The
punishments in The Scarlet Letter
such as the public humiliation of Hester Prynne and the execution of Miss
Hibbins were true to how Puritans realistically punished those who committed
crimes in their society. There were many ideals in Puritan society that set
standards for how people of the Puritan religion should live their lives. If an
action goes against an ideal, it is deemed as a crime. Between disobeying the
rules of the Sabbath, committing adultery, and even witchcraft, punishments
were given accordingly. Depending on the severity of the action in the eyes of
powerful figures in the society, punishments ranged merely from public
humiliation to even death. Many of the crimes seem unreasonable, as numerous
laws in present day are completely different. Although the laws may seem unreasonable,
it is what Puritans and many others believed in the sixteenth century.

As seen in the Two Elizabethan Puritan Diaries, “The most striking feature of the
Puritan way of life revealed in the diaries is the overwhelming predominance of
the ethical element. It was the good rather than the beautiful or the true,
which occupied the Puritan mind (Knappen).” This statement was exemplified in
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter when
Hester Prynne was known to have committed adultery. Immediately, Hester was
shunned and forced into public humiliation, a punishment that held true to
traditional Puritan punishment. As Hester transforms the meaning of the “A”
from “adulterer” to “able” by helping the poor, she proves that her soul is
good. The town recognizes the good of her heart and changes their perspective.
Before, the town focused on the wrongful sin as opposed to the truth and beauty
of the love that Dimmesdale and Hester shared. All the hateful opinions seemed
to dissipate with time and Hester was later appreciated.

A true case of public humiliation
was forced upon a Boston seafaring man who profaned the Sabbath. Captain Kemble
publicly kissed his wife when he returned home on a Sunday after being at sea
for three years.  His punishment was a
sentence of several hours of public humiliation in the stocks (Cox). Something
as small as missing church and showing affection to a loved one after not
seeing him or her for three years earned hours of public humiliation.

            One of the
most prominent crimes in the sixteenth century was witchcraft. Countless women,
like Miss Hibbins in The Scarlet Letter,
were accused of witchcraft, often leading to execution. This witchcraft was
especially unacceptable in the Puritan religion due to the very high regards
for God. From “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, the minister scolds the
Puritans for not being worthy of God’s grace. The minister condemned the
church-goers to hell just for an action so small as forgetting to pray. Imagine
the minister’s reaction to the witchcraft that rejected God and promoted black
magic. Whether the convicted witch’s death be hanging or even burning at the
stake, the executions were often gruesome.

            Miss
Hibbins often made disturbing comments to many people and also invited them to
“witch parties” in the forest. It was inevitable that she get caught and hung
for witchcraft. Miss Hibbins was in fact a real person who committed the same
crime. Although thousands died from this same crime, the execution of Anne
Hibbins was one of the historically documented deaths. Whether Miss Hibbins was
a witch or not seems to be debatable, even in the opinion of Nathaniel
Hawthorne who included her into the plot.

            The myriad
of deaths resulting from the witch trials may seem excessive or even
impossible. Historians have studied the verdicts and punishments of those
accused which revealed a forgery of Lamothe-Largons who described imaginative
14th-century witch trials with high death rates. It was eventually revealed
that 40,000 to 50,000 deaths were the accurate rate as opposed to the millions
that were once thought were killed (“Witchcraft”). The 40,000 deaths is more reasonable than the millions, but it
is unfortunate to think that many of the lives taken were innocent and
wrongfully accused.

            Though
punishment for adultery and witchcraft appears to seem unreasonable in modern
day, it was extremely serious in the eyes of most Puritans. Adultery is still a
sin in most religions, but they are not publicly humiliated. It is quite
possible in some areas of the world where the sins are still deemed as severe
in which the sinners are harshly punished. The likelihood of the sinner being
punished as harshly as the Puritans in the 1600s is slim. Hester Prynne may
have been punished but her conversion was remarkable to not only the community
that she lived in, but also to the readers of The Scarlet Letter. Miss Hibbins on the other hand did not come
back from her punishment to have a conversion because the punishment was
execution. Whether or not Miss Hibbins would have had a conversion if she had a
less severe punishment is unknown. This decision and many others about the
crimes not only in The Scarlet Letter
but also in the 1600s is left up to the imagination of the reader. 

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