History of Literature

Nathaniel Hawthorne


Nathaniel Hawthorne



Nathaniel Hawthorne

American writer

born July 4, 1804, Salem, Mass., U.S.
died May 19, 1864, Plymouth, N.H.

American novelist and short-story writer who was a master of the allegorical and symbolic tale. One of the greatest fiction writers in American literature, he is best-known for The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851).

Early years
Hawthorne’s ancestors had lived in Salem since the 17th century. His earliest American ancestor, William Hathorne (Nathaniel added the w to the name when he began to write), was a magistrate who had sentenced a Quaker woman to public whipping. He had acted as a staunch defender of Puritan orthodoxy, with its zealous advocacy of a “pure,” unaffected form of religious worship, its rigid adherence to a simple, almost severe, mode of life, and its conviction of the “natural depravity” of “fallen” man. Hawthorne was later to wonder whether the decline of his family’s prosperity and prominence during the 18th century, while other Salem families were growing wealthy from the lucrative shipping trade, might not be a retribution for this act and for the role of William’s son John as one of three judges in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. When Nathaniel’s father—a ship’s captain—died during one of his voyages, he left his young widow without means to care for her two girls and young Nathaniel, aged four. She moved in with her affluent brothers, the Mannings. Hawthorne grew up in their house in Salem and, for extensive periods during his teens, in Raymond, Maine, on the shores of Sebago Lake. He returned to Salem in 1825 after four years at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. Hawthorne did not distinguish himself as a young man. Instead, he spent nearly a dozen years reading and trying to master the art of writing fiction.

First works
In college Hawthorne had excelled only in composition and had determined to become a writer. Upon graduation, he had written an amateurish novel, Fanshawe, which he published at his own expense—only to decide that it was unworthy of him and to try to destroy all copies. Hawthorne, however, soon found his own voice, style, and subjects, and within five years of his graduation he had published such impressive and distinctive stories as “The Hollow of the Three Hills” and “An Old Woman’s Tale.” By 1832, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” two of his greatest tales—and among the finest in the language—had appeared. “Young Goodman Brown,” perhaps the greatest tale of witchcraft ever written, appeared in 1835.

His increasing success in placing his stories brought him a little fame. Unwilling to depend any longer on his uncles’ generosity, he turned to a job in the Boston Custom House (1839–40) and for six months in 1841 was a resident at the agricultural cooperative Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, Mass. Even when his first signed book, Twice-Told Tales, was published in 1837, the work had brought gratifying recognition but no dependable income. By 1842, however, Hawthorne’s writing had brought him a sufficient income to allow him to marry Sophia Peabody; the couple rented the Old Manse in Concord and began a happy three-year period that Hawthorne would later record in his essay “The Old Manse.”

The presence of some of the leading social thinkers and philosophers of his day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, in Concord made the village the centre of the philosophy of Transcendentalism, which encouraged man to transcend the materialistic world of experience and facts and become conscious of the pervading spirit of the universe and the potentialities for human freedom. Hawthorne welcomed the companionship of his Transcendentalist neighbours, but he had little to say to them. Artists and intellectuals never inspired his full confidence, but he thoroughly enjoyed the visit of his old college friend and classmate Franklin Pierce, later to become president of the United States. At the Old Manse, Hawthorne continued to write stories, with the same result as before: literary success, monetary failure. His new short-story collection, Mosses from an Old Manse, appeared in 1846.

Return to Salem
A growing family and mounting debts compelled the Hawthornes’ return in 1845 to Salem, where Nathaniel was appointed surveyor of the Custom House by the Polk administration (Hawthorne had always been a loyal Democrat and pulled all the political strings he could to get this appointment). Three years later the presidential election brought the Whigs into power under Zachary Taylor, and Hawthorne lost his job; but in a few months of concentrated effort, he produced his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter. The bitterness he felt over his dismissal is apparent in “The Custom House” essay prefixed to the novel. The Scarlet Letter tells the story of two lovers kept apart by the ironies of fate, their own mingled strengths and weaknesses, and the Puritan community’s interpretation of moral law, until at last death unites them under a single headstone. The book made Hawthorne famous and was eventually recognized as one of the greatest of American novels.

Determined to leave Salem forever, Hawthorne moved to Lenox, located in the mountain scenery of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. There he began work on The House of the Seven Gables (1851), the story of the Pyncheon family, who for generations had lived under a curse until it was removed at last by love.

At Lenox he enjoyed the stimulating friendship of Herman Melville, who lived in nearby Pittsfield. This friendship, although important for the younger writer and his work, was much less so for Hawthorne. Melville praised Hawthorne extravagantly in a review of his Mosses from an Old Manse, and he also dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne. But eventually Melville came to feel that the friendship he so ardently pursued was one-sided. Later he was to picture the relationship with disillusion in his introductory sketch to The Piazza Tales and depicted Hawthorne himself unflatteringly as “Vine” in his long poem Clarel.

