Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter – an Introduction

This was my first paid writing assignment, 9 years ago. This was the introduction for the Barnes and Noble eBook of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. To my knowledge, this is not the version they are selling now.

Two things strike me when I read over this:
1) I was already writing for eBook format 9 years ago. I think that is great 🙂
2) I am glad I put in the effort to do the research for this

From the opening lines of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter, the reader is transported to a world of Puritan ethics where characters struggle against society and within the self, “a throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bare-headed, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes” (35). From this beginning, Hawthorne gives the reader an insight into the harsh and stern society of Salem, Massachusetts in the 1640s. Into this Puritan New England town, Hawthorne inserts Hester Prynne, her daughter, Pearl, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and the mysterious physician, Roger Chillingworth. These four characters, and the fifth character of the Puritan community, are woven into a story that is of great importance to today’s reader. The Scarlet Letter has retained its relevance because it engages the reader in an exploration into the most fundamental of human emotions that include: love and hate; ridicule and acceptance; trust and betrayal; and denial and repentance. The book acts as a catalyst for readers to question what they think and why they hold their particular opinions.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804 with his family’s last name spelled Hathorne. It was not until attending college that he added a “w” to his last name. He spent the majority of his youth in Maine near Sebago Lake after his father passed away. He spent some time between the ages of fifteen and nineteen preparing for college while he was in Salem, Massachusetts. He attended college at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine from 1821-25. His classmates included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president, Franklin Pierce. After finishing college, he moved back to Salem where he lived in his mother’s home for several years. During this time, in 1828, Hawthorne anonymously published Fanshawe. It is said that later he was so appalled by the work, that he burned every copy he could locate. He published anonymously again in 1830, “Sights from a Steeple.” From 1830-39, Hawthorne published over seventy tales. When he married Sophia Peabody in 1842, they moved to the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts. Here he published another twenty tales, and his daughter, Una, was born. Also, during his time at the Old Manse, Hawthorne’s acquaintance with the Transcendentalists, specifically Emerson and Thoreau, grew, mostly due to his wife’s influence. Sophia was an admirer of the Transcendentalist school of thought. Hawthorne later moved back to Salem, and his son Julian was born in 1846. He published Mosses from an Old Manse that same year. From 1846-49, Nathaniel Hawthorne was surveyor of Customs at the port in Salem. This experience is the basis for his introduction to The Scarlet Letter entitled The Custom House. In 1850, The Scarlet Letter was published (Whitney). In 1851, he published The House of Seven Gables, which is also widely read today. During this same year, he published The Snow Image and Twice Told Tales, The Wonder Book, and his last tale “Feathertop.” In 1852, he published The Blithedale Romance. The following year, he published Tanglewood Tales, and the Hawthorne family moved to England for Nathaniel’s position as consul in Liverpool. In 1860, he published the Marble Faun, his last novel. Also in 1860, he returned to the United States. In 1863, he published a book of reflections on his time in England, Our Old Home. Hawthorne passed away on May 19, 1864 (McIntosh).

When The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, it was received with different opinions. In some circles, the book was met with approval, mostly in Europe. In other circles, the book was viewed as immoral and scandalous due to the issues the book explored. Today’s readers will probably find its subject matter less shocking, but when the reader considers the social environment of the 1850s, then it is easier to understand how this book could be construed as scandalous. Today, The Scarlet Letter is widely accepted as one of the definitive American literary classics. This is in no small part due to Hawthorne’s mastery of the allegory and his amazing ability to portray the human psyche of both men and women.

The period in which Hawthorne wrote was one of tremendous academic activity. He was neighbors and friends with Herman Melville, and he was acquainted with Emerson and Thoreau. Hawthorne critiqued Melville’s Typee and Longfellow’s Evangeline for the Salem Advertiser (McIntosh). In his short stories, such as Young Goodman Brown, Hawthorne maintained his beliefs and opinions regarding his heritage, current society, and the future. He includes both criticism and praise for the Puritan society and criticism of Transcendentalism in many of his works. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s contemporaries, such as Melville, were also writing criticisms of their American society and the American heritage from which they came. Hawthorne was acutely aware of his ancestry; he intensely studied New England history for many years (McIntosh). He also knew the roles his ancestors played in the Salem witch trials and the persecution of the Quakers (Heath ). Additionally, Nathaniel Hawthorne was aware of the political and philosophical schools of his day that were vying for supremacy, including Transcendentalism.

