John Bunyan (1628-88) was a Christian preacher and author. His best-known work is The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), an allegorical tale which relates the travails of Christian as he journeys from his home in the City of Destruction to the heavenly Celestial City. His quest leads him and his companion, Hopeful, through the Delectable Mountains, an idyllic landscape of orchards, vineyards and fountains. Whilst here, the resident shepherds show the travelers a door that opens at the base of one of the mountains. The smell of brimstone and smoke issues from its interior, along with the cries of the damned, and the shepherds explain that this is a byway to hell and the destination of hypocrites, blasphemers and liars.
You can download a free video game based on The Pilgrim’s Progress here.
Though this line of interpretation serves Dimmesdale’s desire to keep his own sins from public view, scripture is in fact unequivocal about the necessity of confession. 1 John 1:8-9: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Similarly, James 5:16 urges, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.”
Though dancing on or around graves has featured in burial rites among certain Scottish, South Asian and African peoples, the New England Puritans would have regarded such a thing with abhorrence. Pearl’s tomb-top jig is both a blasphemous rejection of religious proprieties and a signal of her contempt for the entire colony and its hallowed history (Isaac Johnson was the first of the settlers to be buried in the soil of the new territory). It also aligns her with witches, who were supposed to dance on graves either to torment their occupants or to induce them to burst out into the land of the living.
Spring Lane is so-called because it was the site of ”the Great Spring of Boston” which provided fresh, clean water to the settlers (and their cattle) for over two centuries. This once-central vein of Boston is today a narrow alleyway which links Washington and Devonshire Streets in the Downtown area.
This reference allies Chillingworth with Simon Forman, his former associate, who was declared a dangerous magician by the College of Physicians. His writings record that he learned to call up demons from the netherworld and knew the secret names that would give him power over them. These activities led to him being imprisoned for necromancy more than once.
Pentecost is the occasion on which the Holy Spirit descended in tongues of fire upon the Twelve Apostles. It is described in Acts 2:1-4:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
This miraculous ability to converse in previously unknown languages is called “speaking in tongues,” or xenoglossy. Today it is associated with Pentecostal and Charismatic churches and is regarded with scepticism by most mainstream faiths, but it had strong traction among the New England Puritans. Despite the narrator’s implications that speaking in tongues is a rare attribute, it was in fact considered essential for ministers.
Pentecost is celebrated seven days after Easter Sunday and is also known as Whitsun.
Folk wisdom holds that a failure of grass to grow on a grave results from the depraved nature of its denizen. The sins committed during that person’s life prevent him from finding peace in death, and his compulsion to haunt the earth as a ghost means that the ground cannot settle sufficiently for nature to take over.
Enoch is a biblical figure who appears in the Book of Genesis as the great-great-great-great grandson of Adam. His life — which spanned a fantastic 365 years — was marked by such righteousness and so perfect a relationship with God that the Lord spared him the experience of death and allowed him to ascend to heaven directly from life (“And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him,” Genesis 5:24). He was then made into an archangel and renamed Metatron.
A scourge is a type of whip with multiple thongs, sometimes knotted at the ends so as to inflict extra pain. They have long been used as an instrument of religious penance: the miserable sinner would atone for his transgressions by repeatedly lashing himself on the back. This practice was seen as a realisation of Paul the Apostle's injunction to “Mortify..your members which are upon the earth” and thereby annihilate “fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness” (Colossians 3:5). It was also associated with the flogging which Jesus underwent at Calvary. Though Dimmesdale practices this mortification privately, some religious groups, such as the Flagellants, made it an institutional practice.
In personifying Dimmesdale’s emotions, Hawthorne draws on the devices of Christian allegorical literature, in which assorted vices and virtues take on human guises. There’s more than an echo here of Bunyan's Pilgrim’s Progress, in which Christian is alternatively helped and hindered by such characters as Hopeful, Ignorance, Faithful and Hypocrisy. Allegory is a key feature of Hawthorne’s work. However, in his hands, this typically didactic expedient becomes ambiguous and troubling, directing the reader towards a straightforward interpretation and then besetting it with myriad complications so as to satirize the desire for simple moral allegiances.
In keeping with their gnarled appearances, the voices of witches are generally held to be shrill and rasping, their speech frequently punctuated with eldritch shieks and cackles. Margaret Hamilton, playing the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, gives a demonstration par excellence in the clip below. Classical fans may enjoy the high camp of Hector Berlioz's musical rendering of a witches' Sabbath from his Symphonie Fantastique. This recording is accompanied by a quirky, surreal animation.
Born in Suffolk, England in 1588, John Winthrop was the only son of an elite landowner who, following a religious experience in his youth, fervently embraced the Puritan faith. Unhappy in England as a result of both the death of his young wife, Mary Forth, and the court’s increasing intolerance towards Puritanism, he began advocating emigration to the newly-established Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1630, he was elected the colony's governor and set sail on the Arbella along with 400 other eager pilgrims. During his twenty years in Massachusetts Bay, he served twelve terms as governor and his influence had a tremendous lasting effect on its character. Conservative and authoritarian, he opposed any democratic reforms that would take the power of decision-making out of the hands of a select few. He died on the 26th of March, 1649.
Find out more about Winthrop's voyage and the establishment of the colony at the Winthrop Society's website.
This is another reference to The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Celestial City, Bunyan's vision of the New Jerusalem, is the goal towards which Christian strives. As the way is fraught with physical obstacles and moral perils, only the truly righteous are able to approach it. The city stands on top of a hill that reaches above the clouds and is surrounded by a bridgeless moat, the depth of whose waters are determined by the faith of those who enter them. At the summit, worthy souls are admitted through the great gates by a host of angels and welcomed into the paradise of God, where they can enjoy all its sparkling wonders and eat the fruits of the tree of life.
Dimmesdale’s vision of Winthrop’s safe passage into the celestial city amid doubts about the state of his own soul recalls a short story Hawthorne published several years earlier. ‘The Celestial Railroad’ (1843) is a pastiche of The Pilgrim’s Progress in which the arduous road to heaven has been smoothed by all manner of modern conveniences. The moment before realising he will be denied admittance, the narrator watches as two pilgrims who traveled the old-fashioned way are received into their divine destination.
A Geneva cloak or gown is a loose black robe of heavy material worn by Puritan ministers over the cassock. Since this garment, like the Calvinist faith from which Puritanism sprang, was born in Geneva, it bears the name of that Swiss city.
Described in Revelation as “a great white throne” (Revelation 20:11), the judgment seat is that on which God will sit during the Final Judgment, when the souls of everyone who lives and has ever lived will come before him to face his final verdict. While the righteous souls of the saved will then ascend to heaven, the souls of the damned are to be cast into hell’s lake of fire to face eternal torment.
Also known as comets and shooting stars, meteors are caused by meteoroids, small articles of space debris that enter the earth’s atmosphere. Atmospheric pressure causes them to heat up until they emit trails of incandescent light that are visible to the naked eye, particularly at night. They can travel at speeds of up to 70 km per second and, though they sometimes collide with Earth, they usually disintegrate 50-95 km above.
The causes of meteors were not understood until the mid nineteenth century, so Dimmesdale and his compatriots would, as Hawthorne says, have attributed the phenomenon to supernatural agency. Emanating as they did from the celestial regions, people often saw meteors as a mark of God’s wrath and texts of the period are full of dark references to showers of blood and pillars of fire. The idea that they portended Judgment Day was also common.