Themes of Morality in Classic American Literature

Religion, or the lack thereof, is often seen in American literature as the foundation for societal norms, community values, and characters’ own morals. With America having been founded on the sole idea of religious freedom, it is a community’s religious principles that truly reflect it as a whole. Therefore, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), the rigidity of the Puritan lifestyle is directly reflective of the rigidity of that religion itself. In turn, because this religion is so uniform, there is little room left for social transgression. Later, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Mark Twain exposes that when religion becomes more of a subjective experience, society too can evolve away from that rigid foundation while still being grounded in structure. Yet, in a post-war world such as that of The Great Gatsby (1925), all religious beliefs have been shaken and completely uprooted. Here, F. Scott Fitzgerald paints a portrait of a godless society in which the loss of uniformity is even lamented.

Finally, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) reveals a generation born in the dawn of modern times that resents its religious upbringing and puts focus on the progressive era ahead of them. When considering these texts chronologically, readers may witness American morality unraveling throughout history in parallel to the unraveling of all religious foundations. These works, then, serve as a solemn yet firm wake-up call for readers to reassess their values, faith, and belief systems. When analyzing a community such as that of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), it is necessary to dive deeper than the superficial level to discover a character’s and society’s true principles. Specifically, in this community, societal values are structured primarily on the ideas of the Puritan church, as the characters consider the church to be their foremost responsibility. This makes it crucial for critic.

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