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Essay: The Scarlet Letter: what transpired before the era of slavery

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  • Published: 12 April 2023*
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Different societies have been through various issues to make the milestones the out-group sees in the contemporary world. For instance, the United States was not always a cohesive community as the world perceives it to be (Mackenzie 18). Different cultures interact freely with limited scrutiny and criticism of what one was not doing in a country. Everyone knows the history that there was a time when skin color was the determinant of what advantages one received and what activities he or she could undertake. White people were considered the superior race and received significantly greater and better treatment from the state than the African Americans did.

However, what people fail to realize was that there was always a beginning to everything and the United States was not always a racially divided country. When the first immigrant groups first came to the United States and in the advent of the slave trade, slaves were not treated as harshly as they were in later decades; at the same time, they were not treated as equals to the European settlers either. There existed a balance that sought to maintain the status quo and one that set the stage for later practices that amounted to racial segregation most of which was evident in publications made, real and fictional, on account of events that happened in the seventeenth century. The differential treatment was a result of the low literacy levels of the slaves from Africa compared to that of the Europeans who came into the United States. The difference amounted to the perception that they were lesser beings and, to maintain the status quo, they were treated differently.

The Scarlet Letter was one of the most discussed novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850. The book was adapted for film production in 1995 with a remake in 2015. Set in the 17th century, the protagonist Hester Prynne was accused of adultery at a time when life revolved around religion and that its people were living with such strict rules. Choosing to cast an African American in the lead role would include a great deal of how an individual can be put to shame despite being a good person. Both movies showed the same idea of the individual vs. society as the primary concern and that the only way for such a person to become one with society is to have freedom. Despite the laws and norms of society placed upon her, Hester Prynne remained a strong individual and was never broken by anything, and with that state of mind came the confidence of overcoming the difficulties that created a renewed hope and strength.

The Scarlet Letter reflects the occurrences of events in the 17th century from 1642 to 1649. The plot takes in Boston, Massachusetts, a territory under the rule of the Puritans, who are religious refugees from Europe coming to the United States largely because of their persecution by Church of England (Mackenzie 20). However, they were staunch believers and tried to do everything according to how they interpreted the law. Various laws existed among the Puritans, some of which were oppressive. These people believed that when someone was condemned for sin, he or she has no chance of getting to heaven that was the desired destination (). Therefore, a conversation about the ancient America always puts the Puritan immigration into consideration. Most of the rules followed by the immigrant population were a result of what the Puritans deemed to be ideal.

The society controlled much of what individuals did and they paid attention to their morals on the basis of what the society perceived as the right thing to do. Seldom did people act on individual capacities which gave Prynne particular attention for her role. Besides, it shows congruence with the film Cabin in the Sky which gives much attention to what is good versus evil. If someone has done a good deed, he or she will be rewarded, while if one have done wrong, he or she received punishment. The main message of the film shows how people gave in easily to the temptations of modern city life and causes one to have marital problems that can relate to The Scarlet Letter since they both have a central message in which people need to remain in touch with their societal traditions lest they face punishment.

According to history, the time during which the film was set represented a period when African Americans were introduced as slaves to Maryland (). History also dictates that slaves often followed what their masters said without question. Any sign of dissent or dissatisfaction with a particular issued order would result in punishment of the slaves, who were then treated as nothing more than a property. There was little regard to the slaves as people who were similar to their owners. However, Prynne seemed to defy the odds and did not totally submit to the dominant culture. Her deviance did not exactly absolved her as she suffered the consequences of her dissent as well. Nonetheless, it raises the question of why the white people would deny any other individual of their freedom because the lack of liberty was the primary cause of Puritan escape from England (Mackenzie 28). Their reason for settling in the United States had been the existence of restrictive rules that made it questionable that they were strict on the African Americans. Prynne should have had the freedom to practice whatever religion she wished to practice, especially because the Puritans had experienced the pain of having someone dictate what they should do.
Boston, Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery predominantly Indians, whites, and black people, in its body of liberties(). Hester Prynne, as the main character, represented the strife that African Americans have suffered due to the rules and oppression that has been imposed on them. Visualizing how African Americans lived back then with the sign of having a darker color skin would pretty much put them on strain. It was impossible to hide the difference since it was written on everyone’s face. However, there was an advantage then that did not exist several decades later since they were only treated differently and not entirely racially segregated (). The African Americans at the time had more privileges than the generations that came after them. Nonetheless, that did not mean they received treatment equal to that of the Puritans.

In The Scarlet Letter, Prynne conceived a daughter out of an affair with a pastor and ended up being convicted of adultery. Notably, the Puritans were Christians, so they would not take it kindly that a preacher had been involved in an affair outside marriage as the cultural norms dictated. More so, most of the wrath would fall on Prynne due to her skin color. However, the possibility of different treatment and condemnation does not deter her from doing what she would term as defiance to cultural norms and standing by what she thinks is right (). During her conviction at the scaffold, she boldly goes with her child in her arms to the stand, depicting an enormous level of boldness and the desire to overcome the guilt of adultery.

However, Prynne later accepts the guilt and shame that came along with adultery in the scarlet letter. The most exciting scene during the trial is when she spots her husband, whose presence she did not know about. The audience was left wondering what the two would talk about after the trial and whether or not the husband would take her back as his wife. He may have been very emphatic about going back home, but what he finds was his wife facing a trial for adultery, demoralizing and possibly angering him.

