The Scarlet Letter: Are the Puritans really like that?
Nathaniel Hawthorne accurately portrayed the colonial Puritans of Boston in his book, The Scarlet
Letter, and what their actions and reactions would have been to Hester Prynne committing adultery, and the
events thereafter, which also conform to what we know about the Puritans and how they were fastidiously
against sex in any form.
In The Scarlet Letter, we see Hester Prynne, who is put on trial for committing adultery (from which
came a baby girl, Pearl) after her husband had been missing for four years, and presumed lost and drowned at
sea. This fits our thoughts of the Puritans and what they thought of sex, and how they probably would have
reacted to Hester’s committing adultery. Hester Prynne is led from a prison door, carrying an infant and wearing
a scarlet "A" she has meticulously embroidered. She stands on the scaffold in the public square of Salem,
Massachusetts, where she is ridiculed and scorned by the townspeople.
That’s extremely doubtful.
It was actually the 19th Century American Victorians, at the exact same time in which Nathaniel
Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, who were prudish to a point beyond belief, especially in things about sex in
any form. As an example of the extent of their prudishness, to the Victorians, words such as legs, breasts, and
bulls became limbs, bosoms, and male or gentlemen cows. In fact, in the years before the Civil War, a South
Carolina newspaper refused to print birth notices, and a woman in New Orleans never changed her clothes
without turning her picture of Andrew Jackson to the wall. Many reviewed Dickens and Dumas (and some even
The Scarlet Letter itself) as “Trashy Literature”.
The Puritans would have, quite frankly, been aghast at this. In fact, the Puritans were quite forthcoming
in things involving sex- they expressed themselves frankly, not shyly. Of course, the Puritans did have a strict
moral code; however, this mostly centered around them finding religious purity in their lives. To be sure,
chastity before marriage was an unbroken rule, and faithfulness to one’s spouse in marriage was as well.