It was almost inevitable that Nathaniel Hawthorne would grow up to write fiction about the New England past. Born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne could trace his family tree on both sides to the Puritans, whose unbending attitudes toward religious conformity were branded on the American, and especially the New England, consciousness. His great-great grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the three judges at the famous Salem witch trials in 1692. (The family name was spelled “Hathorne” until the novelist himself added the “w”.) Hawthorne’s father, a sea captain, died in Suriname in 1808; the four-year-old Hawthorne and his family found themselves living on the charity of relatives. The family moved from Salem to Raymond, Maine, when Hawthorne was twelve; he remained there for three years, and became accustomed to a life of solitude. In 1821 he entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, graduating in 1825 near the middle of a class that included future president Franklin Pierce (one of Hawthorne’s best friends) and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The Scarlet Letter is one of the few American works of literature that has justifiably earned the accolade “classic.” Primary among the novel’s virtues are its tightly structured plot and sophisticated exploration of character and motivation. Through the tale of Hester Prynne’s and Arthur Dimmesdale’s transgressions of conventional morality, Hawthorne offers an assessment of the Puritan consciousness, a code of thought and action that helped form the American psyche. He uses historical materials to create a novel about universal, timeless human problems: the struggle of the individual to achieve freedom in a society that imposes considerable restraints, and the dilemma individuals face in balancing personal feelings against social or moral norms.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne explores two important themes, the first of which has been described by critics as the conflict between “heart” and “mind.” Hawthorne contrasts the feelings of the more sympathetic characters, such as Hester Prynne, with the harsh rules of conduct established by those, such as the Puritan magistrates, who seem incapable of any emotional response whatsoever to their fellow human beings. This conflict is dramatized within the context of the Puritan moral and social code: individuals who are predestined for salvation exhibit their election by living in strict accordance with “God’s laws.” These laws are interpreted by Puritan elders who have rigid attitudes toward dress, decorum, and above all, sexual conduct. Men and women who commit acts of sexual misconduct are branded-literally, in Hester’s case, with the decree that she wear the letter “A” over her heart. Hawthorne demonstrates that individuals who have sinned in the eyes of their fellow citizens are still capable of exceptional goodness, while those who relentlessly pursue the exposure and punishment of sinners are often the real villains.
Hawthorne carefully structures his novel, using three climactic scenes that take place on the scaffold outside the Boston prison as centerpieces to highlight key revelations of character or changes of fortune for his hero and heroine. The first two scaffold scenes set the stage for the third, in which Dimmesdale publicly confesses that he is the father of Hester’s daughter, Pearl.
The subject of The Scarlet Letter, adultery, is a sensitive topic. Hawthorne focuses on the effect of adultery on individuals and on the community. Though no character discusses the actions of Hester and Arthur in explicit detail, the subject of adultery nevertheless is unavoidable if any meaningful examination of this novel is to be made. Hawthorne does not condemn his sinners; although they realize they must make amends for their sin, they are presented quite sympathetically. The villain of the novel, Roger Chillingsworth, is the one character intent on exposing the sinners. It may be easy for readers to misunderstand Hawthorne’s point regarding sin and forgiveness: he does not really excuse sin, but he does criticize the heartless society that drives people such as Hester and Arthur to seek fulfillment for their emotional needs outside accepted social boundaries.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Explain how Hawthorne uses nature and the natural world as a means of exposing the hypocrisy and oppressiveness of Puritan society.
The Scarlet Letter has been filmed a number of times, with two particularly outstanding versions. The 1926 silent film version starring Lillian Gish (Hester) and Lars Hanson (Arthur) was an excellent, straightforward adaptation. Filmed several more times during the silent-film era, The Scarlet Letter was adapted as a talking film in 1934 but not filmed again until the 1979 PBS version. Filmed in Boston, this four-part mini-series boasted authenticity in every detail, researched by scholars of literature and American culture. Considered a masterpiece of documentary as well as commercial filmmaking, it starred Meg Foster as Hester and John Heard as Arthur.