In the autumn of 1851 Hawthorne moved his family to another temporary residence, this time in West Newton, near Boston. There he quickly wrote The Blithedale Romance, which was based on his disenchantment with Brook Farm. Then he purchased and redecorated Bronson Alcott’s house in Concord, the Wayside. Blithedale was disappointingly received and did not produce the income Hawthorne had expected. He was hoping for a lucrative political appointment that would bolster his finances; in the meantime, he wrote a campaign biography of his old friend Franklin Pierce. When Pierce won the presidency, Hawthorne was in 1853 rewarded with the consulship in Liverpool, Lancashire, a position he hoped would enable him in a few years to leave his family financially secure.

Last years
The remaining 11 years of Hawthorne’s life were, from a creative point of view, largely anticlimactic. He performed his consular duties faithfully and effectively until his position was terminated in 1857, and then he spent a year and a half sight-seeing in Italy. Determined to produce yet another romance, he finally retreated to a seaside town in England and quickly produced The Marble Faun. In writing it, he drew heavily upon the experiences and impressions he had recorded in a notebook kept during his Italian tour to give substance to an allegory of the Fall of man, a theme that had usually been assumed in his earlier works but that now received direct and philosophic treatment.

Back in the Wayside once more in 1860, Hawthorne devoted himself entirely to his writing but was unable to make any progress with his plans for a new novel. The drafts of unfinished works he left are mostly incoherent and show many signs of a psychic regression, already foreshadowed by his increasing restlessness and discontent of the preceding half dozen years. Some two years before his death he began to age very suddenly. His hair turned white, his handwriting changed, he suffered frequent nosebleeds, and he took to writing the figure “64” compulsively on scraps of paper. He died in his sleep on a trip in search of health with his friend Pierce.

Major novels
The main character of The Scarlet Letter is Hester Prynne, a young married woman who has borne an illegitimate child while living away from her husband in a village in Puritan New England. The husband, Roger Chillingworth, arrives in New England to find his wife pilloried and made to wear the letter A (meaning adulteress) in scarlet on her dress as a punishment for her illicit affair and for her refusal to reveal the name of the child’s father. Chillingworth becomes obsessed with finding the identity of his wife’s former lover. He learns that Hester’s paramour is a saintly young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth then proceeds to revenge himself by mentally tormenting the guilt-stricken young man. Hester herself is revealed to be a compassionate and splendidly self-reliant heroine who is never truly repentant for the act of adultery committed with the minister; she feels that their act was consecrated by their deep love for each other. In the end Chillingworth is morally degraded by his monomaniac pursuit of revenge, and Dimmesdale is broken by his own sense of guilt and publicly confesses his adultery before dying in Hester’s arms. Only Hester can face the future optimistically, as she plans to ensure the future of her beloved little girl by taking her to Europe.

The House of the Seven Gables is a sombre study in hereditary sin based on the legend of a curse pronounced on Hawthorne’s own family by a woman condemned to death during the witchcraft trials. The greed and arrogant pride of the novel’s Pyncheon family down the generations is mirrored in the gloomy decay of their seven-gabled mansion, in which the family’s enfeebled and impoverished poor relations live. At the book’s end the descendant of a family long ago defrauded by the Pyncheons lifts his ancestors’ curse on the mansion and marries a young niece of the family.

In The Marble Faun a trio of expatriate American art students in Italy become peripherally involved to varying degrees in the murder of an unknown man; their contact with sin transforms two of them from innocents into adults now possessed of a mature and critical awareness of life’s complexity and possibilities.

Hawthorne’s high rank among American fiction writers is the result of at least three considerations. First, he was a skillful craftsman with an impressive arthitectonic sense of form. The structure of The Scarlet Letter, for example, is so tightly integrated that no chapter, no paragraph, even, could be omitted without doing violence to the whole. The book’s four characters are inextricably bound together in the tangled web of a life situation that seems to have no solution, and the tightly woven plot has a unity of action that rises slowly but inexorably to the climactic scene of Dimmesdale’s public confession. The same tight construction is found in Hawthorne’s other writings also, especially in the shorter pieces, or “tales.” Hawthorne was also the master of a classic literary style that is remarkable for its directness, its clarity, its firmness, and its sureness of idiom.

A second reason for Hawthorne’s greatness is his moral insight. He inherited the Puritan tradition of moral earnestness, and he was deeply concerned with the concepts of original sin and guilt and the claims of law and conscience. Hawthorne rejected what he saw as the Transcendentalists’ transparent optimism about the potentialities of human nature. Instead he looked more deeply and perhaps more honestly into life, finding in it much suffering and conflict but also finding the redeeming power of love. There is no Romantic escape in his works, but rather a firm and resolute scrutiny of the psychological and moral facts of the human condition.

A third reason for Hawthorne’s eminence is his mastery of allegory and symbolism. His fictional characters’ actions and dilemmas fairly obviously express larger generalizations about the problems of human existence. But with Hawthorne this leads not to unconvincing pasteboard figures with explanatory labels attached but to a sombre, concentrated emotional involvement with his characters that has the power, the gravity, and the inevitability of true tragedy. His use of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter is particularly effective, and the scarlet letter itself takes on a wider significance and application that is out of all proportion to its literal character as a scrap of cloth.

