NATIONAL MORALITY IN HAWTHORNE’S THE SCARLET LETTER
Since the beginning of time, man has gathered himself in communities in order to better facilitate the needs and interests of individuals. As institutions developed to govern these communities, the idea of a “collective good” emerged. Central to the idea of a collective good is the responsibility of the community in forming a sense of national morality. Should this morality come from the government or religion? Perhaps, individuals should take responsibility to constitute a morality for themselves. Nathaniel Hawthorne addresses the question of national morality in his work The Scarlet Letter. Through a careful examination of the central characters of the work and an understanding of the underlying ideas of Hawthorne, a view on national morality emerges. Hawthorne criticizes the fundamentalist Puritan characters, particularly Dimmesdale, by showing their hypocrisy and displaying the failures of Puritans and their form of a national morality. The treatment of the outcast Hester
reveals Hawthorne’s desire to form a national morality founded on individual accountability and Transcendentalist beliefs.
Before disclosing his notions and beliefs on national morality, Hawthorne begins his story, The Scarlet Letter, with a discussion of the Puritan state of Salem set in the 1600's. It is often problematic to discern Hawthorne’s views about Puritanism due to his ambiguity. He reveres the Puritan conviction and their ability to conform to the controls of their faith (Gerber, 34). However, he condemns them for the bigotry and utter intolerance they show for opposing viewpoints and perspectives (Leavitt, 88). This ambiguity causes the reader to question Hawthorne’s attitudes and tone throughout the course of the work. No where in The Scarlet Letter does Hawthorne criticize in particular the doctrines of the Puritan religion. Hawthorne only discusses the Puritanical beliefs such as predestination and the “Doctrine of the Elect” in the context of his narrative. In fact, Nathaniel
Hawthorne himself was a second generation Puritan. Hawthorne’s grandfather was a prominent judge during the Salem Witchcraft trials. Indisputably, Hawthorne’s chief ideological complaint rests in the theocratic Salem where the government is heavily influenced and even dominated by the church. When the authority of the church in state affairs is addressed, Hawthorne’s tone changes to one of disdainful contempt. This becomes evident as Hawthorne portrays the scene of Hester’s punishment upon the scaffold at the very beginning of the story (Hawthorne, 65). Hawthorne regards Puritan Salem as a battleground in the early struggle for political liberty in America (Gerber, 36). Before the battles against the British crown and the ultimate formation of the United States, the rights of privacy and personal liberty were fundamental to the early settlers. The government...