Cultural depictions of sin in “Scarlet Letter”

Cultural depictions of sin in “Scarlet Letter”


Through his book ‘Scarlet Letter’, Nathaniel Hawthorne has demonstrated a deep bond with the Puritan ancestors by creating an interesting story that both describe their human strengths and weaknesses. Hawthorn has also been able to show an insightful knowledge of their beliefs at the same time admiring their unique human strengths by indicating his concerns regarding their oppressive and rigid rule (Hawthorn, 2004). Moreover, ‘Scarlet Letter’ clearly indicates his attitudes towards Boston’s Puritans through his portrayal of the story’s plot, themes highlighted in the story as well as the portrayed characters.  The paper will summarize Hawthorn’s cultural depiction based on the defects of sins in his book ‘Scarlet Letter’ and seek to place the human brokenness of sin the Christian doctrines.

Summary of ‘Scarlet Letter’

Since the Puritans sought to purify the Church of England, they left the Old World. Among their central concern was the simplification of the church’s services, arguing that there was a need to have a religion that developed deep personal relationship between God and an individual (Hawthorn, 2004). The complains were of deep concern since such a relationship was dictated or mediated by the government and the clergy. The Church of England considered any open defiance to the existing traditions a grave sin and felony (Hawthorn, 2004). Consequently, the Puritans were persecuted while another group fled to neighboring countries such as Holland and later, to the New World. It is while there, that the Puritans hoped to build and establish a city that became to be known as ‘A city upon a hill’ (Hawthorn, 2004). The puritans strongly believed that God was going to protect them as long as observed His teachings and committed their works to glorify Him.

However, it is worth noting that this novel seems to disclose the Puritan society in several places such as in Chapter 7 and Chapter 21 during the New England holiday. In Hawthorn’s depiction, the Bellingham’s walls are decorated with several portraits of the ancestors who are demonstrated wearing formal and stately type of clothing of the Old world. In this respect, Hawthorn describes such portraits to be more like ghosts of men rather than pictures as the forefathers seem to have faces showing severity and sternness (Hawthorn, 2004). Hence, according to the author, the harsh and intolerant gazes of such portraits seemed to display their displeasure and harsh criticism towards the Puritan’s pursuit of a life worth enjoying.

The church allowed only the male members to engage in voting processes. In addition, the church ministers demonstrated a close relationship between the churches. The state guided the elected members of the colony. Hawthorn has successfully demonstrated this through certain characters such Mr. Roger Wilson who is a church minister representing the government’s two branches while the Governor’s character depicted through Bellingham who represents the state at the church (Hawthorn, 2004). The Bible was a significant and powerful book that developed both ethical and spiritual standards among the Puritans. Thus, anyone found defying the rules set therein was penalized and punished both severely and publicly. Moreover, there were heavier punishments to the individuals who disagreed with the colony’s laws since the individuals were persecuted, banished or even executed publicly.

Depiction of Brokenness/Sin into the Framework of the Christian Doctrine of Sin

            Scarlet Letter successfully highlights the brokenness of the Puritans based on their stern beliefs regarding sin. The Puritan society is thus repressive and stern and gives little or no room for anyone to practice individualism. According to their stern beliefs, a path that is extremely narrow characterizes the trof righteousness. Moreover, religious teachings were taught through extremely stern and warning sermons, which concentrated on sin and guilt. It is important to remember that they believed that the sin committed in the Garden of Eden was the basis for a sinful mankind. Therefore, only a few souls were to receive salvation not based on their actions or beliefs but by God’s choosing.

However, the author has employed certain stylistic elements such as irony as way of demonstrating his displeasure in such religious beliefs. The irony is shown through private and public actions that seem to clash in Scarlet Letter’s characters. For example, in the book both Chillingworth and Dimmesdale are sinful characters (Hawthorn, 2004). However, they are both revered and valued members of the Puritan society or community, which is repressive. This means that the community is characterized by poor human conditions that are conditioned to acting, dressing and behaving in a certain way. Additionally, although individuals follow thoroughly the laws of the land and of the church, they are not guaranteed to go to heaven. This story further highlights a community that is ruled by men with iron fists who are responsible for keeping such conflicts alive (Hawthorn, 2004).

Penance and public appearances have been heightened as very important parts of the traditions, cultures and customs of the Puritan community. It is important to note that these early Puritans seemed to faithfully follow the writings and teachings of John Calvin, who was a French Protestant and reformer. Through such teachings, they believed that the world was as grim as the existing war between Satan and God. Additionally, through his writings, Calvin believed that people need to introspect themselves in a constant manner as it is through that process that people are able to know if they are God’s elect. This means that God had only selected or chosen certain individuals to receive salvation as opposed to the common belief that all people are called to receive it. Therefore, the Puritans believed that only a few people would be saved even after the death of Jesus Christ, the son of God who was called to die for the sins of man.

The rest of the people who are not chosen by God for salvation would be damned eternally (Hawthorn, 2004). Those who were able to settle in Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that because of Adam and Eve’s fall, all mankind was sinful and depraved. In addition, it was at the Garden of Eden that humankind received curse of depravity as both Adam and Eve had willfully disobeyed God’s commandment (Hawthorn, 2004). In modern Christianity, this curse of depravity is referred to as the Original sin. For this reason, Puritan schools began their teachings by illustrating the original sin brought about by Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden. These teachings illustrated the fact that most of the Puritans were condemned to eternal punishment in hell, as only a few elected souls would go to heaven.



Hawthorn N. (2004). The Scarlet Letter. London. Book Point Publishing

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