Hawthorne’s work initiated the most durable tradition in American fiction, that of the symbolic romance that assumes the universality of guilt and explores the complexities and ambiguities of man’s choices. His greatest short stories and The Scarlet Letter are marked by a depth of psychological and moral insight seldom equaled by any American writer.




Type of work: Novel
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Type of lot: Psychological romance
Time of plot: 1850
Locale: Salem, Massachusetts
First published: 1851


Woven into the ingenious plot of this novel is the theme that the sins of the fathers are passed on to the children in succeeding generations. The book reflects the author's interest in New England history and his doubts about a moribund New England that looked backward to past times.



Principal Characters

Colonel Pyncheon, a stern Massachusetts magistrate who, during the famous witchcraft trials of the seventeenth century, sent to his death a man whose property he coveted for himself. Cursed by his innocent victim, the Colonel died on the day his big new house, the House of the Seven Gables, built on his victim's land, was officially opened to guests.
Matthew Maule, Colonel Pyncheon's victim, who swore that his unjust accuser should drink blood, as Colonel Pyncheon did when he died.
Thomas Maule, the son of Matthew Maule. As the head carpenter building the House of the Seven Gables, young Maule took an opportunity to build a secret recess in which was hidden the deed by which the Pyncheons hoped to claim a vast domain in Maine.
Jaffrey Pyncheon, one of Colonel Pyncheon's nineteenth century descendants and a man like his ancestor in many ways. A judge, a member of Congress at one time, a member of many boards of directors, and an aspirant to the governorship of his state, he is a rich man who through his own efforts has multiplied the fortune he inherited from his uncle. Although he tries to present himself in a good light. Jaffrey Pyncheon is a hard man and not entirely honest. He destroys one of his uncle's wills, which names his cousin Clifford as heir, and he stands by while his cousin is wrongly sent to prison for a murder he did not commit. Convinced that his wronged cousin knows of additional family wealth hidden by their uncle, Jaffrey threatens the broken man with confinement in an insane asylum if the hiding place of the remaining wealth is not revealed. Fortunately for his cousin, Jaffrey dies of natural causes induced by emotion while making his threats.
Clifford Pyncheon, Jeffrey's unfortunate cousin, who serves a thirty-year prison term for allegedly murdering his uncle, who really died of natural causes. A handsome, carefree, beauty-loving man at one time, he emerges from prison three decades later a broken, pale, and emaciated wreck of a human being, content to hide away in
the House of the Seven Gables, where he is looked after by his sister Hepzibah and their young cousin Phoebe. Clifford's mind is weakened and his spirit so broken by misfortune that he actually does strange, if harmless, acts, so that Jaffrey's threat to force Clifford into an asylum could be made good. At Jaffrey's unexpected death Clifford feels a great release after having been oppressed by his cousin for so long. Clifford, his sister, and Phoebe Pyncheon inherit Jeffrey's fortune and have the promise of a comfortable life in the future.
Hepzibah Pyncheon, Clifford's spinster sister, who lived alone for many years in shabby gentility in the House of the Seven Gables while her brother was in prison. She has few friends, for she seldom leaves the house, and she is so nearsighted that she always wears a frown, making people think she is a cross and angry woman. After the return of her brother from prison, she sets up a little shop in her house to try to provide for herself and Clifford, to whom she is devoted. Opening the shop is very difficult for her, as she dislikes meeting people and believes that entering trade is unladylike for a member of the Pyncheon family.
Phoebe Pyncheon, a young, pretty, and lively girl from the country. She comes to live with Hepzibah when her mother, a widow, remarries. Phoebe takes over the little cent-shop and makes it a profitable venture for Hepzibah. Phoebe also brings new life to the House of the Seven Gables by cheering it with her beauty and song, as well as by tending the neglected flowers and doing other homely tasks. She is highly considerate of her elderly cousins and spends much of her time entertaining Clifford.
Mr. Holgrave, a liberal-minded young daguerreotyp-ist who rents a portion of the House of the Seven Gables from Hepzibah. An eager, energetic young man of twenty-two, he falls in love with Phoebe Pyncheon, and they are engaged to be married. When Phoebe inherits a third of Jaffrey's large fortune, Holgrave decides to become more conservative in his thinking. It is he who reveals the secret recess hiding the now-useless deed to the vast tract of land in Maine. He knows the secret because he is a descendant of Thomas Maule. In fact, his name is Maule, but he hides his true identity by assuming for a time the name of Holgrave.
Uncle Venner, an old handyman befriended by the Pyncheons. He is one of the few persons of the town to accept Hepzibah and Clifford as friends when they are in unfortunate circumstances.


