Transcendentalism Exposed In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne, born Nathaniel Hathorne, was an extraordinary American author. He was born on July Fourth, 1804, in Salem Massachusetts. Salem had a lot of influence on his writing because of his ancestors involvement in the Salem witch trials. His guilt from his ancestors involvement in the trials caused him to be a partial transcendentalist. Also, his introduction in the Scarlet Letter, the Custom house, openly talks about his problems about the city of Salem to a point where it upset some of the residents.
Nonetheless, he based several of his books on places he lived in. Most of his novels took place in a Puritan society. Along with being an author, Hawthorne was also a US Consul under Franklin Pierce. After being moved to England, he traveled to Italy for while and was inspired to write Marble Fauns. His real showstopper novel was the Scarlet Letter which was based on a girl in Boston who was forced to wear a letter after committing adultery. Hawthorne, who is now known for his criticism of puritan society, displayed his belief that women are more than housewives and child bearers in several novels.
He was greatly influenced by the women in his life, his mother, wife, sister, and professional associates Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody. His father died when he was young, so aspects of hester were allegedly based on his mother. But his personal experience aided in writing the Scarlet Letter and his view on women’s rights. He was friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom he went to Bowdoin College with. He died on May 19th, 1864 of natural causes but his writing lived on. The Scarlet Letter is still being read in classrooms and in homes. While reading the Scarlet Letter, I discovered some of the themes my author embraces.
Conscience, innocence, justice, courage, and basic human nature. In the book, people deal with the situation of conscience in different ways. Hester, the primary focus of the book, committed a sin and immediately accepted her consequence. She wanted to make her life better and not deal with the terrible guilt. Dimmesdale, Hester’s partner in crime, hid his sin and his conscience practically ate him alive. As a dying act, he admitted his sins. He was a hypocrite, and Hester was a fool. But in the end, they were not the terrible people. “We are not, hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest!
That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin, He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so,”(Hawthorne) Dimmesdale said Chillingworth, the vengeful husband of Hester, had no conscience. He was vengeful, foul, and cruel and did not care who he hurt. I think this was an important theme because during the time period where the Scarlet Letter was written, the paralleled to a lot of current events. The debate between having slaves or abolishing slavery was a hot topic during Hawthorne’s lifetime. For instance, slave owners were quite like Chillingworth and Dimmesdale.
They either felt guilty about having slaves and did not express it, or didn’t care at all because to them they were not people. A few people were like Hester, in the way she openly said she had made a mistake. The people against slavery were similar in this way, except a few of them never owned slaves. Another idea that was boiling get during Hawthorne’s lifetime was women’s rights. Hawthorne books had strong female heroines, which was controversial at the time. For feminism in the Scarlet Letter, Hester openly trying to make things better, despite her terrible circumstance, was something to show the strength of woman.
She made herself something more than just an adulterer, she had control over her own life because she cleared her conscience. Women during the 1850’s were suppose to be meek and submissive, she broke the “law” and still had a decent life. Although this has little do with conscience, without it she could have been living in shame instead of becoming confident and strong on her own. Hawthorne was known for writing about real people. The hypocrites, the sinners, the liars, the followers, or other any type of person he could have possibly wrote about.
The Scarlet Letter was practically a slap in the face to Puritanism, and he wanted everyone to know. Hawthorne was “loose” transcendentalist, agreeing with some of the tenets but not all of them. He thought the idea to be too optimistic and even wrote a satirical novel on it. But one aspect of transcendentalism he agreed with is that the world is good, evil doesn’t exist. Through his writing he displayed his belief that if you admit your sin, you can become good again. Hawthorne was searching to define humans, but not in the way people used to.
Through his writing he was trying to convey that people are essentially good, but sometimes they are just weak. He wants everyone to acknowledge that people make mistakes, but if you admit your mistakes you can get better. He displayed this through two characters in the Scarlet Letter, Hester and Dimmesdale. As I stated previously, it all boils back to conscience. Hester made a mistake and repented. She had to do something terrible in order to improve. In her case it was a little drastic because adultery is something that is sadly common these days. She got her punishment, made her life and her soul “pure” again.
Dimmesdale, however, did not accept his crimes which made him a bad person. He did not improve until his dying words, when he finally admitted that he was also involved in the adultery. To Hawthorne, hypocrisy and secret sin were the things that God could condemn you for. His deeper truth, that everyone is good, but sometimes can be weak, ties back to his themes that are displayed in his novel. His deeper truth connected with me, but I don’t entirely agree with. I think that evil does exist, but I also think that everyone has the potential to improve, just like Hawthorne thought.
But after eading about Hawthorne and Hester, I can see that there is some truth in that everyone can be good. His beautifully written work brought around some change, but not as much as other authors. To begin with, the Scarlet Letter is known for being the classic portrayal of Puritan society, but is a sucker punch in the face for the Puritan society because of its depiction. He changed people’s views on Puritian society and made them realize it’s not as amazing as everyone thinks. Authors such as Melville and Emerson were influenced by the The Scarlet Letter because it talked about issues usually suppressed during the 19th century.
They liked the controversial topic depicted in a beautiful way. But Melville and Emerson did not write about women the way Hawthorne did. Hawthorne often wrote women’s rights, women’s work, men in relation to women, and social changes. He was different from other standard male authors at the time because he would take symbols of shame, the scarlet A, and make it a symbol of bravery and integrity. In his books, women were liberated, not meek and submissive. Although he did not influence any actual events, he influenced a number of people about feminism.
Hawthorne took more of a mental route. The Scarlet Letter is often called a satirical allegory. The hidden meaning was throwing his support behind feminism. Hester, the protagonist in his most influential novel, captured the heart of everyone who read the book and shed a new light on feminism. Never before had a female character excited or shocked the people the way Hester did, and she served her purpose. A basis for change could be to change the way you think, and Hawthorne changed the way people thought about women. He changed people’s minds, and therefore influenced their actions.