Author Nathaniel Hawthorne
Category/ Genre Fiction- Classic/ Gothic Literature/ Gothic Romance/ Psychological Romance/ Romanticism
First published 1850
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts. His ancestors were Puritans and fierce persecutors of the Quakers. Some of them had conducted hearings during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. His father was a seaman who died of yellow fever when Nathaniel was four years old. His mother sold everything and left Salem to live with her wealthy brothers.
He was a voracious reader right from his childhood years. He was greatly influenced by the allegories and symbolism in John Bunyan‘s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress‘, Edmond Spenser‘s ‘ The Faerie Queene‘ , by the works of eighteenth-century novelists such as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollet and Sir Walter Scott‘s historical romances. He moved back to Salem after college in 1825 and started writing novels for the next 12 years. His first novel, ‘Fanshawe‘ was published at his own expense, but he later retrieved all the copies and burned them. Similarly, his first compendium of stories, ‘ Seven Tales of My Native Land‘ was burned for want of publishers. His stories appeared in many magazines, some of which he happened to be the editor and he was finally recognized with the publication of stories titled ‘Twice Told Tales‘.
After getting married to Sophia in 1842, he moved to Concord and formed friendships with Transcendentalist writers and thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. The Hawthorne family returned to Salem in 1845 where he wrote ‘Mosses from an Old Manse‘ which brought critical acclaim but little financial success. President James K Polk, appointed him as the surveyor of the Salem Custom House, a position that he lost when Zachary Taylor, a Whig, became president, since he happened to be a democrat. In 1849, he started writing ‘ The Scarlet Letter‘ satirizing the Custom House, its officials and the Whigs who deposed him from his position.
In 1852, they returned to Concord and later he was appointed to the post of American Consul in Liverpool, England. He again returned to Concord in 1860, where he published a collection of English sketches titled ‘ ‘Our Old Home‘ in 1863. He died in 1864, leaving behind several unfinished works.
The historical context of The Scarlet Letter
In order to understand the story setting and themes, a basic knowledge of history of the Church and the Christian religion in Europe is necessary.
The major religion in Europe for 1200 years was Catholicism. A German monk, named Martin Luther in the 16 th century started a movement to split church in Christian Europe into those of Catholics and Protestants. He challenged the authority of the Pope and teachings in Catholicism, that led to a revolt in Europe known as Protestant Reformation. In England, King Henry VIII broke with Catholicism and founded the Anglican Church or Church of England with himself as the head, as the Catholic church denied him permission to divorce. Another figure, John Calvin of Switzerland took Luther’s ideas of original sin further and founded the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination that became the central tenet of the Puritan Movement which flourished in England and English colonies. Some of the Puritans who enforced stricter moral codes did not accept the Anglican Church and facing persecution from the Anglican Church, fled to America where they established colonies based on strict religious principles like the The Plymouth Colony and The Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England.
The Plymouth colonists were referred to as Pilgrims or Separatist Puritans who separated entirely from the Anglican Church, whereas the Bay colonists did not separate entirely from the Anglican Church believing in reforms from within. The latter came to be known as Congregationalist Puritans.
Hawthorne’s ‘Scarlet Letter‘ is set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1640’s. The Puritan societies were strict theocracies. They believed in the importance of communities, the idea of the original sin, hard work leading to material success and the notion of predestination. Their laws were very strict and punishments stricter that included public ridicule, placement in stockades, imprisonment, flogging, drowning , hanging and crushing under the stones.. The complex notions of strict hard work and morality is known as Puritan Ethics nowadays.
Dissenters were common among Puritans, the famous ones like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were banished from the colonies. The progressives of New England fought to relax the orthodoxy, that led to The Half-way Covenant which allowed direct church membership. The orthodox crowd saw this relaxing as weakness and infiltration of Satan into the communities of Salem that culminated in The Salem Witch Trials which started in 1692, imprisoning, torturing and executing many people. Hawthorne was aware of and embarrassed by the participation of his ancestors in the witch trials. His concerns were aired through the novel Scarlet Letter that deals with themes of sin, punishment and redemption.
Major Characters of the novel
1. Hester Prynne. Hester is an English woman who is sent to live in the American colonies by her husband, Roger Prynne, an aged scholar without much of feelings for the young Hester.
2. Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Arthur Dimmesdale, an unmarried man, is the pastor of Hester’s congregation, her lover, and the father of Hester’s baby, Pearl.
