Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on July 4th, 1804, son of a sea-captain. He led there a shy and rather sombre life; of few artistic encouragements, yet not wholly uncongenial, his moody, intensely meditative temperament being considered. His family descended from the earliest settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; among his forebears was John Hathorne (Hawthorne added the "w" to his name when he began to write), one of the judges at the 1692 Salem witch trials. Throughout his life, Hawthorne was both fascinated and disturbed by his kinship with John Hathorne. Raised by a widowed mother, Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in Maine, where he met two people who were to have great impact upon his life: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who would later become a famous poet, and Franklin Pierce, who would later become president of the United States.
After leaving college in 1825 Hawthorne retired to the confinement of an upper room in his mother’s house. He tried his hand at writing, producing historical sketches and an anonymous novel, Fanshawe (1828), that detailed his college days rather embarrassingly. His first signed book was Twice-Told Tales (1837). His growing relationship with the intellectual circle that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller led him to abandon his customs post for the utopian experiment at Brook Farm, a commune designed to promote economic self-sufficiency and transcendentalist principles.
Transcendentalism was a religious and philosophical movement of the early nineteenth century that was dedicated to the belief that divinity manifests itself everywhere, particularly in the natural world. It also advocated a personalized, direct relationship with the divine in place of formalized, structured religion. This second transcendental idea is privileged in The Scarlet Letter.
After marrying fellow transcendentalist Sophia Peabody in 1842, Hawthorne left Brook Farm and moved into the Old Manse, a home in Concord where Emerson had once lived. The village became the center of the philosophy of Transcendentalism.
A growing family and mounting debts compelled the Hawthorns to return to Salem in 1845, where Hawthorne again went to work as a customs surveyor, this time, like the narrator of The Scarlet Letter, at a post in Salem. In 1850, after having lost the job, he published The Scarlet Letter to enthusiastic, if not widespread, acclaim.
In 1846 he published Mosses from an Old Manse, a collection of essays and stories, many of which are about early America. Mosses from an Old Manse earned Hawthorne the attention of the literary establishment because America was trying to establish a cultural independence to complement its political independence, and Hawthorne's collection of stories displayed both a stylistic freshness and an interest in American subject matter. Herman Melville, among others, hailed Hawthorne as the "American Shakespeare."
The family moved to Lenox and Hawthorne began to work on The House of the Seven Gables (1851). At Lenox he enjoyed the friendship of young Herman Melville, who lived in nearby Pittsfield. In 1851 they moved again near Boston. Hawthorne published The Blithedale Romance (1852).
In 1853 Hawthorne's college friend Franklin Pierce, for whom he had written a campaign biography and who had since become president, appointed Hawthorne a United States consul (in Liverpool). The writer spent the next six years in Europe. From a creative point of view these years were largely anticlimactic. He produced another romance The Marble Faun (1860) but from 1860 he was unable to make any progress with his plans for a new novel. The drafts of unfinished worksheet left are mostly incoherent and show many signs of psychic regression. Some two years before his death he began to age very suddenly, he suffered frequent nosebleeds and he took to writing the figure ‘64’ compulsively on scraps of paper. Nathaniel Hawthorne died at Plymouth, New Hampshire, on May 18th, 1864, a few years after returning to America.
Works: Fanshawe, published anonymously, 1826; Twice-Told Tales, 1st Series, 1837; 2nd Series, 1842; Grandfather's Chair, a history for youth, 1845: Famous Old People (Grandfather's Chair), 1841 Liberty Tree: with the last words of Grandfather's Chair, 1842; Biographical Stories for Children, 1842; Mosses from an Old Manse, 1846; The Scarlet Letter, 1850; The House of the Seven Gables, 1851: True Stories from History and Biography (the whole History of Grandfather's Chair), 1851 A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, 1851; The Snow Image and other Tales, 1851: The Blithedale Romance, 1852; Life of Franklin Pierce, 1852; Tanglewood Tales (2nd Series of the Wonder Book), 1853; A Rill from the Town-Pump, with remarks, by Telba, 1857; The Marble Faun; or, The Romance of Monte Beni (4 EDITOR'S NOTE) (published in England under the title of "Transformation"), 1860, Our Old Home, 1863; Dolliver Romance (1st Part in "Atlantic Monthly"), 1864; in 3 Parts, 1876; Pansie, a fragment, Hawthorne' last literary effort, 1864; American Note-Books, 1868; English Note Books, edited by Sophia Hawthorne, 1870; French and Italian Note Books, 1871; Septimius Felton; or, the Elixir of Life (from the "Atlantic Monthly"), 1872; Doctor Grimshawe's Secret, with Preface and Notes by Julian Hawthorne, 1882.