The Story

The House of the Seven Gables was a colonial house built in the English style of half-timber and half-plaster. It stood on Pyncheon Street in quiet Salem. The house had been built by Colonel Pyncheon, who had wrested the desirable site from Matthew Maule, a poor man executed as a wizard. Because Colonel Pyncheon was responsible and because he was taking the doomed man's land, Maule, at the moment of his execution, declared that God would give the Pyncheons blood to drink. Despite this grim prophecy, the Colonel had his house, and its builder was Thomas Maule, son of the old wizard.
Colonel Pyncheon, dying in his great oak chair just after the house had been completed, choked with blood so that his shirtfront was stained scarlet. Although doctors explained the cause of his death as apoplexy, the townsfolk had not forgotten old Maule's prophecy. The time of the Colonel's death was inauspicious. It was said that he had just completed a treaty by which he had bought huge tracts of land from the Indians, but this deed had not been confirmed by the general court and was never discovered by any of his heirs. Rumor also had it that a man was seen leaving the house about the time Colonel Pyncheon died.
More recently, another startling event had occurred at the House of the Seven Gables. Jaffrey Pyncheon, a bachelor, had been found dead in the Colonel's great oak armchair, and his nephew, Clifford Pyncheon, had been sentenced to imprisonment after being found guilty of the murder of his uncle.
These events were in the unhappy past, however, and in 1850, the House of the Seven Gables was the home of Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon, an elderly, single woman, who let one wing of the old house to a young man of radical tendencies, a maker of daguerreotypes, whose name was Mr. Holgrave.
Miss Hepzibah was about to open a shop in one of the rooms of her house. Her brother Clifford was coming home from the state prison after thirty years, and she had to earn money in some way to support him. On the first day of her venture as a storekeeper, Miss Hepzibah proved to be a failure. The situation was saved, however, by the arrival of young Phoebe Pyncheon from the country. Soon she was operating the shop at a profit.
Clifford arrived from the prison a broken man of childish, querulous ways. Once he tried to throw himself from a big arched window which afforded him almost his only contact with the outside world. He was fond of Phoebe, but Miss Hepzibah irritated him with her sullen scowling. For acquaintances, Clifford had Uncle Venner, a handyman who did odd jobs for the neighborhood, and the tenant of the house, Mr. Holgrave, the daguerreotypist.
The only other relative living in town was the highly respected Judge Pyncheon, another nephew of old Jaffrey Pyncheon, for whose murder Clifford had spent thirty years in prison. He was, in fact, the heir of the murdered man, and he had been somehow involved with Clifford's arrest and imprisonment. For these reasons, Clifford refused to see him when the Judge offered to give Clifford and Hepzibah a home at his country seat.
Meanwhile, Phoebe had become friendly with Mr. Holgrave. In turn, he thought that she brought light and hope into the gloomy old house, and he missed her greatly when she returned to her home in the country. Her visit was to be a brief one, however, for she had gone only to make some preparations before coming to live permanently with Miss Hepzibah and Clifford.
Before Phoebe returned from the country, Judge Pyncheon visited the House of the Seven Gables and, over Miss Hepzibah's protest, insisted on seeing Clifford, who, he said, knew a family secret which meant great wealth for the Judge. When at last she went out of the room to summon her brother, Judge Pyncheon sat down in the old chair by the fireplace, over which hung the portrait of the Colonel Pyncheon who had built the house. As the Judge sat in the old chair, his ticking watch in his hand, an unusually strong family likeness could be noted between the stern Judge and his Puritan ancestor in the portrait. Unable to find Clifford to deliver the Judge's message, Miss Hepzibah returned. As she approached the door,, Clifford appeared from within, laughing and pointing to the chair where the Judge sat dead of apoplexy under the portrait of the old Colonel. His shirt front was stained with blood. The wizard's curse had been fulfilled once more; God had given him blood to drink.
The two helpless old people were so distressed by the sight of the dead man that they crept away from the house without notifying anyone and departed on the train. The dead body of the Judge remained seated in the chair.
It was some time before the body was discovered by Holgrave. When Phoebe returned to the house, he admitted her. He had not yet summoned the police because he wished to protect the old couple as long as possible. While he and Phoebe were alone in the house, Holgrave declared his love for her. They were interrupted by the return of Miss Hepzibah and the now calm Clifford. They had decided that to run away would not solve their problem.
The police attributed the Judge's death to natural causes, and Clifford, Miss Hepzibah, and Phoebe became the heirs to his great fortune. It now seemed certain that Jaffrey Pyncheon had also died of natural causes, not by Clifford's hand, and that the Judge had so arranged the evidence to make Clifford appear a murderer.
In a short time, all the occupants of the House of the Seven Gables were ready to move to the Judge's country estate which they had inherited. They gathered for the last time in the old room under the dingy portrait of Colonel Pyncheon. Clifford said he had a vague memory of something mysterious connected with the picture. Holgrave offered to explain the mystery and pressed a secret spring near the picture. When he did so, the portrait fell to the floor, disclosing a recess in the wall. From this niche, Holgrave drew out the ancient Indian deed to the lands which the Pyncheons had claimed. Clifford then remembered he had once found the secret spring. It was this secret that Judge Pyncheon had hoped to learn from Clifford.
Phoebe asked how Holgrave happened to know these facts. The young man explained his name was not Holgrave, but Maule. He was, he said, a descendant of the wizard, Matthew Maule, and of Thomas Maule, who built the House of the Seven Gables. The knowledge of the hidden Indian deed had been handed down to the descendants of Thomas Maule, who built the compartment behind the portrait and secreted the deed there after the Colonel's death. Holgrave was the last of the Maules, and Phoebe the last of the Pyncheons. Matthew Maule's curse had been expiated.


