The Scarlett Letter

Research paper for Intro to American History

Like many authors in the first half of the 19th century, Nathaniel Hawthorne rejected the conservative socio-religious notions of early New England in favor of the more moderate, if not more individualistic, ideals of transcendental philosophy. Hawthorne’s conflict lied in his heritage versus the artistic era in which he lived, which imparted a great range of perspective and depth of allegory to his novel The Scarlet Letter.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804. Hawthorne’s New England Puritan lineage began with Major William Hathorne, who came to Boston in 1630 with John Winthrop on the expedition to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Perhaps a less laudable root of the family tree was Justice John Hathorne, the son of William, who was one of the judges that presided over the Salem witch trials in 1692. Speculation has been made that Hawthorne added the “w” to his last name in order to dissociate himself from John Hathorne.
Hawthorne’s moderate views contrasted the rigid Puritan thinking in The Scarlet Letter, but he deftly evoked contemporary views in his Puritan characters. Professor J. Golden Taylor reports that, “[Hawthorne] almost always made his story transcend the activities of Puritan time and place and yield insights in keeping with his own more democratic, optimistic and pragmatic 19th century.”1 Hawthorne valued the transcendental concepts of self-reliance and the individual moral self2, as exhibited in Hester Prynne, who lived in accordance to her own nature. He also espoused the balance of intellect, emotion and morals; this struggle for balance was exemplified in both Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingsworth. Hawthorne illustrated the transcendental principle of compensation in all of the main characters in The Scarlet Letter.
Though they were secret adversaries, Dimmesdale and Chillingsworth exhibited many parallels in person and situation. Both men were well-regarded intellectuals; in a colony of homogeneity, the minister and the physician were singular individuals. The patriarchal Puritan convention did not view the traces of individuality in these respected men as negatively as in Hester. But the men also had the means by which to hide their secrets; Hester’s pregnancy advertised her indiscretion. Despite the regard in which they were held, Dimmesdale and Chillingsworth were both susceptible to sin. The balance of intellect, emotion and morals proved to be difficult for both of them.
Arthur Dimmesdale epitomized the solemn holiness of a Puritan minister, but he was not incapable of sin. In a fit of passion, Arthur forgot religious doctrine and social mores; the extent of his piety and reflection left him vulnerable to the emotions he had denied himself. Roger Chillingsworth was a career scholar who spent the majority of his life in research, but academia and age did not guarantee him the ardent foundation upon which to build a family nor the judgment to pursue a compatible mate rather than a trophy- “I,- a man of thought,- the bookworm of great libraries,- a man already in decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge,- what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own!”3 When his marriage went awry, Roger was consumed with revenge; years of study did not prepare him to deal with his dire sense of betrayal in a humane manner.
Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingsworth differed in as many ways as they are the same. They were both intellectuals; the difference lied in the focus of each man’s contemplation. The minister ruminated hypotheses of faith, whereas the physician made devotions of a scientific nature. The most apparent correlation between the men was their intimate connections with Hester Prynne, but the nature of their relationships were in opposition, passion versus propriety. His sanctity notwithstanding, Arthur fell victim, as it were, to romantic love. Roger, on the other hand, made his claim to Hester on the grounds of his contract with her. A less obvious bond between the men was their hatred. Roger Chillingsworth was blatant in regards to his hatred, if not to the other characters then to the reader. His hatred was external and targeted at the minister, the man who wronged him. Arthur Dimmesdale, “subtle but remorseful hypocrite that he was,”4 was consumed with self-hatred- “[B]y the constitution of his nature, he loved the truth, and loathed the lie, as few men ever did. Therefore, above all things else, he loathed his miserable self!”5
Hawthorne related to his heroine, Hester Prynne, in that she was out of her element in the severe Separatist Puritan community; Hawthorne considered his hometown of Salem to be an “abominable city”. Social uniformity prevailed, and individuality was perceived as a threat. Hester did not find her station until after she was expelled from the village. Her artistic tendencies inspired her toward specialty embroidery and tailoring, normally an excess to her neighbors but a creative outlet and vocational niche for Hester. Frederick Newberry states that the “second- and third-generation Puritans (lacking the aesthetic memory of their Elizabethan forebears) succeed… in wiping out nascent proclivities toward art.””6 Hawthorne found himself in the aftermath of this cultural sterilization and manifested his discontent in Hester Prynne. She possessed a passionate heart and was squelched, shamed and hidden for it.
Hester Prynne embodied paradox throughout the novel. From the moment she pinned the “A” to her bodice, she attempted to recede from notice. She hid her lovely hair in a cap and dressed in drab grey. In sharp contrast, Hester presented her daughter Pearl in the public bedecked in extravagant attire. Hester clung to her daughter, almost desperately, as the only thing she had in life. Her emotional distance from Pearl presented a glaring contradiction; Hester often treated her daughter as her sin given form- “She is my happiness!- she is my torture none the less! Pearl keeps me in life! Pearl punishes me too!”7
The Puritan colonists treated Hester paradoxically as well. When first she was sentenced, Hester was met with outrage- “‘At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead’… ‘What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh or her forehead?.. This woman has brought shame upon us all and ought to die.'”8 The harshness expressed towards Hester, the cold expressions in the market and wounding words on the roads, faded over time, more so to the villagers than to Hester herself- “The letter was a symbol of her calling…They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength… [S]ociety was inclined to show its former victim a more benign countenance than she cared to be favored with, or, perchance, than she deserved.”9 Hester became a landmark in the village; the sinner, through her good works and penance, became an institution- “Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge?.. It is our Hester,- the town’s own Hester, who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted!”10