Tales of the White Hills, Legends of New England, Legends of the Province House, 1877, contain tales which had already been printed in book form in "Twice-Told Tales" and the "Mosses" "Sketched and Studies," 1883.
Hawthorne's contributions to magazines were numerous, and most of his tales appeared first in periodicals, chiefly in "The Token," 1831-1838, "New England Magazine," 1834,1835; "Knickerbocker," 1837-1839; "Democratic Review," 1838-1846; "Atlantic Monthly," 1860-1872 (scenes from the Dolliver Romance, Septimius Felton, and passages from Hawthorne's Note-Books).
The Scarlet Letter The Scarlet Letter is one of the outstanding works of fiction produced in America. Hawthorne felt that the transcendental ideas of the perfectibility of man were illusory and even worse, they were lies. Melville praised ‘the great power of blackness’ in the book, and other critics analyzed Hawthorne’s ‘vision of evil’. Hawthorne creates a conflict of nature and culture.
The majority of Hawthorne's work takes America's Puritan past as its subject, but The Scarlet Letter uses the material to greatest effect. The Puritans were a group of religious reformers who arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s under the leadership of John Winthrop (whose death is recounted in the novel). The religious sect was known for its intolerance of dissenting ideas and lifestyles. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses the repressive, authoritarian Puritan society as an analogue for humankind in general. The Puritan setting also enables him to portray the human soul under extreme pressures. Hawthorne speaks specifically to American issues, but he circumvents the aesthetic and thematic limitations that might accompany such a focus. His universality and his dramatic flair have ensured his place in the literary canon.
The action of the novel can be described by its structure as consisting of four sections: chapter 1-8 dominated by the Puritan community of colonial Boston, and the fate of Hester who has given birth to an illegitimate daughter, Pearl (innocence), while her husband Roger Chillingworth is away. Chapter 9-12 are centered on Chillingworth who upon his return find his wife pilloried and made wear the letter ‘A’ (adulteress, later to signify ‘angel’) and refuses to reveal the name of the child’s father. Chillingworth suspects rightly the young Pastor Dimmesdale. He torments him mentally to force a confession. Chapter 13-19 deal with Hester and her concern over Dimmesdale suffering. She is revealed to be a self-reliant heroine who is never truly repentant for her act of adultery, she feels their act was consecrated by their deep love. Chapter 20-24 where Dimmesdale broken by his own sense of guilt, confesses upon the scaffold where Hester was branded with the letter ‘A’ and dies in her arms. Hester faces the future optimistically, as she plans to ensure the future of her beloved little girl by taking her to Europe.
Sin and guilt are the recurring concerns of Hawthorne’s works. In this sense, his contrast with the optimistic philosophy of the Transcendentalists is remarkable. He had a tragic vision of life, and his hero is always a man alienated from society for having committed a hidden sin. Hawthorne began his novel where a conventional work would end. His concern is not with the moment of passion but with the psychology of the participants and with moral problems. Like Melville’s, Hawthorne’s novels are interrogations of transcendentalism. The forest seems to promise an Edenic release from fallen guilt and sin.
In his essay Custom House Hawthorne explores the events that led to the writing of the book. He portrays the Salem Custom House, a locus of contemporary actuality and practicality where he worked as a surveyor, as the place which starts his imagination and Hester’s story. A story which rises from his own condition, as a man divided between a past of Puritan guilt and a present of transcendental hope and between his own subjective imagination and the daylight world of community and actuality. Art and artist are at the center of a set of dialectical contradictions –between past and present, selfhood and community, the allegorical and the symbolic, the Calvinist sense of guilt and the new transcendentalist faith in Adamic innocence, the imaginary and the actual, creation and silence.