Critical Evaluation

In reputation, The House of the Seven Gables usually stands in the shadow of its predecessor, The Scarlet Letter. It is, however, a rich and solid achievement, a Gothic romance whose characters are among Nathaniel Hawthorne's most complex. The author himself thought it, in comparison with the earlier work, "more characteristic of my mind, and more proper and natural for me to write."
In his preface, Hawthorne explicitly states his moral: "The truth, namely that the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief." This sentiment echoes the biblical adage that "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." Hawthorne's interest in the heritage of sin was probably whetted by the history of his own family. His first American ancestor, William Hathorne (Nathaniel himself added the w to the family name), was a soldier and magistrate who once had a Quaker woman publicly whipped through the streets. William's son John, having, as Nathaniel said, "inherited the persecuting spirit," was a judge at the infamous Salem witch trials, during which a defendant cursed another of the three judges with the cry, "God will give you blood to drink!" Thenceforth, as Hawthorne noted, although the family remained decent, respectable folk, their fortunes began to decline.
The fate of the Pyncheon family of the novel is considerably more dramatic. Matthew Maule's curse on Colonel Pyncheon. who has persecuted him for witchcraft and wrested from him the land on which the seven-gabled house is to be built, is precisely that which Judge John Hathorne had heard in a similar trial. It is apparently fulfilled on the day of the housewarming when Colonel Pyncheon dies of apoplexy, the hemorrhage rising through his throat to stain his white shirt. Hawthorne would have readers believe, however, that such sins as Pyncheon's are not so easily paid for. The family occupies the mansion, but misfortune is their constant lot. There are repeated apoplectic deaths, sometimes heralded by an ominous gurgling in the throat; greed leads Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, like his ancestor, to participate in a trumped-up trial, this time against his own cousin; and years of pride and isolation have thinned the family blood so that, like the scrawny chickens that peck in the Pyncheon garden, they are an unattractive, ineffectual lot. Judge Pyncheon is a monster who hides his avarice and callousness behind a facade of philanthropy and civic service. Clifford, like Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown, is a sensitive soul who is unmanned by his confrontation with evil; after years of imprisonment, he is poised on the brink of madness. Hepzibah, a spinster who has spent most of her life waiting for her brother's release, is virtually helpless either to resolve her precarious financial situation or to deal with her malevolent cousin.
Only young Phoebe possesses both goodness and energy. It is significant that she is the "country cousin" whose father married beneath his rank; Hepzibah observes that the girl's self-reliance must have come from her mother's blood. Thus Hawthorne casts his vote for the energizing effects of a democratic, as opposed to an aristocratic, social system; he has Holgrave, the daguerreotypist, support this view with the comment that families should continually merge into the great mass of humanity, without regard to ancestry.
Holgrave is the other fully vital character in the novel. He is one of Hawthorne's most charming creations: a perceptive, adventurous man who has been, it seems, almost everywhere and done almost everything. His conversations with Phoebe reveal him as a radical who believes that the past "lies upon the Present like a giant's dead body," preventing any generation's true fulfillment—a thesis frequently expressed by Hawthorne's contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Holgrave goes so far as to suggest that institutional buildings should "crumble to ruin once in twenty years, or thereabouts, as a hint to the people to examine into and reform the institutions which they symbolize." He is also a psychologist; his daguerreotypes, which go beyond mere pictorial likeness to expose personality, symbolize his insight into human nature.
At the end of the novel, readers are led to believe that the curse is broken as Phoebe, the last the Pyncheons, plans to marry Holgrave, who turns out to be a descendant of old Matthew Maule. The curse's effects can all be explained naturally: Holgrave observes that perhaps old Maule's prophecy was founded on knowledge that apoplectic death had been a Pyncheon trait for generations. Avarice and cruelty can certainly be passed on by example; and pride, isolation, and inbreeding can account for the "thin-bloodedness" of the once-aristocratic family. Now, as Phoebe, whose blood has already been enriched by plebeian stock, and Holgrave, who has escaped the stifling influence of his own declining family by traveling widely, replace a tradition of hatred with that of love, it seems plausible that the curse may indeed have run its course. Perhaps the chain of ugly events—what Chillingworth of The Scarlet Letter termed "dark necessity"—can be terminated by positive acts of good will. The novel is replete with Gothic characteristics; mystery, violence, a curse, gloomy atmosphere, archaic diction, and visits from the spirit world. Yet, though it is not realistic, it demonstrates what Henry James called Hawthorne's "high sense of reality," in that it reveals profound truths about how the effects of the sins of the fathers are felt by children for generations to come. The ending discloses that, although he recognized the deterministic effects of heredity, environment, and man's predisposition to evil, Hawthorne was essentially a hopeful man who believed that the individual possesses a residuum of will that can cope with and perhaps change "dark necessity."




