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Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter:

Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson (courtesy of Greenwood Press)

Johnson discusses in "Crime and Punishment" (pp. 76-77) how Pearl is in defiance of the Puritanical laws which deny "mirth," "independent thinking," and "sexuality."

"Puritan laws, the breaking of which resulted in such harsh punishments, inevitably reined in human nature, in that the people were denied the mirth and imaginative play so essential to the development of a young child as well as the independent thinking and sexuality essential to adulthood. The result was a crippled community whose members' development was arrested. Pearl, in this as in most matters, is a contrast to the Puritans: she is not severely punished by Hester and is allowed the latitude and mirth and freedom so natural to childhood. Look for a moment at how the narrator sets up that contrast:

The discipline of the family, in those days, was of a far more rigid kind than now. The frown, the harsh rebuke, the frequent application of the rod, enjoined by Scriptural authority, were used, not merely in the way of punishment for actual offences, but as a wholesome regimen for the growth and promotion of all childish virtues. Hester Prynne, nevertheless, the lonely mother of this one child, ran little risk of erring on the side of undue severity. (93)
And the narrator supposes that Pearl's freedom allows her to develop more fully as a sensitive human being:
In the chaos of Pearl's character, there might be seen emerging -- and could have been, from the first -- the steadfast principles of an unflinching courage -- an un- controllable will -- a sturdy pride, which might be disciplined into self-respect -- and a bitter scorn of many things, which, when examined, might be found to have the taint of falsehood in them. (172)

Puritan crimes and punishment underscore another negative aspect of life in Massachusetts Bay, that is, an essential loss of proportion and a hypocrisy at the core of society. For example, many crimes that are not cruel and that have little impact on the life of the community receive the same grim attention as murder, rape, and torture. So all the highest officials in the town, including the colony's major and some of its legislature, have come to observe and supervise not, as one might expect, an execution, but the public display of a woman being punished for adultery. The narrator makes a similar observation about the elders' concern with whether Hester should be allowed to keep her child. Here, again, those in high positions should scarcely have been involved with the disposition of a seamstress's child. But, as the narrator writes, 'At that epoch of pristine simplicity, however, matters of even slighter public interest, and of far less intrinsic weight, than the welfare of Hester and her child were strangely mixed up with the deliberations of legislators and acts of state' (102). That lack of proportion, by which heinous crimes like murder are treated with the same attention as adultery, promiscuity, and insubordination, as well as certain inconsistencies in how the law is applied, lead to what the narrator calls 'incomplete morality'" (76-77).

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