The Scarlet Letter is set in 1640s Boston, the present-day capital of Massachusetts. A decade on from its initial settlement by Puritan colonists, it bore little resemblance to the metropolis of today.
Located on the Shawmut Peninsula, the town was surrounded by dense forest, above which rose three tall hills. The inhabitable areas were hemmed in by marshes and mudflats. In 1640, Boston was home to 1,200 colonists who clustered about the southern shores in simple wooden houses. Their lives were structured on the Puritan ideals that had informed their migration, and all strived to make the “City upon a Hill” the model of the perfect communion with God that its founder, John Winthrop, had envisioned. Though this led to an efficient, well-regulated society, citizens were subject to harsh laws covering the minutest details of their moral and social activities. Failure to abide by Puritan mores met with severe punishment, and Boston was the scene of the Antinomian Controversy and the persecution of Quakers.
The introductory essay, ‘The Custom-House,’ is set in mid-nineteenth century Salem.
Salem lies on America’s east coast in Essex County, Massachusetts, bordered to the north by the Danvers River and to the south by Marblehead and the Forest River area. First colonized by Europeans in 1626, Salem's seaboard location made it an ideal center for maritime activity, and by the end of the eighteenth century it had become the richest port in America. Political machinations and military clashes, however, brought an abrupt halt to this prosperity, and by Hawthorne's time Salem was in a state of flux. While the past successes of its sea merchants had bequeathed it a good deal of fine architecture, the wharves and harbors were slipping into forlorn disuse; the manufacturing industries that would bring future wealth to the city had not yet been fully established. Mid-nineteenth Salem teetered between nostalgic pride and uncomfortable self-doubt, further colored by the historic atrocities — particularly the witch trials of 1692 — that still loomed large in the consciousness of its inhabitants.
Puritan history and beliefs provide the backdrop against which the events of the novel take place. The Puritans originated as an offshoot of Protestantism in sixteenth century England. They held that the Reformation had not gone far enough in purging Catholic influence from the Church. Believing that the purpose of life was to serve the glory of God, they sought to banish all hints of worldliness both from religious practice and from personal life, and advocated a strict conformity to their own severe interpretation of biblical texts. Influenced by John Calvin, they believed that postlapsarian humanity is inevitably born into a state of sin and that redemption depends exclusively on God’s will.
Facing persecution by both church and sovereign, a large number of Puritans fled England during the Great Migration of 1620-40, with some 20,000 settling in New England. Here they sought to establish a new kind of society, structured according to the dictates of the Bible, a living monument to God and a shining example to backsliding Europeans. Great emphasis was placed on industry, education and self-examination, but these laudable values were accompanied by a persecutory spirit that saw nonconformists subjected to atrocious punishments. Today, Puritanism is often considered synonymous with repression and austerity.
Though hysteria driven by fear of witchcraft would not erupt until some fifty years after the period in which The Scarlet Letter is set, Hawthorne draws heavily upon Salem's dark history for his depiction of rebellion against Puritan society.
Fears were sparked in 1692 when young girls of Salem Village began to exhibit bizarre symptoms, such as uncontrollable screaming fits, peculiar bodily contortions and sensations of being pricked all over by pins. With no physical cause being obvious to contemporary physicians, these fits were attributed to witchcraft and the blame was laid on women whose poverty, unpopularity or slave-status placed them outside of the social order. Accusations and counter-accusations mounted until some twenty individuals had been executed. Two dogs, believed to be accomplices, were also slain, while between one and two hundred suspected witches languished in prison. Though the panic died down as suddenly as it had appeared, it cast a long shadow over Salem for centuries.
National Geographic and Gunnar Games have produced enjoyable, historically accurate computer games based on the Salem witch trials, both of which are available as free one-hour trials. In Lost Chronicles, you play a girl whose mother has been accused of witchcraft; in Salem Secrets, you must unravel the mystery surrounding four girls who are allegedly the victims of black magic.