Type of work: Novel
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Type of plot: Psychological romance
Time of plot: Early days of the Massachusetts Colony
Locale: Boston
First published: 1850


The Scarlet Letter is Hawthorne's masterpiece and his most profound exploration of sin, alienation, and spiritual regeneration. The novel traces the effects—social, moral, psychological, and spiritual—of Hester Prynne's adulterous relationship with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale on four people: the lovers themselves, their daughter Pearl, and Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband.


Principal Characters

Hester Prynne, an attractive young woman living among the Puritans of Boston during the 1650s. She becomes a martyr because she, presumably a widow, bears a child out of wedlock; this sin results in her being jailed and then publicly exhibited on a pillory for three hours. When she is released from jail, she must wear for a lifetime a scarlet "A" upon her bosom. She becomes a seamstress, stitching and embroidering to earn a living for herself and for Pearl, her child. After her one act of sin, Hester behaves with such uncanny rectitude she seems an American Jeanne d'Arc, battling not against opposing armies and bigotry but against bigotry alone, the most formidable of antagonists. Hester refuses to name the child's father, who is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, her minister; she does not quail when her supposedly dead husband, Roger Chillingworth, comes from out of the forest to witness her appearance on the pillory; and without complaint or self-pity she fights her way back to respectability and the rights of motherhood. Her situation is made more poignant (and heroic) by Dimmesdale's lack of sufficient moral courage to confess that he is Pearl's father. Hester seems to need no partner to share her guilt. Her life ends in tragedy (as it must) when Dimmesdale dies, but the reader feels that Hester—as strong as the oak in American clipper ships—will stoutly and resolutely make her way through life.
The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a minister in Boston. Emotionally he is drawn and halved by the consequences of his sin with Hester, and he is pulled apart by responsibility. Should he confess and thus ruin his career or should he keep silent and continue the great good resulting from his sin-inspired sermons? Outwardly Dimmesdale is a living man, but inwardly he is the rubble and wreckage resulting from a Puritan conscience. One night he drags himself (along with Hester and Pearl) up to the pillory where he feels he should have stood long ago; but this confession is a sham, for only Roger Chillingworth (hidden in the darkness) observes the trio. Finally, at the end of his Election Day sermon, he takes Hester and Pearl by the hand, ascends the pillory, confesses publicly, and sinks down dead. When his clothing is removed, Puritans see the stigma of an "A" on the skin of his chest. Hawthorne does not judge Dimmes-dale's weakness or strength; he says simply, "This is Dimmesdale."
Roger Chillingworth, a "physician" who might better be called "Evil." Thought to have been killed by the Indians, he reenters Hester's life when she first stands on the pillory. Pretending to minister to the physically ailing Dimmesdale, he tries only to confirm his suspicion that the minister is Pearl's father. When Arthur and Hester, in a desperate act of hope, book passage on a ship to England, Chillingworth also signs up for the voyage, and Hester knows she can never escape him. Although motivated by his wife's bearing another man's child, Chillingworth nevertheless seems chillingly sinister in his revenge. Conniving, sly, monomaniacal, he is more a devilish force than a man.
Pearl, Hester's elfin, unpredictable daughter. She refuses to repeat the catechism for the governor and thus risks being taken from her mother. At a meeting of Hester and Arthur in the forest she treats the minister as a rival; when he kisses her on the brow, she rushes to a stream and washes away the unwelcome kiss.
Governor Bellingham, of the Massachusetts Colony. He thinks Hester is unfit to rear Pearl but is persuaded to allow them to remain together by the pleas of Dimmesdale.
The Reverend John Wilson, a stern divine. Early in the story he exhorts Dimmesdale to force Hester to reveal Pearl's father.
Mistress Higgins, the bitter-tempered sister of the governor; she is simply and literally a witch.