3. Pearl. Pearl is the daughter of Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.
4. Roger Chillingworth. Roger Chillingworth is the name Hester’s husband assumes after he finally arrives in America.
The story begins with the public judgment of Hester Prynne, a married woman who had been sent by her husband to live in America, for adultery. This occurs in June 1642, in the Puritan town of Boston. A crowd has been gathered there to witness her punishment of public humiliation by making her stand on the scaffold for hours and wear the scarlet letter ‘A’ on her chest for the rest of her life. She refuses to disclose the name of her child’s father after repeated cajoling and questioning by the Reverend and minister of the church.
Amidst the crowd, she recognizes her husband, who assumes a new name, Roger Chillingworth who vows to find the father of the child. He questions her about the father of the child, Pearl, inside the prison where he impersonates as a physician and threatens to kill him if Hester revealed her husband’s identity.
Following her release from the prison, Hester and Pearl settle down in a small cottage at the edge of the town where she sustains herself by commissions of needlework from the townsfolk. As Pearl grows, she becomes fascinated by the scarlet letter ‘A’ on her mother’s dress and becomes capricious, unruly, and intractable. The people assume her to be a witch and the church attempts to separate her from the mother.
Hester goes to speak to the Governor to pre-empt this separation where she finds Reverend Wilson and Dimmesdale with him. When Pearl was asked about catechism, she refuses to answer though she knows it, thus jeopardizing her guardianship. Hester appeals to Reverend Dimmesdale who requests the Governor to let Pearl live with her mother.
Reverend Dimmesdale’s health begins to falter and the townspeople tasks Chillingworth, the newly arrived physician to live with and take care of him. Chillingworth doubts that the reverend’s illness is psychological from some unconfessed guilt and he continues to stress him out psychologically. One evening, he discovers something on the chest of the sleeping reverend when his vestment falls aside- a scarlet ‘A’.
Tormented by guilt, Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold where Hester had stood years before when he sees her and Pearl passing by and calls them to join him. Still, he is unable to acknowledge them publicly. He sees a meteor in the shape of A, when they see the shadowy figure of Chillingworth passing by the square. Hester decides to break the vow and disclose the identity and vindictiveness of Chillingworth to Dimmesdale and does so during their secret meeting inside the forest. She removes the letter A for a short while but has to wear it again following Pearl’s insistence. Hester cajoles the reverend to take a ship out of Boston to Europe where they can start a new life and the minister seems to gain newfound energy.
After he returns to the town, Dimmesdale again becomes crestfallen, he recognizes that he is dying and he becomes a changed man and abandons the journey to Europe. Hester is told by the captain of the ship that Chillingworth has also booked a seat for the ship’s journey.
On Election Day, Dimmesdale is about to give a sermon before the townspeople, but he stumbles and falls. Upon seeing Hester and Pearl amidst the crowd he climbs to the scaffold, confesses his sin dying in Hester’s arms. The crowd witnesses the scarlet letter A imprinted on his chest. Chillingworth loses his desire to revenge, dies shortly afterward, leaving his will and wealth to Pearl who moves to Europe with her mother and later marries a wealthy man.
Years later, Hester returns to Boston, starts wearing the scarlet letter A again and forms a solace to other women. When she dies, she is buried near the grave of Dimmesdale and they share a simple slate tombstone with the inscription “On a field, sable, the letter A gules“.
The story is rich with symbolism and allegories. Hawthorne was one of the major symbolists in American literature. The Puritans saw and interpreted the world in symbols and allegories. An event as the passing of a meteor had religious and moral interpretations for them, while the places like the scaffold in the story are symbols of sin and punishment.
Hawthorne turns the symbols upside down in the novel. The sketch of Hester, an embodiment of sin for the Puritans, is drawn in the light of sympathy for a human being with heart and emotions and a courageous lady who fights her sin wearing the scarlet letter. Dimmesdale who otherwise would have been saintly is portrayed as morally weak, not able to confess his sins publicly until the last moment. Chillingworth, who would have been a betrayed husband, turns out to be a devilish offender pursuing an evil goal of revenge. The Puritan mentality is subverted through the portrayal of his characters. At the end of the novel, when Dimmesdale confesses his sin, the Puritans deny to see the truth. Hawthorne exposes the grim reality beneath the ostensibly pure Puritan culture. Reverend Wilson is symbolic of the Church and the Governor is symbolic of the State. The scarlet letter A, light and darkness, color imagery, and the settings of the forest and the village all are symbolic.