Key Facts Full title - The Scarlet Letter
Author - Nathaniel Hawthorne
Type of work - Novel
Genre - Symbolic; semi-allegorical; historical fiction; romance (in the sense that it rejects realism in favor of symbols and ideas)
Language - English
Time and place written - Salem and Concord, Massachusetts; late 1840s
Date of first publication - 1850
Publisher - Ticknor, Reed, and Fields. Hawthorne apparently burned the novel's manuscript; thus his original intentions have been difficult to reconstruct.
Narrator - The narrator is an unnamed customhouse surveyor who writes some two hundred years after the events he describes took place. He has much in common with Hawthorne but should not be taken as a direct mouthpiece for the author's opinions.
Point of view - The narrator is omniscient, because he analyzes the characters and tells the story in a way that shows that he knows more about the characters than they know about themselves. Yet, he is also a subjective narrator, because he voices his own interpretations and opinions of things. He is clearly sympathetic to Hester and Dimmesdale.
Tone - Varies—contemplative and somewhat bitter in the introduction; thoughtful, fairly straightforward, yet occasionally tinged with irony in the body of the narrative
Tense - The narrator employs the past tense to recount events that happened some two hundred years before his time, but he occasionally uses the present tense when he addresses his audience.
Setting (time) - Middle of the seventeenth century
Setting (place) - Boston, Massachusetts
Protagonist - Hester Prynne
Major conflict - Her husband having inexplicably failed to join her in Boston following their emigration from Europe, Hester Prynne engages in an extramarital affair with Arthur Dimmesdale. When she gives birth to a child, Hester invokes the condemnation of her community—a condemnation they manifest by forcing her to wear a letter "A" for "adulteror"—as well as the vengeful wrath of her husband, who has appeared just in time to witness her public shaming.
Rising action - Dimmesdale stands by in silence as Hester suffers for the "sin" he helped to commit, though his conscience plagues him and affects his health. Hester's husband, Chillingworth, hides his true identity and, posing as a doctor to the ailing minister, tests his suspicions that Dimmesdale is the father of his wife's child, effectively exacerbating Dimmesdale's feelings of shame and thus reaping revenge.
Climax - There are at least two points in The Scarlet Letter that could be identified as the book's "climax." The first is in Chapter XII, at the exact center of the book. As Dimmesdale watches a meteor trace a letter "A" in the sky, he confronts his role in Hester’s sin and realizes that he can no longer deny his deed and its consequences. The key characters confront one other when Hester and Pearl join Dimmesdale in an "electric chain" as he holds his vigil on the marketplace scaffold, the location of Hester's original public shaming. Chillingworth appears in this scene as well. The other climactic scene occurs in Chapter XXIII, at the end of the book. Here, the characters' secrets are publicly exposed and their fates sealed. Dimmesdale, Hester, and Chillingworth not only acknowledge their secrets to themselves and to each other; they push these revelations to such extremes that they all must leave the community in one way or another.
Falling action - Depending on one's interpretation of which scene constitutes the book's "climax," the falling action is either the course of events that follow Chapter XII or the final reports on Hester and Pearl lives after the deaths of Dimmensdale and Chillingworth
Themes - Sin, experience, and the human condition; the nature of evil; identity and society
Symbols - The scarlet letter; the town scaffold; the meteor; Pearl; the rosebush next to the prison door
Foreshadowing - Foreshadowing is minimal, because the symbols tend to coincide temporally with events, enriching their meaning rather than anticipating their occurrence.
Character List Hester Prynne - Hester is the book's protagonist and the wearer of the scarlet letter that gives the book its title. The letter, a patch of fabric in the shape of an "A," signifies that Hester is an "adulterer." As a young woman, Hester married an elderly scholar, Chillingworth who sent her ahead to America to live but never followed her. While waiting for him, she had an affair with a Puritan minister named Dimmesdale after which she gave birth to Pearl. Hester is passionate but also strong—she endures years of shame and scorn. She equals both her husband and her lover in her intelligence and thoughtfulness. Her alienation puts her in the position to make acute observations about her community, particularly about its treatment of women.