Hawthorne has created an environment of great interest for the reader due to his probe into the emotions of his characters. In almost all of the characters, these emotions can be found causing conflict within themselves and conflict with others. Hawthorne’s portrayal of Hester Prynne is just one example of a character experiencing various conflicting emotions. Her refusal to publicly identify the father of her illegitimate child, Pearl, threatens the town on many levels. On one level, her silence threatens the stability of the town. The wives of the town will question the fidelity of their husbands, thus weakening the bonds of marriage and causing a deterioration of trust within the town. On another level, Hester’s silence threatens the Puritans’ ability to fulfill their moral obligation to the anonymous father. Her silence denies the Puritans the opportunity to aid in the man’s redemption through public exposure and punishment. Ideally, the public exposure and punishment would lead to penitence on the part of the man, and this would aid in his redemption. But, Hester has denied the Puritan community this opportunity. Hester is punished publicly, and part of her punishment is to experience social isolation at the hands of the Puritans.

Hester is exiled to the margins of the town, and it is in this marginal place that she chooses to raise Pearl. The town has isolated her, and she is marginalized both physically and emotionally, “on the outskirts of the town, within the verge of the peninsula, but not in close vicinity to any other habitation, there was a small thatched cottage…In this little, lonesome dwelling…Hester established herself, with her infant child” (57). Hawthorne creates the image for the reader of the isolated territory Hester Prynne occupied both physically and mentally.

Hawthorne’s characters experience their struggles within themselves and against society. One tool Hawthorne uses to reveal the characters’ struggles is the use of allegories. His ability to use an object or a setting to represent something else and provide meaning to the reader through this device is one of the reasons this work is an American literary classic. Of course, the most prominent of these allegories is the “A”, the scarlet letter, that Hester Prynne wears. Hawthorne’s descriptions of the changes in the meanings of the “A” are necessary for the reader to understand the emotional paths that Hester and the townspeople are undertaking, “the letter was the symbol of the (Hester’s) calling. Such helpfulness was found in her, –so much power to do, and power to sympathize, –many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (110-111). Hawthorne gives the reader the necessary clues to interpret what has happened to the thoughts of the townspeople, and he also provides information about the emotions Hester experiences due to the scarlet letter. Once exiled, she more fully experiences conflict within herself because she is moving out of the realm of the community, “the world’s law was no law for her mind…In her lonesome cottage, by the sea-shore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England” (113).

In addition to keeping the reader abreast of the characters’ emotions, Hawthorne’s use of allegory also serves another purpose. His allegories, specifically the ones regarding nature, allow him to critique the tenets of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalists believed that nature was the only source where one could find truth, wisdom, and purity. Hawthorne refutes this through the manner in which he depicts the forest (O‘Toole). It is in the forest where the greatest transgressions occur, “such was the sympathy of nature — that wild, heathen nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth — with the bliss of these two spirits! (Hester and Dimmesdale)” (138). He also includes references to witches’ meetings with Satan in the forest. Hawthorne continues his critique of Transcendentalism in his description of Chillingworth’s knowledge of natural herbs found in the forest and the surrounding areas that have the power to produce both good and evil effects, “the old physician (Roger Chillingworth), with a basket on one arm, and a staff in the other hand, stooping along the ground, in quest of roots and herbs to concoct his medicines withal” (114).

Another example of Hawthorne’s use of allegory is found in the opening lines. His description of Salem includes details that the jail is weathered, and it has seen much use in the short time the Puritans have inhabited Salem. This critiques the Puritans belief that they possessed moral supremacy over their surroundings in the forest. The inclusion and description of the jail reminds the reader that jails are necessary due to people’s violation of the law. The list of allegories in The Scarlet Letter is extensive, and it may be challenging to maintain a sense of alertness to all the images utilized in Hawthorne’s book. However, the challenge proves to be very rewarding, because once the reader is aware of the symbols, new insight is gained into the story. Each new reading of The Scarlet Letter brings new insight to the reader, and this is a compelling reason to re-visit this book.

