The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter Adultery and Punishment

For a modern reader, Hester's punishment for adultery, being forced to wear a scarlet letter as a mark of shame upon her breast for life, may seem harsh and unusual. But the punishment is extraordinarily lenient in comparison to the Biblical and legal punishments that were available at the time. Famously, the Bible used by the Puritans states, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14). Furthermore, Leviticus 20:10 states, "If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death." Jesus made adultery encompass adulteries of the heart in addition to the adulterous acts themselves: "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

Thus, regardless of Chillingworth's desires, Hester and Dimmesdale deserve to be killed in accordance with community vengeance. In Puritan society, adultery was not seen merely as a matter between the two parties but as a breach of contract between those individuals and the community. Even if a husband wanted his adulterous wife to be saved, she could be sentenced to die as a result of the community's obligations to its moral and legal statutes.

A 1641 Boston law provided for death as punishment (the scaffold then was used only for executions, not the pillory), and in 1644, Mary Latham and James Britton were reported in John Winthrop's journal to have been put to death for adultery. But corporal punishment, or whipping, was the usual punishment in Puritan Massachusetts for adultery, signaling that the ultimate possible punishment offered by the Bible and the law was too harsh. Hawthorne's ancestor, Major John Hathorne, was magistrate in Salem in 1688, and he ordered a woman named Hester Craford to be severely whipped in public after she gave birth to an illegitimate child.

Later, even these punishments subsided. A Plymouth law of 1694 called for the display of an A on the dress. Hawthorne recorded this case in his journal, and it became the subject of his story, "Endicott and the Red Cross," in which a Salem woman, required to wear the red letter A, added wonderful embroidery to it. The admonitions of Jesus not to judge others (Matthew 7:1) were still trumped by the society’s desire to punish what seemed to be obvious transgressions against society.

Now, however, it seemed that the Puritan communities had found themselves in the difficult place of punishing adultery too leniently, because many found the embroidery of the A too light a sentence, but whipping and execution too harsh. The Scarlet Letter offers a way of looking at adultery that would let people suffer appropriately for their own sins without forcing the society to worry about which punishment was proper, that is, redefining it as a private matter in which the society had no compelling interest to get involved. This view was already palatable to many in Hawthorne’s generation, although for many others, sexual sins of all kinds remained matters of public interest. Again, the admonition of Jesus in the case of an adulteress, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," had not become a guiding principle in the law pertaining to sexual acts. But Hawthorne was moving minds to agree that if adultery was a crime, it was a crime of the heart that need not be punished by society, since it had its own consequences in the guilt, shame, and suffering accompanied by personal indiscretion.