An Explanation of How Hester Prynne Portrays the Author’s View
of America’s Transition from Puritanism to Romanticism
3 pages, double-spaced
Times New Roman, 12 pt
Page set up: U.S. Letter
The novel, The Scarlet Letter, was written by the author Nathaniel Hawthorne and was published in 1850 (1). It is a story about the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, set around 1650 (2). The story is written in the third person with the narrator being the author.
The common thread that runs through this novel is Hawthorne’s apparent understanding of the beliefs and culture of the Puritans in America at that time. But Hawthorne is writing about events in a society that existed 200 years before he wrote his story. In this way, Hawthorne has possibly altered or romanticized a view of the life, beliefs and behavior of the Puritans who first settled in America (2, 3).
We accept that authors will use their characters to express their beliefs, and in telling a story, the characters may act as the author’s “mouthpiece” for their views. This author’s views may not be based entirely on historical fact, but also on his family history as his family were among the first New England settlers, and they lived in Salem (4).
Romanticism in literature is the belief in the imagination rather than a rational way of understanding reality, with an emphasis on individuality and on self-expression (5). The Romantic period in literature followed the industrial revolution in Europe, and in America it was seen between 1820 and 1860. The first great literary generation in the U.S. were Romantic novelists and included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and the Transcendentalists (5).
The novel, The Scarlet Letter, has been called “Gothic Romance.” This novel represents a turning point in American romantic literature as part of the Romantic Movement (5). The novel contains all the elements that define a romantic novel, but they are complicated by the character and story of the heroine and the strong remnants of Puritan morality and moralizing.
Romanticism in the early 19th-century changed the way that people viewed society, social order, their relationships and the natural world. Unlike Classicism, which stood for order and established a foundation for literature, art, architecture and music, Romanticism allowed people escape into their emotions and dreams. This era was in sharp contrast to the ideas that formed the period of Enlightenment (5).
There are many components of The Scarlet Letter that support its Romantic status in literature; these include the use of language, the imagery used, the mystical content, the use of nature and surroundings to reflect mood, the use of supernatural tones, the locations (particularly the forest) and the struggle between good and evil (5).
A definition of Romanticism includes how objects and nature become meaningful symbols (4). In The Scarlet Letter there are many such symbols; the letter, the woods and the rose bush, which are all referred to repeatedly through the novel. For example, the rose bush is a powerful representation of Hester:
"It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow." (1)(Ch.1)
The actions of Hester Prynne, on being accused of her “sin” are difficult to understand and are not true to real life; they are romanticized. When confronted, Hester has three options: she could run away; she could challenge the town governor or she could remain and resolve to use the "torture of [your] daily shame" to "at length purge [your] soul." Hester chooses the third and least likely option.
The challenge to Puritan authority is the turning point of the novel. Despite Hester’s suffering from this point on, Hawthorne replaces a sense of shame with defiance. The author does not portray Hester as having done anything wrong or having transgressed. The author writes of Hester Prynne:
"She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers - stern and wild ones - and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss." (1)(Ch.18)
Hester chooses to stay and to suffer when she is accused of her “sin.” From that point she displays her scarlet letter, the “A” for “adulteress.” The choice that Hester Prynne makes to stay and suffer is the turning point in Hawthorne’s novel. This turning point gives the reader the realization that this is not a work of historical fiction with Puritan values and ideals, but that this is a Romantic novel.
Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter and his character, Hester Prynne define the Romantic Movement. In transitioning, or rather escaping, from the bonds and hypocrisies of Puritanism, Hester and Nathaniel Hawthorne transition to the perceived freedoms and dignities of the Romantic Movement.
Through Hester, Nathaniel Hawthorne delivers to the reader his Romantic assertion that the individual determines her course and that redemption is possible. The words of Nathaniel Hawthorne as spoken by Hester Prynne, are a good way to conclude this essay:
"She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom." (1)(Ch.18)
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850; Bartleby, 1999. Retrieved from: www.bartleby.com/83/.
- Heinsohn, Robert J. Pilgrims and Puritans in 17th Century New England. Retrieved from: http://www.sail1620.org/Articles/pilgrims-and-puritans-in-17th-century-new-england
- Churchill, Winston S. History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Barnes & Noble, New York, 1955. Print.
- Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in his times (Johns Hopkins paperback ed). Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md, 1998. Retrieved from: http://guides.lib.monash.edu/content.php?pid=346637&sid=4803480>
- PBS America. The American Novel: Romanticism. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americannovel/timeline/romanticism.html