Hester is symbolic of a sinner who gets punished by the stigmatization by the scarlet letter A. The irony is that despite repressing her vitality for years, she turns from a victim branded by the Puritans to a decisive and sensitive woman helping others. In the course of time, the letter ‘A’ representing “Adultery” comes to be viewed by the townsfolk as”Able” and even”Angel”. The stigma of the letter gradually transforms into something that could inspire awe or even great respect.
Dimmesdale is a symbol of Puritan hypocrisy. His public piety is a facade while the inner torture, shame, and worry of exposure of sins make him a coward and a sinner exactly like Hester.
Pearl is the strongest symbol and allegory in the novel. She is the “living hieroglyphic ” of sin. She is “devil’s work” to the community. For Hester she is both symbol of sin in flesh, she is happiness and reminder of torture, someone who is loved but also someone who is a symbol of retribution to her sins. She is beyond the mind of the Puritans, a natural law unleashed, the freedom of unrestrained wilderness, and the result of repressed passion. Hawthorne uses the mirror and reflection of Pearl on the brook as symbols of the artist’s imagination of Pearl.
Chillingworth is a symbol of evil, and lack of compassion. Hawthorne compares him to a snake, an allusion of the Garden of Eden. Pearl sees him as Black Man and warns her mother to stay away from him.
The scarlet letter A is the most symbolic of all. It is a sign of adultery, penitence, and penance. It appears as a meteor in the sky, a sign of the dying Governor becoming an angel, letter A made of eel-grass by Pearl, on Hester’s dress arranged By Pearl with prickly burrs, the letter A on Dimmesdale’s chest and that on the epitaph of Hester’s tombstone. While the letter A as the meteor is taken for an angel, that on Dimmesdale’s chest is a sign of his secret sin. The letter on Hester’s chest is seen by the community as a symbol of punishment and redemption first, but later as “Able” and “Angel”. The letter literally changes the meaning of Hester’s existence in the minds of the townsfolk.
The contrast between light and darkness, sunshine and shadows, noon and midnight highlights the good and bad sides of the characters as they evolve through the storyline. The dark clouds and the dense, dark forest where Dimmesdale meets Hester are symbolic of the weighed down guilt of the lovers. Though sunshine flickers around, it does not shine on Hester until she lets down her hair, a sign of approval from God for truth, grace, and happiness.
Darkness and grey shades are hallmarks while describing Chillingworth and the Puritans. When Hester comes out of the jail she squints at the brightness outside, the light of the day. Similarly, Dimmesdale’s confession occurs at noon, the bright daylight a symbol of exposure. When previously he stood at the scaffold with Hester and Pearl, it was nighttime, that indicates concealment of his private confession. Their grave is amidst the gloom, the dark Puritan presence, where the letter A on the gravestone shines bright, the only light there.
The symbolism of colors is very strong. Red appears on the scarlet letter A, Pearls dress, meteor, the roses, and Chillingworth’s eyes. Black and grey colors are associated with Chillingworth, Puritans, gloom, death, sin, and the narrow path of righteousness through the dark forest of sin.
The village and the marketplace with the scaffold and the prison are symbols of Puritan rigidity of laws and sin and punishment. The Church and the state are enforcers of the laws to contend with. But the forest is symbolic of freedom governed by the laws of nature, though it is home to the Black Man. Here Hester is free to let her hair down or remove her cap. The village is symbolic of rigid man-made Puritan laws. The brook is symbolic of the boundary between these laws, that Pearl refuses to cross to the Puritan side when called by her mother. The forest could also be taken as the moral wilderness that Hester and Dimmesdale find themselves in. It is also a sign of temptation by Satan luring the souls to sin.
The Gothic elements used in the novel categorize the work under the genre of Gothic Romance. The Romantic authors of the nineteenth century and their successors like Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, Stephen King, all use elements of Gothic in their works. In Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses the Customs House and the Governor’s house to give the Gothic touch to the novel. Crime, physical deformity in the characters, darkness, shadows, moonlight, and an overall dark and gloomy atmosphere throughout is a characteristic of Gothic novels. Hawthorne has skillfully used all of these here. He imagined the novel as a psychological study of the human mind, of the dark recesses inside the mind, that makes the novel in the genre of Psychological Fiction. Even though the setting of the novel is historic in Puritan Boston, the reality is intersected by Hawthorne’s imagination from the beginning until the end of the novel.
There are various interpretations of the devices used in the novel. Hawthorne’s ability to deploy these devices that contrast and change freely with context and characters is one of the main reasons why this work is a peerless Romance novel, a timeless classic and a creative masterpiece of all times from a genius who sought to define romance in world literature.