In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most well-known work, The Scarlet Letter, we get a glimpse of a Puritan community and particularly their sexual ethic and harsh judgment of those who do not comply.
Hester Prynne is not an innocent woman; she has committed adultery and given birth to a child outside of wedlock. Everyone in the community knows that the baby is “illegitimate” since Hester’s husband is visibly absent, having not arrived in America yet. Hester neither proclaims innocence nor gives excuses for her behavior, even though, when her husband is revealed, it is abundantly clear that there is no love between them. Hester refuses to name the child’s father, sparing that man the public shaming that she faces every day.
This novel can lead us to consider a number of things about marriage. Here are a few:
- Marriage is, among other things, a surrendering of your capacity to procreate to your spouse.
In marriage, a husband and wife give to each other not only their whole present selves, but also their future prospects of procreation. The mutual gift of fertility is not a part of the marital covenant to be taken lightly. It means not only openness to however many children God gives you (while being open to life and also exercising responsible parenthood) but also the converse: acceptance if God does not give you children. We know from the proliferation of IVF and other methods of procreating that this latter issue is also a struggle for many people.
Hester’s child, Pearl, is the concrete proof of her infidelity and a sign to the community of a broken vow.
- Adultery affects not only the married couple, but the whole community.
Public shaming is not a good thing; no one wants to go back to the time depicted in The Scarlet Letter! But neither do we want to accept the idea that adultery is fine under certain circumstances— such as if the spouses agree to have an “open” relationship or if the new relationship seems to be making the person “happier”. Adultery strikes at the heart of marriage and the family, even when it is secret and “no one knows” about it. Then, when it does become known, the spouse and children are naturally the most affected, but so is the entire community, starting with the extended family and friends of the couple, rippling through the Church community, and then to the broader community. Indeed, everyone is affected in some way by an example of infidelity. It makes the virtue of fidelity that much harder to practice for anyone who is struggling with it. It may even suggest to a struggling person that fidelity is impossible or that it’s “not worth it.” A new vulnerability emerges in every one of the marriages in the community. People who identified themselves with the other couple start wondering how strong their own marriages are, questioning their spouses, feeling insecure. Many people feel betrayed by the man or woman who was unfaithful, even when they are not the immediate family. Adultery is not a private sin.
- Children have the right to know their mother and their father.
Hester’s daughter, Pearl, is described as an “elf-child” who seems to “hover about the enigma of the scarlet letter”(p.170). Pearl seems to know, in a mysterious way, that Reverend Dimmesdale is her father, saying that Hester’s scarlet letter is there, “for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart” (p. 171). She is conscious of a bond between her natural mother and father even though Hester never acknowledges it. Pope Francis said, “We must reaffirm the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.” Perhaps Pearl would not be so eccentric if she could know and be embraced by her father. Or maybe she would just be a happier eccentric!
4. Sin does not have the last word.
One of the most important things we can reflect on after reading The Scarlet Letter is that Hester Prynne is sanctified by her repentance. Hawthorne writes that “the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom” (p.157). Sin does not have the last word. All is not lost!