Exodus Chapter twenty, verse 14 reads, “Thou shalt not commit adultery. ” Being one of the Ten Commandments given to the prophet Moses, this declaration from God was strictly obeyed by the Puritans. Those found guilty of breaking this law, and any other of the Ten, were severely punished to a degree determined by the leader of the church. Hester Prynne, the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is exposed as an adulteress-which creates the main conflict in the novel.
Hester willingly sins against the laws of the church, thus causing the tragedy. Puritanism started in the sixteenth century as a movement to reform the Church of England. Puritanism accepted the interpretations of John Calvin on the nature of man, free will and predestination, and other basic concepts. Puritanism became, after the restoration of Charles II as king in 1660, nonconformity and polarized into three major denominations–the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Baptist sects.
The Puritans saw God as the awesome Father-God of the Old Testament and emphasized His majesty, righteousness, and control of the universe to achieve His just ends. They believe God’s grace is freely given, but only a chosen amount of people are saved through Christ’s atonement. The setting of The Scarlett Letter takes place in Salem, Massachusetts during the 1800’s where the hoi polloi of Salem, during this time period, were mostly puritan, including their most sanguine member, Hester Prynne. The Scarlet Letter conjures varying opinions on who is most at fault in the novel.
Different people have different views. Some prefer themselves as Romantics and believe that Hester Prynne is not at fault, but it is the evil of society that has caused this awful tragedy. It is true that the society of Salem was heinous and bilious towards Hester. It is true that the society took things a little too far with the punishment, and how they treated her. It is true that they were hidebound in their opinions because even though Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale committed the same act, Dimmesdale was treated like a saint while Hester was thrown into the trash.
However, the society did not force her to commit sin against God and her fellow man. Hester is the one to blame, not society. Other critics believe that Hester’s sin was not breaking the commandment of adultery, but instead that she deceived her lover concerning her husband—that she lied against her own conscience. The people who believe this view boggle my mind. How is it that her sin of lying against her conscience is the cause of the tragedy? Just because she “technically” did not commit adultery does not mean that it is not a sin.
Having sex outside of marriage is a sin, and is frowned upon by God. It is unholy and a perversion of righteousness. Hester’s choice to sin caused the tragedy. Hester Prynne sins through blind passion and her sin causes the tragedy; therefore, she is a sinful woman who is at fault. Even though her sin is not nearly as bad as her hypocritical lover or her revenge-thirsty husband, she broke the law. Arthur Dimmesdale said it best during his dying moment when he uttered, “I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God—when we violated our reverence for each other’s soul…” (Page 252).
Arthur Dimmesdale realizes that it was the choice he and Hester made that ultimately caused the tragedy. They both went against God and blindly sinned against him, not worrying about the deadly consequences that were to come because of their crude actions. But, without Hester involved, this specific tragedy does not happen and the people of Salem live on as they normally would. Hester is the keystone to the tragedy. If the keystone is not in a structure, it falls. Also, Hester is a truly sinful woman who broke the commandment of God. [Pearl] is my happiness! —she is my torture…Pearl punishes me too! … the power of retribution for my sin? ”(Page 109). Being confronted by the Governor for the custody of Pearl, Hester recognizes and admits that she is the one who is at fault, and that she should take care of Pearl.
Her reasoning is logical because she herself states that she deserves to have to nurture Pearl in order to be punished for her actions. She is at fault for the situation at hand, and takes full responsibility for it. “The law we broke! –the sin here so awfully revealed! —let these alone be in thy thoughts! ” – Arthur Dimmesdale. Isaiah Chapter 1 verse 18 reads, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. ” Though Hester made a really bad mistake, she was accountable for it, and changed her ways. She repented and willingly accepted her punishment. And even though her sins may be as “scarlet”, they shall be as white as snow.