Individual Vs. Society In Nathaniel Hawthorne: Living On The Edge

1431 Words 6 Pages
Maya Seckler
Living on the Edge
Who sets the social standards in a society: the people or the institution? Do individuals have real influence or do they blindly follow along? Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, explores the individual versus society through the lense of Puritan life in the 1600s. Hawthorne not only criticizes society in general but also specifically targets authority by making the Church seem hypocritical. In the novel, Hester Prynne, a woman living in 17th century Puritan Boston, commits the sin of adultery. This act of adultery is widely condemned by her rigid Christian community, and she is forced to literally bear the public shame of this sin on her chest. In The Scarlet Letter, church and the law
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The church, sets standards to maintain power and control over the people. For example, the church sets gender standards to oppress women. Throughout history, society has allowed men to dominate. This reality is not unique to Puritan society. With this sexism in mind, it is significant that a woman like Hester Prynne acts and thinks for herself. When Hester is released from prison, the townspeople respond by calling her “naughty baggage” (Hawthorne, 36) and a “brazen hussy” (Hawthorne, 37) because of the adorned scarlet A on her chest. Though it takes Hester a long time to earn society’s respect after receiving so much negative attention, she eventually redeems herself, becoming the most righteous woman in town. After many years, individuals privately refer to her as “the town’s own Hester--who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick” (Hawthorne, 111). The townspeople even substitute letter’s original meaning-- “Adultery”-- to stand for “Able”(Hawthorne, 111) instead. Nonetheless, the authority ultimately decides if she has, in fact, redeemed herself. According to her peers Hester is viewed in a higher place in society, yet Hawthorne notes: “it was the men of rank on whom their eminent position imposed the guardianship of the public morals” (Hawthorne, 111). Although Hester wins the private respect of the townspeople, the church ultimately deems her …show more content…
The authorities are afraid of the bold, free thinkers because they are a threat to their power and control. Authority favors those who abide the law rather than those who defy it, such as Hester, Pearl, and Mistress Hibbins. For example, Pearl is described as “wild, desperate, [and] defiant” (Hawthorne, 62). She is stubborn and refuses to heed anyone’s directions. She is so defiant that the authorities try to suppress her wild behavior. In chapter VIII, Governor Bellingham and Mr. Wilson summon Hester and Pearl in attempts to take the child away from her mother. They’re suspicious of her preternatural activity, they want to find out who Pearl’s father is, and see if she’s had “such Christian nurture as befits a child her age” (Hawthorne, 76). While Pearl wants to run wild, the authorities want to restrain her wild desires and force her to conform to their version of a “good Christian

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