Although The Scarlet Letter is about Hester Prynne, the book is not so much a consideration of her innate character as it is an examination of the forces that shape her and the transformations those forces effect. We know very little about Hester prior to her affair with Dimmensdale and her resultant public shaming. The reader is told that she married Chillingworth although she did not love him, but we never fully understand why. The early chapters of the book suggest that, prior to her marriage, Hester was a strong-willed and impetuous young woman—she remembers her parents as loving guides who frequently had to restrain her incautious behavior. The fact that she has an affair also suggests that she once had an extremely passionate nature.
But it is what happens after Hester's affair that makes her into the woman with whom the reader is familiar. Shamed and alienated from the rest of the community, Hester becomes contemplative. She speculates on human nature, social organization, and larger moral questions. Hester's tribulations also lead her to be stoic and a freethinker. Although the narrator pretends to disapprove of Hester's independent philosophizing, his tone indicates that he secretly admires her independence and her ideas.
Hester also becomes a kind of compassionate maternal figure as a result of her experiences. Hester's moderates her tendency to be rash, for she knows that such behavior could cause her to lose her daughter, Pearl. Hester is also maternal with respect to society: she cares for the poor and brings them food and clothing. By the novel's end, Hester has become a protofeminist mother figure to the women of the community. The shame attached to her scarlet letter is long gone. Women recognize that her punishment stemmed in part from the town fathers' sexism, and they come to Hester seeking shelter from the sexist forces under which they themselves suffer. Throughout The Scarlet Letter Hester is portrayed as an intelligent, capable, but not necessarily extraordinary woman. It is the extraordinary circumstances shaping her that make her such an important figure.
Pearl – Hester’s illegitimate daughter Pearl is a young girl with a moody, mischievous spirit and an ability to perceive things that others do not. For example, she quickly discerns the truth about her mother and Dimmesdale. The townspeople say that she barely seems human and spread rumors that her unknown father is actually the Devil. She is wise far beyond her years, frequently engaging in ironic play having to do with her mother's scarlet letter.
Pearl, functions primarily as a symbol. She is quite young during most of the events of this novel—when Dimmesdale dies she is only seven years old—and her real importance lies in her ability to provoke the adult characters in the book. She asks them pointed questions and draws their attention, and the reader's, to the denied or overlooked truths of the adult world. In general, children in The Scarlet Letter are portrayed as more perceptive and more honest than adults, and Pearl is the most perceptive of them all.
Pearl makes us constantly aware of her mother's scarlet letter and of the society that produced it. From an early age, she fixates on the emblem. Pearl's innocent, or perhaps intuitive, comments about the letter raise crucial questions about its meaning. Similarly, she inquires about the relationships between those around her—most importantly, the relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale—and offers perceptive critiques of them. Pearl provides the text's harshest, and most penetrating, judgment of Dimmesdale's failure to admit to his adultery. Once her father's identity is revealed, Pearl is no longer needed in this symbolic capacity; at Dimmesdale's death she becomes fully "human," leaving behind her otherworldliness and her preternatural vision.
Roger Chillingworth - "Roger Chillingworth" is actually Hester husband in disguise. He is much older than she is and had sent her to America while he settled his affairs in Europe. Because he is captured by Native Americans, he arrives in Boston belatedly and finds Hester and her illegitimate child being displayed on the scaffold. He lusts for revenge, and thus decides to stay in Boston despite his wife's betrayal and disgrace. He is a scholar and uses his knowledge to disguise himself as a doctor, intent on discovering and tormenting Hester's anonymous lover. Chillingworth is self-absorbed and both physically and psychologically monstrous. His single-minded pursuit of retribution reveals him to be the most malevolent character in the novel.
As his name suggests, Roger Chillingworth is a man deficient in human warmth. His twisted, stooped, deformed shoulders mirror his distorted soul. From what the reader is told of his early years with Hester, he was a difficult husband. He ignored his wife for much of the time, yet expected her to nourish his soul with affection when he did condescend to spend time with her. Chillingworth's decision to assume the identity of a "leech," or doctor, is fitting. Unable to engage in equitable relationships with those around him, he feeds on the vitality of others as a way of energizing his own projects. Chillingworth's death is a result of the nature of his character. After Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth no longer has a victim. Similarly, Dimmesdale's revelation that he is Pearl's father removes Hester from the old man's clutches. Having lost his the objects of his revenge, the leech has no choice but to die.
