Scarlet Letter By Hawthorne Idea The Scarlet Letter is a story of hypocrisy and punishment. The strict Puritan laws made adultery a sin punishable by death or a life of misery. Although being an unwed mother or an illegitimate child is no longer a crime leading to capitol punishment, the treatment of welfare mothers and their children is similar to the treatment Hester an Pearl received in Hawthornes novel. Hester and Pearl are prime examples of the negative attitude society, both Puritan and current, has toward single mothers and their “bastard” children. Hester and Pearl are the atypical example of illegitimate child and unwed mother.
The consequence of the relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale is a child out of wedlock. Hester is forced to stand with her child on a scaffold which according to Hawthorne is”invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.” Pearl is forced to grow up without a father and Hester is left to make a life for herself and her child with no social succor. The puritans favored laws that would force society to hear their preaching (2.Gatis, 5). To the Puritan community Hesters “A” is a mark of just punishment. According to Crime and Punishment in American History, executing adulterers was a rare event.
Branding and banishment was more common than the death penalty (6.Friedman, 36). In a society where there is no separation of church and state, the letter prevents Hester from being an active member of society. Hester, or a puritan woman in her condition, is held as an example for all to behold. While Hester is forced to wear a symbol of her sin, Pearl is forced to grow up watching her mother chastised. She can not have a normal childhood, for she does not fit into society.
Her father is a “dead beat dad” and lends no hand in her up bringing. Hawthorne states, “Pearl was born an outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants.” In the Puritan community, the father is considered the head of household. According to Edmund S. Morgans The Puritan Family, there was a law in Massachusetts holding the head of household responsible for teaching their children and providing instruction of civil matters. Family in the Puritan society was a means for carrying out civil purposes (5.Kerry, 16). Family life was very important and all members of the society were expected to be part of a family. Fatherless children would not fall into the category of a family unit, therefore Pearl, not having a proper family, is chastised and branded a child of the devil.
Although Dimmsedale does not remain unscathed by sin, he is not punished by society. He is able to hide his participation in the evil act, and escape a punishment of death. Hester is forced to raise the child on her own without any moral or monetary support from her lover. She has to ask to be allowed to keep her child, and is forced to do so as a single mother. Although the town wants to find the father of Pearl in the beginning of the novel, the issue is not forced, and Dimmsedale escapes responsibility. Despite the suffering Dimmsedale feels internally, he still takes no initiative to help in the raising of Pearl. Although having a child out of wedlock is no longer punishable by death, and women are no longer forced to wear scarlet letters, unwed mothers are still the ones held solely responsible for their illegitimate children. Unwed mothers are branded as immoral welfare recipients who are too lazy to work.
AFDC is known as a wasteful program that encourages unwed mothers to continue to have children. Much of society has not change their views since the Puritan days. At the American Enterprise Institute luncheon Charles Murray said, “The act of getting pregnant if you are not prepared to care for a child is not morally neutral, it is a very destructive act. And much as we may sympathize with a young woman who finds herself in that situation.. part of arranging society so that happens as seldom as possible is to impose terrible penalties on that act (1.Conniff, 18).” This is seemingly reverting to the tactics used by the Puritans.
Welfare programs for unwed mothers are thought to be a waste of tax dollars. Politicians continue to debate welfare reforms while the country continues to view unwed mothers as failures. In the article Just the Facts, Katha Pollitt writes, “As a mythological figure, the welfare mother is virtually the opposite of Joseph Campbells Hero With a Thousand Faces- shes the villain with only one: the greedy, lazy Welfare Queen.. (4.Pollitt, 9)” Today, as in Puritan days, stigmas remain on unwed mothers and their illigitimate children. Children like Pearl are no longer linked to the devil, but instead to crime and drug use. Illegitimacy is seen as a hereditary problem and single parent households are blamed for the rise in teenage pregnancies.
Even Dimmsedales character has a place in the modern version of Hawthornes tale. Welfare reform continues to attack unwed mothers, but the fathers are able to conceal their part. Just as Dimmesdale, they face no consequences if they are not found out. Although there are talks of hunting down the dead beat dads of America, the concentration of importance is still attacking welfare mothers. According to Physiology Today 25% of fathers are believed to pay no child support (3.
P.K.). Even if the fathers were found and forced to pay, financial support is only part of what makes a father. Like Dimmesdale, many fathers today feel they are unable to spiritually or physically be with their children. Hawthorne says the Puritans were “a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical.” Our society today is supposed to have a separation between church and state. Who is to say that being an unwed mother is negative or a sin? We as a people continue to paint an ugly face on those who “lack the responsibility” to be married before they procreate.
Hester Prynne and Pearl are made to suffer because of such a mentality. The single mothers of today are still scorned while the Arthur Dimmsedales are left to suffer inwardly, or not at all. Welfare reforms threaten to end what little support our communities give to the Hester Prynnes of our time. Hester and Pearl are truly representative of the views of society towards unwed mothers and illegitimate children. Our negative attitude to welfare mothers are similar to the scarlet letter, and our social nuances may be every bit as effective.
The question is; how effective is the branding of our single mothers? Bibliography 1. Conniff, Ruth. “Big Bad Welfare.” The Progressive. August 1994: 18-22. 2.
Gatis, George. “Puritan Jurisprudence: A Study in Substantive Biblical Law.” Contra Mundum. Summer 1994. www.wavefront.com (7 Oct. 1998).
3. P.K. “Psychology Today on Deadbeat Dads.” Psychology Today. April 1989. www.dgross.edu (7 Oct. 1998). 4.
Pollitt, Katha. “Just the Facts.” The Nation. June 1996: 9. 5. Ptacek, Kerry. “Family Instruction and Christian Public Education in Puritan New England.” Covenant Family.
1995: 16. 6. Friedman, Lawrence. Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: Basic Books, 1993.