Boston, Massachusetts in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

PHOTO CREDIT: Rebecca Kennison. This photo is in the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“It straggled onward into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and imposed such imperfect glimpses of the sky above, that, to Hester’s mind, it imaged not amiss the moral wilderness in which she had so long been wandering.”1

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne commits an act that has–for better or worse–become a part of mainstream society today: adultery. However, because the novel takes place in the mid-seventeenth century, and because Hester lives in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, this act condemns her to a life of shame and misery, forced upon her by the judgmental townspeople. With its vast expanse of woods and wilderness, the colony is shrouded in mystery and distrust, and though the Puritan religion believes that salvation is predestined, its strict values lead to harsh punishment for those who dare to commit sins, or at least for those who are caught. Hester is publicly shamed everywhere she goes, and is forced to wear a red ‘A’ for adulterer, which separates her from the conservative clothes of the Puritans and the dark and muted setting that surrounds her. In this religion-based colony, which was the battleground for many acts of dissent, the people live by the books, and any rebellion or form of mistake is immediately shot down with cruel punishment.

Boston is the largest city in Massachusetts, and occupies some of the some land that was the settling place of Puritan colonists from England, who deemed the area the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As Hawthorne demonstrates in The Scarlet Letter it long history encompasses many significant events such as the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the nearby battles of Lexington and Concord. While Boston is now a modern city surrounded by suburbs, its location along the Atlantic coast was once hemmed in by wilderness, which played into the story of Hester Prynne’s shunning and exile.

Read more about the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Boston on Wikipedia. Find The Scarlet Letter at a local library or on Amazon.

1Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Nancy Stade. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. Print.

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