Ultimately, Chillingworth comes to represent true evil. Throughout the novel he is associated with secular and sometimes illicit forms of knowledge, as his chemical experiments and medical practices occasionally verge on witchcraft and murder. He is interested in revenge, not justice, and he seeks the deliberate destruction of others rather than a redress of wrongs. His desire to hurt others stands in contrast to Hester and Dimmesdale sin, which had love, not hate, as its intent. Any harm that may have come from the young lovers' deed was unanticipated and inadvertent, whereas Chillingworth reaps deliberate harm.
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale - Dimmesdale is a young man who achieved fame in England as a theologian and then emigrated to America. In a moment of weakness, he and Hester became lovers. Although he will not confess it publicly, he is the father of her child. He deals with his guilt by tormenting himself physically and psychologically, developing a heart condition as a result. Dimmesdale is an intelligent and emotional man, and his sermons are thus masterpieces of eloquence and persuasiveness. His commitments to his congregation are in constant conflict with his feelings of sinfulness and need to confess.
Arthur Dimmesdale, like Hester Prynne, is an individual whose identity owes more to external circumstances than to his innate nature. The reader is told that Dimmesdale was a scholar of some renown at Oxford University. His past suggests that he is probably somewhat aloof, the kind of man who would not have much natural sympathy for ordinary men and women. However, Dimmesdale has an unusually active conscience. The fact that Hester takes all of the blame for their shared sin goads his conscience, and his resultant mental anguish and physical weakness open up his mind and allow him to empathize with others. Consequently, he becomes an eloquent and emotionally powerful speaker and a compassionate leader, and his congregation is able to receive meaningful spiritual guidance from him.
Ironically, the townspeople do not believe Dimmesdale's protestations of sinfulness. Given his background and his penchant for rhetorical speech, Dimmesdale's congregation generally interprets his sermons allegorically rather than as expressions of any personal guilt. This drives Dimmesdale to further internalize his guilt and self-punishment and leads to still more deterioration in his physical and spiritual condition. The town's idolization of him reaches new heights after his Election Day sermon, which is his last. In his death, Dimmesdale becomes even more of an icon than he was in life. Many believe his confession was a symbolic act, while others believe Dimmesdale's fate was an example of divine judgment.
Governor Bellingham - Governor Bellingham is a wealthy, elderly gentleman who spends much of his time consulting with the other town fathers. Despite his role as governor of a fledgling American society, he very much resembles a traditional English aristocrat. Bellingham tends to strictly adhere to the rules, but he is easily swayed by Dimmesdale eloquence. He remains blind to the misbehaviors taking place in his own house: his sister, Mistress Hibbins is a witch.
Mistress Hibbins - Mistress Hibbins is a widow who lives with her brother, Governor Belingham in a luxurious mansion. She is commonly known to be a witch who ventures into the forest at night to ride with the "Black Man." Her appearances at public occasions remind the reader of the hypocrisy and hidden evil in Puritan society.
Reverend Mr. John Wilson - Boston's elder clergyman, Reverend Wilson is scholarly yet grandfatherly. He is a stereotypical Puritan father, a literary version of the stiff, starkly painted portraits of American patriarchs. Like Governor Bellingham, Wilson follows the community's rules strictly but can be swayed by Dimmesdale’s eloquence. Unlike Dimmesdale, his junior colleague, Wilson preaches hellfire and damnation and advocates harsh punishment of sinners.
Narrator - The unnamed narrator works as the surveyor of the Salem Custom House some two hundred years after the novel's events take place. He discovers an old manuscript in the building's attic that tells the story of Hester Prynne; when he loses his job, he decides to write a fictional treatment of the narrative. The narrator is a rather high-strung man, whose Puritan ancestry makes him feel somewhat guilty about his writing career. He writes because he is interested in American history and because he believes that America needs to better understand its religious and moral heritage.