The Effects of the Social Hierarchy on a Puritan’s Life

By SSG

 

Puritan Society was one of the most stratified societies that has ever existed. It was a theocracy in which the elders and the ministers held complete control over the community. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the sin of adultery was committed between the Brahmin minister Dimmesdale and the Pariah Hester Prynne. Hawthorne shows how the society’s treatment of the sinners was dependent on their status within the society. By understanding the social structure of the puritan world, it is possible to bring a greater understanding to our modern social crises such as discrimination, racism, and intolerance. The Puritan religion was founded on the theory of predestination. The Puritans of Boston believed Dimmesdale to be a member of the elect, and described him as having “high native gifts and scholar-like attainments”.

"The young divine, whose scholar-like renown still lived at Oxford, was considered by his most fervent admirers as little less than a heaven-ordained apostle, destined, should he live for the ordinary term of life, to do as great deeds for the now feeble New England church as the early Fathers had achieved in the infancy of the Christian faith."

His followers believed that he was physically incapable of evil because he was chosen by God to lead their church to dominance in the new world. He was respected because of his education, and was accepted as the finest young minister in their community. They compared him to the early church founders, and thus views him as a living saint.

In the social pyramid Dimmesdale was the capstone, while Hester Prynne would have been buried beneath the base. “In some two years, or less, that the woman has been a dweller here in Boston, no tidings have come of this learned gentleman, Master Prynne” . She was a single woman, who had not spoken with her husband in two years and had no friends in this new world. Her loneliness caused her to become romantically involved with Dimmesdale; leading to the birth of Pearl. Being a single mother was not only looked down upon, it was considered a crime. Hester became a member of the criminal caste, the lowest of all social classes.

The way in which the society treated Dimmesdale and Hester was dependent on their social position. Hester was mocked, causing her to seek refuge in a small house near the seashore. She was a complete social outcast, and some of Boston’s leading ladies encouraged “putting a hot iron to Hester Prynne’s forehead” to further punish her for her crime . Dimmesdale admitted his guilt in his dying words, yet his parishioners “neither, by their report, had his dying wordsacknowledged, nor even remotely impede, any, the slightest connection, on his part, with the guilt for which Hester Prynne, had so long worn the scarlet letter”. The Bostonians readily accepted her guilt, yet because of Dimmesdale’s position in the community, even as he confessed his sin publicly the people refused to believe him.

The Scarlet Letter shows how society creates stereotypes based on social status. Hawthorne shows how a society that judges people based on their external achievements rather than internal qualities will eventually deteriorate because it will fail to perceive threats to the community while ostracizing those innocent of any crimes. Hawthorne provides us with a guide to a pure utopian society; to be perfect, a society must recognize the inner spirit as being greater than the small part of it which is manifested in the outer appearance.