Taylor compares Hawthorne to his literary contemporaries, stating that “[He] was much nearer Emerson’s moral concern to convey truth than he was to Poe’s primary purpose to create beauty.”11 Whether this comparison is accurate or not, it does illustrate the importance of truth to Hawthorne. The little girl Pearl was a great seeker of truth throughout The Scarlet Letter. She asked about the symbol on her mother’s bodice but received no answer. She inquired as to why the minister always clutched his chest but was discouraged from such lines of questioning. Pearl tried to bring the secret of her parents into the open, exposing the truth that pained them both to conceal- “Minister… wilt thou stand here with my mother and me, to-morrow noontide?”12 Her mere existence was proof of her parents’ indiscretion. “Thou wast not bold!- thou wast not true!- thou wouldst not promise to take my hand, and mother’s hand, to-morrow noontide!”13 Pearl was truth given human form and remained troubled until Hester and Arthur professed their secrets.
In addition to representing truth, Pearl was an allegory for a great deal of conflict, often acting out externally the inner conflicts of her mother. Pearl acted aggressively toward members of the community, particularly the children, her peers. As though a speaker for the thoughts behind Hester’s down-turned eyes and hushed lips, Pearl fiercely charged toward the children- “[A]fter frowning, stamping her foot, and shaking her little hand with a variety of threatening gestures, suddenly made a rush at the knot of her enemies, and put them all to flight. She resembled, in her fierce pursuit of them, an infant pestilence,- the scarlet fever, or some half-fledged angel of judgement.”14
Pearl behaved in an inconsistent and unpredictable manner; she could switch from kind to cruel with a slight change of her expression. She may have embraced her mother lovingly one moment, and the next, pulled away and poked the letter on Hester’s bodice, laughing. Pearl, more than anything, acted as a reminder to Hester of her shame, and Hester often treated Pearl as the scarlet letter personified, and dressed her such- “[I]n a crimson velvet tunic… abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of gold-thread… But it was a remarkable attribute of this garb, and, indeed, of the child’s whole appearance, that it irresistibly and inevitably reminded the beholder of the token which Hester Prynne was doomed to wear upon her bosom.”15
Hawthorne touched upon the transcendental notion of compensation, the belief that all actions have a reward or punishment. Though Hawthorne believed this theory to be flawed, he demonstrated it rather adeptly in The Scarlet Letter. Pearl was an innocent that was affected by the secrets and sins of her parents. Their revelations made better her troubled childhood, and Pearl’s early experiences strengthened her character for the rest of her life. Hester suffered for seven years as a pariah for her sin, but she ultimately got to see her daughter, the legacy of her forbidden love, grow up to be an extraordinary woman that loves her mother dearly. Arthur allowed the guilt of his sin to consume him, but he confessed the truth on his deathbed and passed unburdened. Roger began as an innocent who suffered betrayal, but he ultimately embraced his hatred and falls to sin. “All his strength and energy- all his vital and intellectual force- seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shrivelled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight.”16 He lost all that made him an admirable man, and, in a last ditch effort to redeem himself before death, he acted charitably by leaving all his worldly possessions to Pearl.
The nature of sin was the subject of much debate for 19th century transcendentalists. Hawthorne reevaluated the notion of sin in The Scarlet Letter, straying from the Puritan position and imparting 19th century values. He diminished Hester’s sin of adultery by placing the blame also with Arthur and Roger and inspiring sympathy in the reader toward Hester by placing the entirety of the punishment upon her, despite the part the men played in her infidelity. He magnified Arthur’s sin of hypocrisy, a sin that is a gross disservice to one’s individual moral self. Hawthorne stressed the severity of Roger’s sin most of all. The optimism of transcendental ideals left no room for his misanthropic hatred.17
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary experiments surveyed human frailties to which any of us may succumb and presented possible outcomes. Through his characters, he advocated principles such as self-reliance, compensation, and balance of intellect, emotion and morals and sheds perspective on the highly disputed subject of sin. He drew on the ideology of the 19th century transcendentalism for his novel The Scarlet Letter in order form a bridge between the contemporary reader and the more strict and self-righteous Puritan dogma of the characters.

Gelpi, Donald L. Varieties of Transcendental Experience: A Study In Constructive Postmodernism. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003.

Lewis, Jone Johnson. Transcendentalists. (September 7, 2005).

Newberry, Frederick. Hawthorne’s Divided Loyalties: England and America In His Works. Cranberry, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1941.

North Shore Community College. Hawthorne in Salem. (September 7, 2005).

Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 3: Nineteenth Century to 1865 – Nathaniel Hawthorne.” PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. (August 30, 2005).

Taylor, J. Golden. Hawthorne’s Ambivalence Toward Puritanism. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1965.

Ward & Trent, et al. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907-21; New York:, 2000. (September 7, 2005).
1 Taylor p. 20
2 Gelpi, p. 97
3 Hawthorne p. 69
4 Hawthorne p. 131
5 Hawthorne p. 131
6 Newberry p. 21
7 Hawthorne p. 103
8 Hawthorne p. 49
9 Hawthorne p. 147
10 Hawthorne p. 147
11 Taylor p. 10
12 Hawthorne 139
13 Hawthorne p. 142
14 Hawthorne p. 93
15 Hawthorne p. 93
16 Hawthorne p. 232
17 Taylor p. 21

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