The Story

On a summer morning in Boston, in the early days of the Massachusetts Colony, a throng of curious people had gathered outside the jail in Prison Lane. They were there looking for Hester Prynne, who had been found guilty of adultery by a court of stern Puritan judges. Condemned to wear on the breast of her gown the scarlet letter, the "A" which stood for adulteress, she was to stand on the stocks before the meetinghouse, so that her shame might be a warning and a reproach to all who saw her. The crowd waited to see her ascend the scaffold with her child in her arms, and there for three hours bear her shame alone.
At last, escorted by the town beadle, the woman appeared. She moved serenely to the steps of the scaffold and stood quietly under the staring eyes that watched her public disgrace. It was whispered in the gathering that she had been spared the penalty of death or branding only through the intercession of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, into whose church she had brought her scandalous sin.
While Hester stood on the scaffold, an elderly, almost deformed man appeared from the edge of the forest. When her agitation made it plain that she had recognized him, he put his finger to his lips as a sign of silence.
Hester's story was well known in the community. She was the daughter of an ancient house of decayed fortune, and when she was young, her family had married her to a husband who had great repute as a scholar. For some years, they had lived in Antwerp. Two years before, the husband had sent his wife alone across the ocean to the Massachusetts Colony, intending to follow her as soon as he could put his affairs in order. There had been news of his departure, but his ship had never been heard of again. Hester, a young, attractive widow, had lived quietly in Boston until the time of her disgrace.
The scaffold of the pillory on which Hester stood was situated next to the balcony of the church where all the dignitaries of the colony sat to watch her humiliation. The ministers of the town called on her to name the man who with herself was equally guilty, and the most eloquent of those who exhorted her was the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, her pastor. Still Hester refused to name the father of her child, and she was led back to the prison after her period of public shame had ended.
On her return to prison, Hester was found to be in a state of great nervous excitement. When at last medical aid was called, a man was found who professed knowledge of medicine. His name was Roger Chillingworth, he told the jailer, and he had recently arrived in town after a year of residence among the Indians. Chilling-worth was the stranger who had appeared so suddenly from the forest while Hester stood on the scaffold that afternoon, and she knew him as her husband, the scholar Prynne. His ship had been wrecked on the coast, and he had been captive among the Indians for many months.
He also asked Hester to name the father of her child. When she refused, he stated that he would remain in Boston to practice medicine, swearing at the same time that he would devote the rest of his life to discovering the identity of the man who had dishonored him. He commanded Hester not to betray the relationship between them, and she swore she would keep his secret.
When Hester's term of imprisonment was over, she found a small house on the outskirts of town, far removed from other habitation. There with her child, who she had named Pearl, she settled down to earn a living from needlework, an outcast from society and still wearing the scarlet emblem on her breast.
Hester Prynne dressed her child in bright, highly ornamented costumes, in contrast to her own sober dress. As she grew up, Pearl proved to be a capricious, wayward child, hard to discipline. One day, Hester called on Governor Bellingham to deliver a pair of embroidered gloves. She also wanted to see him about the custody of Pearl, for there was a movement afoot among the strict church members to take the child away from her. In the garden of the governor's mansion, Hester found the governor, Dimmesdale, and old Roger Chillingworth. Because the perverse Pearl would not repeat the catechism, the governor was about to separate the child from her mother. Dimmesdale saved the situation, however, by a persuasive speech which resulted in the decision to let Hester keep Pearl, who seemed to be strangely attracted to the minister.
Roger Chillingworth had become intimately acquainted with Arthur Dimmesdale both as his parishioner and his doctor, for the minister had been in ill health ever since the physician had come to town. As the two men lodged in the same house, the physician came to know Dimmes-dale's inmost thoughts and feelings. The minister was much perturbed by thoughts of conscience and guilt, but when he expressed these ideas in generalities to his congregation, the people thought him only the more righteous. Chillingworth, though, was now convinced that Dimmesdale was Pearl's father, and he conjured up for the sick man visions of agony, terror, and remorse.
One night, unable to sleep, Dimmesdale walked to the pillory where Hester Prynne had stood in ignominy. He went up the steps and stood for a long time in the same place. A little later Hester, who had been watching at a deathbed, came by with little Pearl. The minister called them to the scaffold, saying that they had been there before when he lacked courage to stand beside them. Thus the three stood together, Dimmesdale acknowledging himself as Pearl's father, and Hester's partner in sin. This striking tableau was not unobserved. Roger Chillingworth watched them from the shadows.
Hester Prynne was so shocked by Dimmesdale's feeble and unhealthy condition that she was determined to see her former husband and plead with him to free the sick minister from his evil influence.
One day, she met the old physician gathering herbs in the forest and begged him to be merciful to his victim. Chillingworth, however, was inexorable; he would not forgo his revenge on the man who had wronged him. Hester then advised him that she would tell Arthur Dimmesdale their secret and warn him against his physician. A short time later, Hester and Pearl intercepted Dimmesdale in the forest as he was returning from a missionary journey to the Indians. Hester confessed her true relation with Chillingworth and warned the minister against the physician's evil influence. She and the clergyman decided to leave the colony together in secret, to take passage in a ship then in the harbor, and to return to the Old World. They were to leave four days later, after Dimmesdale had preached the Election Sermon.
Election Day, on which the new governor was to be installed, was a holiday in Boston, and the port was lively with the unaccustomed presence of sailors from the ship in the harbor. In the crowd was the captain of the vessel, with whom Hester had made arrangements for her own and Dimmesdale's passage. During the morning, the captain informed Hester that Roger Chillingworth had also arranged for passage on the ship. Filled with despair, Hester turned away and went with Pearl to listen to Dimmesdale's sermon.
Unable to find room within the church, she stood at the foot of the scaffold where at least she could hear the sound of his voice. As the procession left the church, everyone had only words of praise for the minister's inspired address. Dimmesdale walked like a man in a dream, and once he tottered and almost fell. When he saw Hester and Pearl at the foot of the scaffold, he stepped out of the procession and called them to him. Then, taking them by the hand, he climbed the steps of the pillory. Almost fainting, but with a voice terrible and majestic, the minister admitted his guilt to the watching people. With a sudden motion, he tore the ministerial band from across his breast and sank dying to the platform. When he thus exposed his breast, witnesses said that the stigma of the scarlet letter "A" was seen imprinted on the flesh above his heart.
Chillingworth, no longer able to wreak his vengeance on Dimmesdale, died within the year, bequeathing his considerable property to Pearl. For a time, Hester disappeared from trie colony, but years later, she returned alone to live in her humble thatched cottage and to wear as before the scarlet emblem on her breast. The scarlet letter, which was once her badge of shame, however, became an emblem of her tender mercy and kindness— an object of veneration and reverence to those whose sorrows she alleviated by her deeds of kindness and mercy. At her death, she directed that the only inscription on her tombstone should be the letter "A."