The dramatic irony here where the readers knew that Roger Chillingworth has been on a journey and knew he was going to come back for the interesting study of the Native Americans and their herbal medicines was because the search for ideas in this period was popular around (). However, Roger Chillingworth can be entirely seen as an evil because of his learning of the herbal medicines from the Native Americans that when acquired can be translated to witchcraft. As earlier stated, ideal Christianity forms that backbone of the story according to which, one should only depend on God as the source of deliverance from illness. Chillingworth’s pursuit of the Native American’s medicine falls so far away from what the Puritans would have approved as being Christian-friendly. Before the immigration of the Puritans, the Native Americans practiced traditionalism, and it was only after the Puritans came to the country that they have to learn about Christianity. Therefore, consultation of an outside religion was a deviation from norms that the white people were not ready to accept.

Nonetheless, the indication of family detachment that came along with slavery and the captures of the African American built pain and bitterness in their hearts. The grief and bitterness formed the platform for the struggle for freedom(). No one would wish to be separated from their family, especially because of enslavement. Many people watched as their sons, brothers, and fathers were taken away to work as slaves for the white people. In the seventeenth century, the victims may have seen it as a passing cloud. Unfortunately, the cloud took more than two centuries to pass and got worse with every passing decade(). African Americans lives were never the same again. Prynne’s trial was a mere representation of how life would be for the African Americans from then on.

Throughout the challenges that Prynne undergoes on the film, she still protects the person behind her pregnancy by refusing to reveal the name of the father to her daughter at the scaffold and his husband. It shows the level of compromise and the degree of confidence that the people had to secure their current position and status. Her husband presses her to reveal the information and was angered by her secrecy. Moreover, Prynne needed to wear the scarlet letter “A” as a symbol of sin and shows that no matter what happens or wherever she goes, she still will be a sign of adulterer in the society. There was emphasis on public humiliation of those that went against the laws and practices of people present during the time (). As earlier stated, Christianity should not vouch for a culture that emphasizes on keeping a record of wrongs. After all, once someone has accepted his or her evil deed, one ought to be forgiven and showed how to do things right.

Although slavery had not taken much root in the society, the practices then set the path for those that accompanied slavery. The passing of the fugitive slave law later came to fruition and offenders trying to free slaves were illegal. Any slave who was caught escaping was to be branded an “R”, which means that they attempted a second escape (). The branding was not much different from the “A” that Prynne received and was supposed to wear it wherever she went for everyone to see. “A” represented adulterer, while “R” was a sign representing “runner”. There was the tendency to make things public, where doing so would yield humiliation for the party who had committed an offense.

The efforts to have such elaborate punishments for people who went against tradition may be viewed from different perspectives all of which point towards a regime that went to considerable lengths to instill fear for people to desist from what the society termed as wrong. In the future, the use of branding as punishment was used to ensure that wherever slaves with a history of running went, they would be treated with more caution than those that had no such history. The lesson in that statement was that any crime was as bad and that adulterers needed not not be condemned any more than a thief was. However, the Puritan community did not take that into consideration and perceived adultery as far much worse crime to the extent of humiliating the evil doer.
From a different perspective, Prynne may have received such a hefty sentence for being a person of color. Perhaps, if she were a white woman, the sentence would have been more lenient. After all, the primary reason why the Puritans were in America was the existence of stringent rules in England (). It would be in the best interest of the leadership in America to act differently lest they faced an uprising from the immigrants from England. Therefore, the color was also a determining factor in the sentence that Prynne received (). The lack of segregation and elaborate racism does not mean that the Puritans were willing to integrate the African Americans into their culture wholly. They still viewed them as a lesser people, a factor that could have contributed to the future evolution of slavery. Had they treated African Americans with as much respect, the eventuality may have been different, and racism may never have become a social phenomenon.

At the end of The Scarlet Letter, the guilt of the scarlet letter “A” transformed to be the strength and pride of Hester Prynne. African Americans had enjoyed the pride after having freedom of the mind and the joy of having overcome the challenges. Personally, for this woman, she does not see her letter “A” on her clothes as a sign of shame but a sign of becoming more powerful after combatting some big problem(). Hester Prynne learned a harsh life lesson, made conclusions, and became an even stronger individual than she has been before. This type of film thus brings us to the point where one is significantly not affected by the norms of the society. It brings the opportunity to think differently than others, such as that of Martin Luther King Jr., whose thinking leads us to be free and became one of the pioneers of the African American Civil Rights. It therefore also teaches us that our individualities and uniqueness in this world will bring us to the hopes of being open to different kinds of people.

The Scarlet Letter paints a vivid image of what transpired before the much known slavery era. Hawthorne may not have realized it while making the publication but his book forms one of the most important sources of information on African American history. It was important because it pays attention to a period that most authors tend to overlook while exploring the history of the African American community. Nonetheless, it remains clear that the community did not have anything to enjoy right from the beginning of their stay in the United States, which goes ahead to inform the necessity of equality and advocacy for racial parity in the society. Anything that does not amount to equality needs to be dealt with decisively in pursuit of peace and sense of belonging to every member of the American community. Maintenance of status quo does not always yield rewards for the society that yields to do so. Prynne did what she thought was best for herself, kept the name of the child’s father as a secret, and went to trial with the child, something that many would have considered arrogant. She took the sentence positively and continued living her life as before. Therefore, as people suffer in silence, it is important to note that The Scarlet Letter was enough proof that one can beat the odds and be a source of change in the society.


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