This article is based on an essay I wrote for my American Lit class at Grove City College. I will not include a summary of the two works because I describe their notable aspects in the essay. Suffice it to say that both are about women who are victims of the justice system. The two works are The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Speech of Miss Polly Baker by Benjamin Franklin.
It is hard to imagine two authors with more differing theories of human nature than Hawthorne and Franklin. Hawthorne depicts what he perceives as the darkness of sin that lies hidden in every human heart in his “tale of human frailty and sorrow” (453). Franklin is, by comparison, overwhelmingly optimistic, confident that individuals are basically good and should aim for moral perfection. While Hawthorne depicts the inescapable pull of the past and the insufficiency of the individual apart from the “magnetic chain of humanity” that connects him or her to the community, Franklin is the ambitious pioneer of the self-made man, asserting man’s power to singlehandedly improve his situation and boldly claiming that “God helps them who help themselves” (Male 144; “The Way to Wealth” 442). Yet despite their differences, the thoughts of these two great American writers intersect in The Scarlet Letter and The Speech of Miss Polly Baker. Through the unremitting punishment of Hester Prynne and Miss Polly Baker, Hawthorne and Franklin reveal the absence of true mercy in society; and depict so-called justice as the ultimate oppressor of the voiceless.
Within the first few chapters of The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is imprisoned and made a public spectacle, set up on a scaffold before the eyes of the whole town for the space of three hours. This treatment was intended to punish her for adultery, and to serve as a warning of the consequences of sin to the Puritan community. However, the sentence was also believed to be merciful, since “death was the mandatory penalty for adultery in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642” (Korobkin 197). Aware of this, the women of the town complain that the sentence is “merciful overmuch,” and that “this woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die” (Hawthorne 454). Only one woman ventures to acknowledge the massive psychological and emotional burden placed on Hester by the ignominious token. She begs them to stop condemning Hester, claiming that “not a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she has felt it in her heart” (Hawthorne 455). Hawthorne gives evidence that this quiet suggestion is true to Hester’s actual mental state, as she “underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her” (456).
Of the magistrates, Hawthorne asserts that “it would not have been easy to select the same number of wise and virtuous persons, who should be less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman’s heart” (461). Armed with the Levitical law in one hand and the power to enforce it in the other, they emphasize the opportunity they have given her, as if they have treated her with great kindness. The Puritan magistrates enforced a legal system that was evocative of covenantal Israel before the coming of Christ, under which any sentence except immediate execution for an adulterer was considered merciful. In this “New Jerusalem,” the covenant established by Christ is disregarded; the magistrates struggle with their own private sins, and Hester’s “fellow-sinner,” the man with whom she has committed adultery, presides over the mock trial—and yet they have no qualms with throwing the first stone (Hawthorne 463). Hester has no illusions about the cruelty she will suffer under the subjection of the scarlet letter, convinced of the “inapplicability of what the majority of [her] contemporaries take to be inviolable moral law” (Colacurcio 462). The sentence that the magistrates choose fails in all it sets out to accomplish; it perpetuates the evil that it purports to dispel.
First and foremost, the scarlet letter was intended to be an instrument of justice, with a due degree of mercy. If it were merciful, its effect would not match or exceed the severity of the crime. Hester’s violation of the law was “a sin of passion, not of principle, nor even purpose” (Hawthorne 534). It was a one-time offense prompted by her marriage to a man many years her senior, towards whom she “felt no love, nor feigned any,” and who had been absent from her life for years (Hawthorne 466). Her punishment, however, is lifelong. Even when no one has the will to enforce her sentence, she has become so accustomed to the demeaning ornament that she no longer feels worthy to remove it. Furthermore, justice is never fulfilled, since Dimmesdale, the other adulterer, is not discovered until moments before his death, and is greatly esteemed by the community until then.
A secondary purpose of the scarlet letter was to lead Hester toward repentance and redemption, so that “her daily shame would at length purge her soul” (Hawthorne 470). Instead, it drives her into the depths of despair. Rather than bring Hester to live in accordance with church teachings, the scarlet letter effectively alienates her from the church as the preachers make her the object of countless sermons against sin. Her virtue in providing for the poor does not appear to stem from the scarlet letter as much as from her own desire to make up for what she did. In fact, it is the living emblem of Hester’s adulterous relations with Dimmesdale, her daughter Pearl, who better accomplishes the purpose for which the scarlet letter was intended, provoking honesty and humility from Hester. If it were not for the influence of Pearl, she would have succumbed to the temptation of the occult as presented by Mistress Hibbens. “Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest,” Hester replies to the “witch” bluntly (Hawthorne 489). After the forest scene with Dimmesdale, it becomes even more evident that “Hester [was] nearer to ‘repentance’ at the very opening of The Scarlet Letter than she ever is again” (Colacurcio 481).
