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In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne creates a division between the truth and a Puritan society tainted by hypocrisy. Such a division existed in Hawthorne’s life as well. Born into a historically Puritan family, Hawthorne developed an obsession with his Salemite ancestors as well as guilt for their role in the witch trials. As Hawthorne matured, he found solace in the doctrine of Transcendentalists. However, failure and disillusionment forced Hawthorne to ultimately accept his true identity—a theme that pervades The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne and Hester embark on twin journeys together, with Hester’s struggles and triumphs echoing those of Hawthorne.
Hawthorne feels a residual culpability for the judgments of his ancestors, and attempts to distance himself from the Puritan culture. Although research has shown that the earliest Hathorne (the original spelling) “came to Massachusetts Bay in 1630,” the true source of Hawthorne’s grief was Judge William Hathorne; the Judge “was a member of the Colonial Assembly during the period of the persecution” of the Salem witches and Quakers (Stearns). Hawthorne reflects upon this familial stigma in “The Custom-House.” The narrator of this introduction, who speaks partly if not entirely for Hawthorne himself, recalls his “steeple-crowned progenitor, …a bitter prosecutor” (Hawthorne 5). Hawthorne clearly feels implicated in his ancestor’s crime, as his literary twin laments, “I… hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes” (Hawthorne 6). Although “Hester Prynne” did not exist to her creator at this point, her beginning is remarkably similar to that of Hawthorne; both were marked by the Puritans as sinners. Tortured by this stigma, Hawthorne endeavors to distance himself from his Puritan past. Hawthorne’s insertion of a “w” into his family name, “Hathorne,” could indicate his attempts to redefine himself. Hawthorne continued down this path to self-discovery as he delved further into the world of transcendentalism.
The Scarlet Letter indicates Hawthorne’s intellectual growth in that it advocates his new transcendental ideals. Sophia Peabody, Hawthorne’s wife, first exposed him to the Transcendental movement, and subsequent interactions with Ralph Waldo Emerson crystallized Hawthorne’s new ideology (www.uwm.edu). The transcendentalists believed in “individual responsibility,” a motif that saturates The Scarlet Letter (www.uwm.edu). Hester embodies this value through not only taking responsibility for her sin, but maturing as a result of it. In contrast to Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy, Hester wears her sin with “a certain state and dignity” (37) that Hawthorne rewards. While Dimmesdale fails to consider his responsibility as an individual, “Hester Prynne [has] no selfish ends,” and therefore “the scarlet letter cease[s] to be a stigma” (179). Hawthorne views Hester’s passion and individualism as a positive trait, and he demonstrates through his prose how such characteristics will prevail over hypocritical morality. However, just as Hester struggled to maintain her identity, difficult circumstances caused Hawthorne to falter on his own path to enlightenment.
Hawthorne subscribed wholeheartedly to the transcendental doctrine. Hungry for manifestations of the transcendental ideal rather than theory, Hawthorne joined the Brook Farm Utopian Community (Stearns). Brook Farm purported to be an escape from “from the trickery of trade, the pedantry of colleges, the flunkyism of office, and the arrogant pretensions of wealth” (ibid.). Hawthorne, however, found the endless philosophizing of Brook Farmers tiresome, and he experienced a general “mental disturbance” ( ibid.). Hawthorne failed to find enlightenment in transcendentalism as Brooks Farm was nothing more than an escape; similarly, Hawthorne describes how Hester’s plans to escape with Dimmesdale result in only tragedy. Disillusioned and poor, Hawthorne was forced to return to the Custom-House— a reminder of the Puritan society that he had nearly succeeded in escaping. Hawthorne passively accepted this role, an action that is echoed in The Scarlet Letter. Hester removes her letter, and sunshine floods the forest; Hawthorne describes how “the objects that had made a shadow hitherto” were “embodied by the brightness now” (139). The light represents a divine truth, a truth with which Hester can finally live. Upon Pearl’s insistence, however, Hester submissively reattaches the letter, and “a gray shadow” covers her (145). Therefore, Hester’s attainment of truth was merely ephemeral, just like Hawthorne’s period of deluded “enlightenment” at Brooks Farm. Perhaps Hawthorne subconsciously mirrored his own struggles in his heroine in order to cope; perhaps the similarity is intentional. The parallels between Hester and Hawthorne’s metamorphoses, however, are too great to be ignored.
Ultimately, Hawthorne accepts his inexorable connection to Puritanical New England. Hawthorne, speaking through his “fictional” Custom-House worker, accepts that his characteristics of his ancestors’ “nature have intertwined themselves with” his own essence (6). Rather than use transcendentalism to fight his true heritage, Hawthorne marries transcendental ideals with his identity. In the same way, Hester transcends the power of the scarlet letter through accepting its presence. The connection between life and art becomes shockingly clear as Hawthorne’s life story unravels. Hawthorne’s ancestry is his scarlet letter, yet only with the complex golden threads of transcendentalism does it become more than a stigma.
“Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter.” The Classic Text. University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. 30 November 2007. <http://www.uwm.edu/Library/special/exhibits/clastext/clspg143.htm>
Stearns, Frank Preston. The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Full Books. 30 November 2007. http://www.fullbooks.com/The-Life-and-Genius-of-Nathaniel Hawthorne1.html
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