In "Crime and Punishment" (68), Johnson discusses how the narrator of the
novel laments the "criminalization of essentially harmless human actions," ranging
from laughing, being an idle Indian, to dancing. (courtesy of Greenwood
[NOTE: Numbers in parentheses in Johnson's text refer to the Signet Classic edition
of The Scarlet Letter (1959) ]
"WHAT WAS CRIMINAL IN MASSACHUSETTS BAY?
The narrator of The Scarlet Letter makes a number of observations about
the different crimes for which punishment was levied in Puritan times. The major
one on which the novel focuses is, of course, adultery, which will be discussed
at greater length below. But he also mentions as crimes sluggishness on the
part of a servant, lack of dutiful behavior in a child, being a Quaker (or,
indeed, holding any religious beliefs considered false by the Puritans), being
a witch, wearing ornate dress (if you weren't high society or wealthy), being
an idle Indian, joking, laughing, and putting on dramas or singing in public,
to name a few. So many pleasurable and joyful activities were criminal acts
that, according to the narrator, this 'blackest shade of Puritanism ... so darkened
the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed
to clear it up. We have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gayety"'(218).
This criminalization of essentially harmless human actions seemed to go against
nature in a very destructive way."