The third reason for using the scarlet letter was as an outward symbol of her sin, and a deterrence to the community. The magistrates likely did not consider the nature of the punishment, which violates Hester’s dignity by giving the eyes of the community permission to stare at her breast without rebuke. This leads to a horrible fascination with the emblem and its wearer that captivates the community while arousing the curiosity of strangers. The scholar Monika Elbert describes the result: “Woman’s body has become…the locus of public scrutiny: her sexuality has been controlled and regularized” (27). This fixation encourages an attraction to what Christians would call sin by making it socially acceptable to perversely examine Hester’s body in a way that is dehumanizing and allows Hawthorne’s Puritan community to sate their repressed sexual curiosity. Eventually, the scarlet letter loses the connotation of sin, and it becomes a familiar object that the townspeople see as a symbol of Hester’s kindness and good work in the community since the time of her trial. Many even interpret it to mean “Able,” and boast of her fine qualities when outsiders visit the community (Hawthorne 514).
A fourth purpose of the letter was to turn her into more of what the Puritan society would call a proper woman. Instead, it defeminizes her, ensuring that “all the light and graceful foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand” (Hawthorne 515). Hawthorne describes this process, saying that she has lost some essential quality that would have served to “keep her a woman,” and that her “tenderness” had been “crushed so deeply into her heart that it can never show itself more” (515). Her only “transfiguration” occurred in the short time that the letter was discarded, as her “sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty” returned (Hawthorne 515, 536). As soon as the letter was again affixed to what Pearl regarded as its rightful place, “her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed, like fading sunshine” (Hawthorne 541).
Finally, the scarlet letter was meant to keep Hester’s rebellious nature under control, and yet Hester reflects that the “whole seven years of outlaw and ignominy had been little other than preparation” for the moment she decides to flee with Dimmesdale (Hawthorne 535). “The scarlet letter was a passport into regions where other women dare not tread,” Hawthorne explains (534). Hester’s desire is that society must be “torn down, and built up anew” and that the “very nature of the opposite sex” must change before “woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position” (Hawthorne 516). Far from encouraging her to comply with authority, her punishment only provokes her to further deviance from what would be considered socially acceptable, affirming beyond doubt that “the scarlet letter had not done its office” (Hawthorne 516).
In the Speech of Miss Polly Baker, the speaker suffers repeated punishments of a similar magnitude to Hester’s. Miss Baker has been brought to trial for the fifth time, and laments that “twice have I paid heavy fines, and twice have been brought to public Punishment” (“The Speech” 449). The magistrates that sentence her are even more condemning than those that presided over Hester’s case, and though her lover is not among them, he is a magistrate who has been “advanced to Honour and Power, in the same government that punishes [Polly’s] Misfortunes with Stripes and Infamy” (“The Speech” 450). Miss Baker’s punishment is religious, psychological and emotional like Hester’s, but also physical and monetary. Though she wears no representative article of her sin, the stigma is nearly as isolating for her.
Maestro indicates that Franklin believed punishments should be “proportionate to the offenses,” and that he thought that increases in crime were due to injustice and immorality in government (559). Furthermore, Maestro describes the punishments of whipping and large fines as “a product of puritanical attitudes” and indicates that Franklin’s treatment of Polly Baker’s case shows that he does not think her sentence is just (551). Franklin reveals his position on the matter by “having Polly ask several rhetorical questions of the court” which “showed that the whole penal code needed reexamination” (Maestro 551). The court is no more capable of just decisions than the one that determined Hester’s fate. Miss Baker makes it clear that she is not asking for mercy, because the magistrates have already demonstrated that they are unaccustomed to offering it; she asks instead for justice, which has equally been withheld. “I have not the presumption to expect, that you may, by any means, be prevailed on to deviate your Sentence from the Law” she claims, and instead asserts that the law is “unreasonable” and “particularly severe”; in effect, that it is unjust. (“The Speech” 449).
Additionally, Polly Baker has been effectively excommunicated from the church in her hometown by the mandate of the magistrates. “You believe that I have offended Heaven, and must suffer eternal Fire,” Polly points out, and goes on to claim that if her crime “is a religious Offense” then “religious Punishments” are adequate (“The Speech” 450). She cannot imagine why, if they truly believe she will be condemned to hell for her transgressions, they would believe it necessary to administer temporal punishment as well. Polly further admonishes the law for forcing sinners to commit “Barbarities and Murders” to avoid “Punishment and public Shame,” since it prevents their reconciliation with the community (“The Speech” 450). In this society, there is not the possibility of repentance offered in The Scarlet Letter. The magistrates have already judged Miss Baker to be a fallen woman, and therefore unfit to attend their worship services.
