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Nathaniel Hawthorne: Puritans

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Nathaniel Hawthorne had deep bonds with his Puritan ancestors and wrote a story both emphasized their strengths and weaknesses. His understanding of their beliefs and his appreciation for their strengths were balanced by his concerns for their uncompromising and confining rules.

The early Puritans, who first came to America in 1620, founded a perilous colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Half of the colonists died the first year, but the other half were saved by spring and the convenient incoming of the Indians. There first settlers were followed ten years later by a wave of Puritans that continued in the 1630’s and the 1640’s until New England had over twenty-five thousand settlers. The second group that arrived in the 1630’s settled in present day Boston in a community they named Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is this colony that forms the setting of the Scarlet Letter.

The Puritans left the “Old World” because they wanted to “purify” the Church of England. Their main complaints were that the church services should be simpler and that religion should have a strong spiritual relationship between that individual and God. England’s government tried to mediate in between this sacred relationship and when the Puritans chose to defy them, they were persecuted. As a result, the Puritans fled to Holland and to the “New World” where they hoped to build a society described as a “city upon a hill”. In such a place they hoped as long as they followed his words and did their work to glorify his ways, God would bless them. Hawthorne presents the irony of this when he describes the prison as a building already worn when the colony is only fifteen years old.

Hawthorne’s attitude and viewpoint of this society seems to be disclosed in several places throughout the novel, but mainly in the Governor’s house in Chapter 7 and during the New England holiday in Chapter 21.

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