The Relationship between Crime and Punishment in 19th Century American Writing

Essay 2007 10 Pages

American Studies - Literature


This essay focuses on three American literary works of the 19th century: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, Herman Melville’s short story Benito Cereno in 1855, and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson between 1893 and 1894. While the younger works Benito Cereno and Pudd’nhead Wilson are obviously concerned with the interrelation of blacks and whites, as well as with slavery and its effects on the American society, The Scarlet Letter primarily deals with the Puritan way of life and the law system in New England.

Although a direct comparison of the three works seems to be problematical due to their different subject matters, the essay will figure out how crime and punishment is depicted in their broader frame.

Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is set in the 17th century in Salem, Massachusetts – the stronghold of New England’s Puritanism. The main character of the novel, Hester Prynne, is mother of an illegitimate child (Pearl) and thus a sinner that, according to the strict Puritan laws, has to be ostracised and punished. Her actual punishment is determined by the town’s magistracy and consists in the duty to carry a scarlet letter A on her clothes. The adulteress is also presented to an assembly of townspeople on the scaffold of the pillory. Midst of the crowd that is mocking the sinner is Hester’s missed husband – Roger Prynne – as well as the person whom she committed adultery with – the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Ironically enough, Dimmesdale is regarded as an extraordinary exemplary Puritan priest by both, the townspeople and the town’s magistracy[1]. His guilt remains undiscovered until the end of the novel.

Roger Prynne is a stranger at the beginning, who unexpectedly appears at the market-place out of the wilderness[2]. When Hester spots him on the scaffold, he signalises her not to reveal his identity as her husband and starts an indirect inquiry about her, trying to figure out why she is set up to public shame. A townsman congratulates the newcomer to be back in civilisation after being “a wanderer sorely against [his] own will”[3] and explains what had happened in town and why Hester Prynne is punished on the scaffold.

From this very moment on, the dishonoured husband strives for vengeance. He is, however, not interested in punishing his own wife, but rather wants to find out with whom she had been unfaithful. Since she is in love with Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester refuses to name the sinner and wants to carry her burden as a convict on her own. Her husband does not accept this and, as a consequence, entirely devotes himself to his desire for revenge. He changes his name into Roger Chillingworth[4] and actually becomes chilling-worth to his new enemy whom he is soon able to identify. Indeed, the strange behaviour of the clergyman Dimmesdale is very telling to an attentive observer like the deceived husband.

Since his guilt remains unpunished for a long while, Dimmesdale is not able to get atonement for the sin and cannot receive grace as well. On the other hand, he continues to play the role of the perfect Puritan who is greatly admired in public. His veiled guilt and his mendacious double life cause a severe mental and physical illness that – according to the general opinion of the townsmen – is supposed to be cured by the self-proclaimed physician Chillingworth.

The latter is, of course, merely interested in torturing and harassing the clergymen. Under the social pressure of Dimmensdale’s environment, the “doctor” is even able to move into the priest’s house in order to spy out more details about his “patient’s” inner life. Even after having identified Dimmesdale as Pearl’s father, Chilingworth is not willing to hand the sinner over to the local authorities, because he wants to preserve his position of power over his “victim”[5].

While Dimmesdale is constantly being reduced by Chillingworth’s mean and intrusive activities, Hester Prynne’s honour is recovered because of her repentant behaviour and her submitting to the law and to her faith. The townspeople who had once condemned and insulted Hester on the scaffold even forget about the original significance of the letter A (which is never explicitly elucidated by Hawthorne, but probably was intended to mean “adultery”). Hester had apparently developed in such a positive way and done so much for the society that the people “said that it [the letter] meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength”[6]. When Hester suddenly has to realise that “[Dimmesdale’s] nerve seem[s] absolutely destroyed [and] [h]is moral force [is] abased into more than childish weakness”[7], she decides to speak to her husband and ask him for forgiveness. Since Chillingworth is full of hatred and his quest for revenge has by now become his only aim in life, he refuses the offer of charity. Therefore, Hester decides to tell Dimmesdale the truth about Chillingworth’s identity and about his plans to destroy the clergyman. She does this for love, because her illegal relationship with the minister was more than just passion. Hester truly believes that “it had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other”[8]. Unfortunately, Hester’s estimation about the “consecration” is wrong. While she might truly be in love with the priest, Dimmesdale is but a passionate hypocritical egoist who has sinned against Hester and the puritan law by committing adultery and not standing by the woman and her child on the scaffold. His terribly bad conscious might once have led him to pretend the confessing sinner at night when he climbed the scaffold and shrieked hysterically, but – as the narrator ironically comments – “The shriek had perhaps sounded with a far greater power, to his own startled ears, than it actually possessed”[9] – and, once again, no one actually noticed the priest on the scaffold, except Hester, Pearl and the devilish Roger Chillingworth[10].


[1] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. in: The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: Norton, 2003: 1368.

[2] Hawthorne, 2003: 1365.

[3] Hawthorne, 2003: 1366.

[4] Hawthorne, 2003: 1371.

[5] Hawthorne, 2003: 1408.

[6] Hawthorne, 2003: 1420.

[7] Hawthorne, 2003: 1418.

[8] Hawthorne, 2003: 1438.

[9] Hawthorne, 2003: 1413.

[10] Hawthorne, 2003: 1415 ff.


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Queen's University Belfast
Relationship Crime Punishment Century American Writing Benito Cereno Puddn'head Wilson Scarlet Letter Puritanism Hypocrisy Mark Twain Herman Melville



Title: The Relationship between Crime and Punishment in 19th Century American Writing