The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was the first American author to make extensive use of historical material. Like his predecessor, James Fenimore Cooper, he was attempting to find and utilise distinctively American material, and in going back to the past, had appeared to have done it in a more genuine way, for American history could not but be American. Such development of a historical sense, that is, the notion that the past was in some way different from the present, marks an important turning-point in U.S. literature. It was an indication that the country was beginning to develop a literary tradition of its own, as opposed to the continued imitation of the literary tradition of the European countries from which many of the first settlers had emigrated.
Hawthone’s favourite themes are sin, guilt, secrecy, the individual conscience, unwarranted moral and intellectual pride, as well as repentance and gradual moral degeneration. His sense of the tragedy which seemed to underpin all human existence placed him at odds with the inherent optimism of the Transcendentalist beliefs of the day.
Along with his contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe, Hawthorne advanced the development to the short story, emphasising its moral significance in stores like ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’, ‘Young Goodman Brown and ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ (all published in 1837).
The Scarlet Letter is his greatest work. Set in seventeenth-century Boston, the novel examines the consequences of concealed guilt, the true nature of morality and the effects of punishment on the punished and the punisher. Hawthorne’s main approach to these issues lies in utilizing the sub-genre of romance, a form situated midway between realism and fantasy. He also makes extensive use of symbolism which enables him to portray characters and objects as being ultimately representative of qualities that transcend a particular place and time. Hawthorne’s symbols are often open to different interpretations, and consequently, are never quite clear. What he appears to be implying is that there are many ways of looking at things whereas the Puritans simplify complex issues by seeing them solely in terms of good and evil.
The major character is a woman called Hester Prynne, and the novel begins with her punishment for adultery. She has been condemned to wear the letter ‘A’ (for “adultery”) for the rest of her life. Her lover, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is not exposed, but Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, embarks on an obsessive search for the man responsible.
Hawthorne emphasises the psychological trauma of Hester’s punishment, suggesting that its lifelong nature is totally out of proportion to the crime committed. Its consequence is to take Hester out of membership of Puritan society, both in the sense of being an outcast and in the sense of no longer sharing the beliefs of her community.
As Hester’s unidentified lover, Dimmesdale is the focus of irony in the novel. Very early on, he urges her to reveal her partner in crime, stressing that it is better for the person to be exposed than to “hide a guilty heart” through life. When she refuses, he praises the generosity of her love. Apart from this, Dimmesdale’s action offers Hawthorne the opportunity to reveal his essentially human complexity. He cannot be dismissed as a hypocrite but must be pitied as well as condemned; such is the ambiguity of his position in the novel.
The major character, Roger Chilingworth, is symbolic of Hawthorne’s notion of shallow virtue. He pretends to have forgiven his wife, but requests that she conceal his identity as her husband and embarks on a search for her lover. He soon discovers that it is Dimmesdale and proceeds to torture him mercilessly with oblique references to his sin. Chillingworth is guilty of what Hawthorne considers a terrible crime – deliberately seeking to penetrate into the secrets of someone else. Unlike Hester and Dimmesdale, whose sin is that of passion, Chillingworth acts are deliberate and calculated.
After about seven years, the effects of sin on the three principal characters are revealed. While Dimmesdale and Chillingworth have both disintegrated morally, Hester’s thinking has developed and she assumes a freedom of speculation. She questions more things, including Puritan religion and the meaning and worth inherent in a woman’s life. Although Dimmesdale’s sense of guilt has made him an effective preacher with great sympathy for sinners, his mind has not grown and he is continually tormented by his negative perceptions of himself. For his part, Chillingworth has been completely warped and distorted by his obsessive desire for revenge, and he becomes a devil in the sense that he thrives on the misery of others.
Alarmed by Chilllingworth’s actions, Hester tries to persuade Dimmesdale to come with her to Europe. Dimmesdale is trapped by his Puritan frame of mind, but is swayed by her love and self-belief. Chillingworth, who arranges to take the same ship, foils this plan. After preaching his greatest sermon, Dimmesdale confesses and dies in Hester’s arms. In making his confession, he is able at last to escape the restrictiveness of Puritan thinking because he chooses to acknowledge God’s mercy rather than the notion of eternal damnation.