The punishment of adultery during the colonial period in the novel a Scarlet Letter has changed significantly in the 21st century due to ethical, moral and sociological ideology.
During the colonial period (1600 – 1700) New England, Massachusetts was governed by the puritans. The puritans used the bible as a literal interpretation of what was lawful and what would be the punishment if the law was broken. Hebrews chapter 13, verse 4 states;
‘Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.’
This is in stark contrast to the 21st century where laws are created and enforced not just by religion but by societal and cultural preferences.
In the novel, A Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne the protagonist (Hester) is found to be guilty of adultery by having a baby outside of marriage. The punishment for this is being forced to wear a scarlet letter as a mark of shame upon her breast for life. This highlights the then acceptable act of public shaming as compared to that of private guilt. The latter being the general consensus of how the sin of adultery is usually handled in the 21st century. Does this however lessen or diminish the act, meaning that this approach concedes that the public be they of religious or legal persuasion cannot intercede to punish a crime when they themselves have their own sins to be judged?
Leviticus chapter 20 verse 10 states;
“And the man that commits adultery with another man’s wife, even he that commits adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”
So if the puritans had indeed followed the bible exactingly then by all rights Hester and Dimmesdale (a pastor) should be put to death. Surprisingly enough Jesus also gave his thoughts on the subject of adultery tying in adulteries of the heart in addition to the adulterous acts themselves: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5:27-28).
Therefore being made to have an ‘A,’ brandished on her chest is quite lenient. As, by law Hester and Dimmesdale deserve to be killed in accordance with community vengeance. In Puritan society, adultery was not seen merely as a matter between the two parties but as a breach of contract between those individuals and the community. Even if a husband wanted his adulterous wife to be saved, she could be sentenced to die as a result of the community’s obligations to its moral and legal statutes. The novel, A Scarlet Letter keeps bringing up the question of sin versus judgement. These different themes have been also explored in the Holy Bible in both the Old and New Testament.
In the King James Version of the bible John Chapter 8, verse 3 to 9 states;
‘And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they said unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou. Jesus said, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.’
As time progressed the charge of capital punishment began to change. A Plymouth law of 1694 called for the display of an ‘A’ on the dress. Hawthorne recorded this case in his journal, and it became the subject of his story, “Endicott and the Red Cross,” in which a Salem woman, required to wear the red letter ‘A’, added wonderful embroidery to it. However the admonitions of Jesus not to judge others were still trumped by the society’s desire to punish what seemed to be obvious transgressions against society.
Another important factor is that what the Puritans thought of as sin would be different from what is considered sinful in the 21st century, both being different from what many Christians think of as sin today. This should not teach us moral relativism, but it should encourage us to be wary of judging others. In the case of Jesus defending the adulteress by declaring, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” had not become a guiding principle in the law pertaining to sexual acts. Modern society however has recognised the obvious hypocrisy and has agreed that adultery should not be punishable by death.
In the 21st century adultery is not punished by public shaming, being made into an outcast or worst of all death. Instead adulterous misdeeds done today are bought before courts of law to determine to what extent emotional and mental damage has occurred assassination of character and deformation of one’s reputation.
In the 21st century the term adultery implies mainly Christian and Islamic connotations. There are many societies in which marriage is considered a less-permanent arrangement and in which extramarital sex is less sternly condemned. This simply means, attitudes toward adultery vary widely between cultures. In West Africa, indigenous tribes have changed the crime and punishment of adultery to that of ‘Honour Crime,’ which they can now use to condone the killing of adulterous female spouses and their companions. Another practice found among the Kaka in Cameroon is that a man may have sexual relations with the wives of certain relatives with impunity. This ‘Wife Lending,’ has also been a long part of Eskimo hospitality. The culture of the South Sea Islands permits non incestual extramarital relations and among certain Pueblo Indian societies adultery is so common that it is tolerated if kept secret.
In Western Europe and North America, adultery was traditionally simply a ground for divorce. The diffusion of this principle, along with Western notions of egalitarianism and modern expectations of mutual emotional support in marriage, has resulted in unprecedented pressure for equal marital rights for women in traditional African and Southeast Asian societies. In many eastern European countries, adultery does not in itself constitute a ground for divorce; both partners must testify, under the principle of ‘general breakdown,’ that the offense resulted in the decline of those feelings of which marital unity is composed.
In the 21st century marriage and adultery has taken on totally new concepts and meanings. This is due to the fact that in today’s society that even the basic distinction between chaste and unchaste relationships are extremely difficult to determine. For example people who are new to a neighbourhood or parish, there will always at least be the latent possibility that the couple who presents themselves as man and wife are not married and is currently living together in adultery or bigamy. This means that the boundaries between the right and wrong are, to a certain extent, blurry; they are being based on subjective impressions of orderly respectability or deviance. How can one determine if one’s new neighbour is a respectable man of God or an adulterous jezebel?
There exists therefore a dichotomy between honest and dishonest society underpinned by the wider discourse of crime and social order, so transgressions have emerged not from a radical break with the legitimate, but grew out of legitimate everyday-life situations and interactional structures. So adulterous transgressions whether they are acted upon or willingly overlooked is difficult to determine. In conclusion Hawthorne through his novel was showing his readers that adultery is really a crime of passion.
Anonymous, ‘A Seromon against Whoredom and Uncleanness,’ in Davis, L., ed., Sexuality and Gender in the English Renaissance (New York & London, 1998).
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: Norton Critical Edition. New York: 1988.
O’Day, R. (1994), the Family and Family Relationships, 1500-1900: England, France and the United States of America, London.
The Holy Bible: The King James Version, 1993. Print.