of the "A", and more generally the way Hester is required to live, shows the extent of the religious oppression under which the Puritans lived.

Initially it would help to understand something about the background of the Puritan movement. The separation of the Puritans from the mainline Anglican church began in England in the late sixteenth century. Although England was nominally a Protestant country, the Anglican church had been created for political...

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