The Scarlet Letter is a story of hypocrisy and punishment. The strict Puritan
laws made adultery a sin punishable by death or a life of misery. Although being
an unwed mother or an illegitimate child is no longer a crime leading to capitol
punishment, the treatment of welfare mothers and their children is similar to
the treatment Hester an Pearl received in Hawthorne’s novel. Hester and Pearl
are prime examples of the negative attitude society, both Puritan and current,
has toward single mothers and their “bastard” children. Hester and Pearl are
the atypical example of illegitimate child and unwed mother. The consequence of
the relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale is a child out of wedlock. Hester
is forced to stand with her child on a scaffold which according to Hawthorne is”invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.”
Pearl is forced to grow up without a father and Hester is left to make a life
for herself and her child with no social succor. The puritans favored laws that
would force society to hear their preaching (2.Gatis, 5). To the Puritan
community Hester’s “A” is a mark of just punishment. According to Crime
and Punishment in American History, executing adulterers was a rare event.
Branding and banishment was more common than the death penalty (6.Friedman, 36).
In a society where there is no separation of church and state, the letter
prevents Hester from being an active member of society. Hester, or a puritan
woman in her condition, is held as an example for all to behold. While Hester is
forced to wear a symbol of her sin, Pearl is forced to grow up watching her
mother chastised. She can not have a normal childhood, for she does not fit into
society. Her father is a “dead beat dad” and lends no hand in her up
bringing. Hawthorne states, “Pearl was born an outcast of the infantile world.
An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened
infants.” In the Puritan community, the father is considered the head of
household. According to Edmund S. Morgan’s The Puritan Family, there was a law
in Massachusetts holding the head of household responsible for teaching their
children and providing instruction of civil matters. Family in the Puritan
society was a means for carrying out civil purposes (5.Kerry, 16). Family life
was very important and all members of the society were expected to be part of a
family. Fatherless children would not fall into the category of a family unit,
therefore Pearl, not having a proper family, is chastised and branded a child of
the devil. Although Dimmsedale does not remain unscathed by sin, he is not
punished by society. He is able to hide his participation in the evil act, and
escape a punishment of death. Hester is forced to raise the child on her own
without any moral or monetary support from her lover. She has to ask to be
allowed to keep her child, and is forced to do so as a single mother. Although
the town wants to find the father of Pearl in the beginning of the novel, the
issue is not forced, and Dimmsedale escapes responsibility. Despite the
suffering Dimmsedale feels internally, he still takes no initiative to help in
the raising of Pearl. Although having a child out of wedlock is no longer
punishable by death, and women are no longer forced to wear scarlet letters,
unwed mothers are still the ones held solely responsible for their illegitimate
children. Unwed mothers are branded as immoral welfare recipients who are too
lazy to work. AFDC is known as a wasteful program that encourages unwed mothers
to continue to have children. Much of society has not change their views since
the Puritan days. At the American Enterprise Institute luncheon Charles Murray
said, “The act of getting pregnant if you are not prepared to care for a child
is not morally neutral, it is a very destructive act. And much as we may
sympathize with a young woman who finds herself in that situation… part of
arranging society so that happens as seldom as possible is to impose terrible
penalties on that act (1.Conniff, 18).” This is seemingly reverting to the
tactics used by the Puritans. Welfare programs for unwed mothers are thought to
be a waste of tax dollars. Politicians continue to debate welfare reforms while
the country continues to view unwed mothers as failures. In the article Just the
Facts, Katha Pollitt writes, “As a mythological figure, the welfare mother is
virtually the opposite of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces-
she’s the villain with only one: the greedy, lazy Welfare Queen… (4.Pollitt,
9)” Today, as in Puritan days, stigmas remain on unwed mothers and their
illigitimate children. Children like Pearl are no longer linked to the devil,
but instead to crime and drug use. Illegitimacy is seen as a hereditary problem
and single parent households are blamed for the rise in teenage pregnancies.
Even Dimmsedale’s character has a place in the modern version of Hawthorne’s
tale. Welfare reform continues to attack unwed mothers, but the fathers are able
to conceal their part. Just as Dimmesdale, they face no consequences if they are
not found out. Although there are talks of hunting down the dead beat dads of
America, the concentration of importance is still attacking welfare mothers.
According to Physiology Today 25% of fathers are believed to pay no child
support (3. P.K.). Even if the fathers were found and forced to pay, financial
support is only part of what makes a father. Like Dimmesdale, many fathers today
feel they are unable to spiritually or physically be with their children.
Hawthorne says the Puritans were “a people amongst whom religion and law were
almost identical.” Our society today is supposed to have a separation between
church and state. Who is to say that being an unwed mother is negative or a sin?
We as a people continue to paint an ugly face on those who “lack the
responsibility” to be married before they procreate. Hester Prynne and Pearl
are made to suffer because of such a mentality. The single mothers of today are
still scorned while the Arthur Dimmsedales are left to suffer inwardly, or not
at all. Welfare reforms threaten to end what little support our communities give
to the Hester Prynnes of our time. Hester and Pearl are truly representative of
the views of society towards unwed mothers and illegitimate children. Our
negative attitude to welfare mothers are similar to the scarlet letter, and our
social nuances may be every bit as effective. The question is; how effective is
the branding of our single mothers?
1. Conniff, Ruth. “Big Bad Welfare.” The Progressive. August 1994: 18-22.
2. Gatis, George. “Puritan Jurisprudence: A Study in Substantive Biblical
Law.” Contra Mundum. Summer 1994. www.wavefront.com (7 Oct. 1998). 3. P.K.
“Psychology Today on Deadbeat Dads.” Psychology Today. April 1989.
www.dgross.edu (7 Oct. 1998). 4. Pollitt, Katha. “Just the Facts.” The
Nation. June 1996: 9. 5. Ptacek, Kerry. “Family Instruction and Christian
Public Education in Puritan New England.” Covenant Family. 1995: 16. 6.
Friedman, Lawrence. Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: Basic