Today, The Scarlet Letter is one of, if not the, most recognized of Hawthorne’s works. It has become a staple in high school American Literature classes, and it is widely taught on the university level. Many of today’s writers include Hawthorne on their lists of influences. This book acts as a guide for how to accurately portray both the human struggle to overcome temptation and man’s attempt to live according to one’s own will within the constraints of society. Hawthorne provides a definitive model for writing about human foibles and emotions. Fifteen to twenty studies of The Scarlet Letter appear in print each year ( Gross). Another reason for the continuance of its appeal is that interest in human emotions, failures, and successes is as strong today as in 1850. Human relationships with the self and with others are some of the most fundamental elements of being human. Hawthorne’s ability to combine probing into the human heart with critiquing various societies is another or the many reasons people continue to read his works and discuss them with such enthusiasm and devotion.

The Scarlet Letter critiques the Puritan society that produced Hawthorne, and it also questions the tenets of Transcendentalism. In this sense, it accomplishes the tasks of questioning both where Hawthorne’s world came from and where it might be going. This book expresses Hawthorne’s gratitude to his Puritan ancestors for providing the basis of American society through the implementation and enforcement of laws and the importance the Puritans placed on morality. But, The Scarlet Letter also expresses Hawthorne’s appreciation for American society having progressed away from Puritan society.

Some readers become frustrated with this book because they do not think that any definite answers are given to the questions posed within. But, Hawthorne never leaves the reader without some clue as to what lesson is supposed to be learned from a situation in the book. Hawthorne’s allegories are meant to provide the reader with a greater understanding of the plot, the characters, and the underlying emotions found in the story.

Hawthorne’s story encourages readers to question for themselves what they believe to be right and wrong. The Scarlet Letter also engages the reader in deciding what restrictions are arbitrary and what restrictions are for the betterment of the individual and society. This book’s ability to engage the reader in a relationship with the characters makes the reader consider on a personal level the decisions and the consequences that the characters encounter. This is yet another reason why this book continues to be important. The emotions and dilemmas of the characters are identical to the feelings and struggles that face modern society. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter provides the reader with a glimpse into the inner-workings of men, women, and children as they seek happiness, acceptance, and redemption, and as they struggle to be true to themselves. People’s interests in what motivates others to behave certain ways and how people deal with their own actions and the actions of others is always of interest, because it speaks to what is at the core of being human.

Works Cited
Gross, Seymour, ed. “Preface to The Scarlet Letter.” The Scarlet Letter: A Norton Critical Edition: 3rd ed.. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1988.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1988.
Heath, William. “The Power of Passion: Hawthorne’s Tales of Thwarted Desire.” 1998.
(12 Dec. 2001).
McIntosh, James. “Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Chronology.” The Scarlet Letter: A Norton Critical Edition: 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1988.
O’Toole, Heather. “The Blackness of Men’s Souls: Why Nathaniel Hawthorne could not embrace Transcendentalism.” 1996.
(12 Dec. 2001).
Whitney, Terri. “Life and Times of Nathaniel Hawthorne in Salem.” 2000.
(12 Dec. 2001).

About melindamcguirewrites

The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. ------ William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Speech, Stockholm, 1950
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6 Responses to Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter – an Introduction

  1. A.R.West says:

    Good review, I didn’t get all that, when I read the Scarlet Letter, but I did enjoy it. Do you think there are any lasting answers to moral questions? I am not sure if there are answers maybe there are only more questions. I enjoyed your review and had to dig around in the back of my mind to find that old letter. The funny thing is I felt heat in it when I picked it up and the fabric had an unnatural hue.

    • Thanks for reading.
      I think good literature makes us stop and reflect on the moral questions and also asks us to empathize with the characters.
      Reading over this made me go back and knock of the dust from some brain cells. I still enjoy Hawthorne as much today as I did then, but, as with many great works of literature, I see different things each time I read it.

  2. DM says:

    Melinda, I love ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ I love how Hawthorne builds the emotions and the characters right up to the end, which always gives me chills. Excellent review of a classic.

  3. Pingback: Does Your Protagonist have to be likeable? | melindamcguirewrites

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