Throughout the rest of her speech, she continues to emphasize to the magistrates that the merciless laws that they enforce have only led to the perpetuation of worse vices. “What numbers of procur’d Abortions!” she cries, and then claims that mothers only seek out this option because of the “Terror of Punishment” (“The Speech” 450). She raised her children by her “own Industry,” but admits that she “could have done better, if it had not been for the heavy Charges and Fines” that the magistrates compelled her to pay (“The Speech” 449). The court was essentially accused of jeopardizing her children’s upbringing by keeping her in poverty and whipping her. She presses the point by bringing up that the colonists were encouraged to have many children to increase the colonial population, by officials who used biblical and economic arguments. One judge was so moved by her speech that he soon after married her, and she “was discharged without punishment” (“Reflections”42).
Hawthorne and Franklin portray Hester Prynne and Polly Baker as victims of the justice system in their respective times. Though the two women suffered under similar societal laws, they were separated by roughly a century. According to Mark Hall, if Polly Baker existed and had fifteen children after her marriage, her trial could have occurred in the 1730s at the latest (26). The trial of Hester was set in the 1640s (197). The Scarlet Letter pinpoints Hester’s trial in Boston, and Polly Baker’s trial was located “at Connecticut near Boston in New-England” (Hall 26). The proximity of the settings removes some variables from the comparison of their cases, and demonstrates even more powerfully how despite the passage of time the Law has continually failed to make allowances for extreme circumstances and to extend mercy to those whose punishment would not fulfill any redemptive purpose or provide any societal benefit.
Though the means of expression that Hawthorne and Franklin use to depict the fate of Hester and Polly are vastly different in form and delivery—Hawthorne used the novel and romance as his vessel, and Franklin used the medium of a newspaper article—their approach is similar. Hawthorne’s satiric caricature of the Puritans emphasizes their fundamental hypocrisy and monocovenental concept of mercy. Franklin wrote Polly’s speech as a satirical piece, which forced readers of his time to examine their own hypocrisy and question the hegemonic Law that was incapable of distinguishing between religious and criminal offenses, and frequently utilized a double standard to condemn women and esteem men who committed the same crime.
Despite their contrasting ideologies, Hawthorne and Franklin each present the story of a remarkably independent, eloquent woman who resists conforming to the conventions of society. By doing so, both men are able to keenly examine the faults of the judicial system and how undue severity in laws can lead to the denigration of society. Though both characters were able to make the best of their situations, their experiences are the product of a time when justice was prized over mercy, and punishment over penance. Polly believes she should “have a statue erected to her memory,” but her only tribute is the pity of society and the circulation of her speech—there is no respect for her. It is Hester that receives her monument after death, and it does not even seem to be adorned with her name—instead it is the immortalization of society’s merciless fixation on her greatest torment “on a field, sable, the letter A, gules” (Hawthorne 569).
- Colacurcio, Michael J. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson: The Context of the Scarlet Letter.” ELH, vol. 39, no. 3, Sept. 1972, pp. 459-494. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/2872195.
- Elbert, Monika. “The Surveillance of Woman’s Body in Hawthorne’s Short Stories.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 33, no. 1, Jan. 2004, pp. 23–46. EBSCOhost, doi: 10.1080/00497870490267188.
- Franklin, Benjamin. “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A Beginning to 1820, 9th ed. Edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 449-451.
- —. “The Way to Wealth.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A Beginning to 1820, 9th ed. Edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 442-448.
- Hall, Mark. Benjamin Franklin & Polly Baker: The History of a Literary Deception. The University of North Carolina Press, 1960.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Scarlet Letter.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume B 1820-1865, 9th ed. Edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 451-569.
- Korobkin, Laura Hanft. “The Scarlet Letter of the Law: Hawthorne and Criminal Justice.” A Forum on Fiction, vol. 30, no. 2, 1997, pp. 193-217. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/1345700. Accessed 2 Nov. 2018.
- Maestro, Marcello. “Benjamin Franklin and the Penal Laws.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 36, no. 3, 1975, pp. 551-562. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/2708664.
- Male, Roy R., Jr. “Hawthorne and the Concept of Sympathy.” PMLA, vol. 68, no. 1, Mar. 1953, pp. 138-149. JSTOR, doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/459912.
- “Reflections on the Life of Miss Polly Baker.” New-York Magazine, vol. 4, no. 1, 1 Jan. 1795, pp. 39-45. EbscoHost.