Critical Evaluation

Since it was first published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print, nor indeed out of favor with literary critics. It is inevitably included in listings of the five or ten greatest American novels. Considered the best of Nathaniel Hawthorne's writings, it may also be the most typical—the strongest statement of his recurrent themes and an excellent example of his craftsmanship.
The main thematic emphasis in The Scarlet Letter, as in most of Hawthorne's work, is on sin and its effects upon both the individual and society. It is frequently noted that Hawthorne's preoccupation with sin springs from the Puritan-rooted culture in which he lived and from his awareness of two of his own ancestors who presided over bloody persecutions during the Salem witchcraft trials. It is difficult for readers from a more permissive era to conceive of the heavy import that seventeenth century New Englanders placed upon transgression of the moral code. As Yvor Winters had pointed out, the Puritans, believing in predestination, viewed the commission of any sin as evidence of the sinner's corruption and preordained damnation. The harsh determinism and moralism of those early years, however, had softened somewhat by Hawthorne's day; furthermore, he had worked out, perhaps during the twelve years he spent in contemplation and semi-isolation, his own notions about man's will and his nature. Thus The Scarlet Letter proves him closer to Paul Tillich than to Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards. Like Tillich, Hawthorne saw sin not as an act but as a state—that which Existentialists refer to as alienation, and which Tillich describes as a threefold separation from God, other men, and self. This alienation needs no fire and brimstone as consequence; it is in itself a hell.
There is a certain irony in the way in which this concept is worked out in The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne's pregnancy forces her sin to public view, and she is compelled to wear the scarlet "A" as a symbol of her adultery. Yet, although she is apparently isolated from normal association with "decent" folk, Hester, having come to terms with her sin, is inwardly reconciled to God and self; and she ministers to the needy among her townspeople, reconciling herself with others until some observe that her "A" now stands for "Able." On the other hand, Arthur Dimmesdale, her secret lover, and Roger Chillingworth, her secret husband, move freely in society and even enjoy prestige: Dimmesdale as a beloved pastor, Chillingworth as a respected physician. But Dimmesdale's secret guilt gnaws so deeply inside him that he views himself with scorn as a hypocrite, and he is unable to make his peace with God or to feel at ease with his fellowman. For his part, Chillingworth has permitted revenge to permeate his spirit so much that his alienation is absolute; he refers to himself as a "fiend," unable to impart forgiveness or change his profoundly evil path. His is the unpardonable sin—unpardonable not because God will not pardon, but because his own nature has become so depraved that he cannot repent or accept forgiveness.
Hawthorne clearly distinguishes between sins of passion and those of principle. Finally, even Dimmesdale, traditional Puritan though he is, becomes aware of the difference:

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.

Always more concerned with the consequences than the cause of sin, Hawthorne anticipated Sigmund Freud's theories of the effects of guilt to a remarkable extent. Hester, whose guilt is openly known, grows through her suffering into an extraordinarily compassionate and understanding woman, a complete person who is able to come to terms with life—including sin. Dimmesdale, who yearns for the relief of confession, but hides his guilt to safeguard his role as pastor, is devoured internally. Again like Freud, Hawthorne recognized that spiritual turmoil may produce physical distress. Dimmesdale 's well-being diminishes, and eventually he dies from no apparent cause other than continual emotional stress. The Scarlet Letter has links with a number of Hawthorne's shorter works. Dimmesdale reminds one of Young Goodman Brown, who, having once glimpsed the darker nature of mankind, must forevermore view humanity as corrupt and hypocritical; and of Parson Hooper in "The Minister's Black Veil," who continues to perform the duties of his calling with eloquence and compassion but is forever separated from the company of men by the veil which he wears as a symbol of secret sin. Chillingworth is essentially like Ethan Brand, the limeburner who found the unpardonable sin in his own heart: "The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its mighty claims!"
Hawthorne's craftsmanship is splendidly demonstrated in The Scarlet Letter. The structure is carefully unified, with three crucial scenes at the beginning, middle, and end of the action taking place on the scaffold. The scarlet "A" itself is entwined into the narrative repeatedly, as a symbol of sin or of shame, as a reminder of Hester's ability with the needle and her ableness with people, and in Dimmesdale's case, as evidence of the searing effects of secret guilt. Several times there is forewarning or suggestion that is fulfilled later in the book: for example, notice is made that Pearl, the impish child of Hester and Dimmesdale, seems to lack complete humanity, perhaps because she has never known great sorrow; at the end of the story, when Dimmesdale dies, readers are told that "as [Pearl's] tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it."
Hawthorne's skill as a symbolist is fully in evidence. As one critic has noted, there is hardly a concrete object in the book that does not do double duty as a symbol: the scarlet letter, the sunlight that eludes Hester, the scaffold of public notice, the armor in which Hester's shame and Pearl's elfishness are distorted and magnified—also serve as central symbols in this, the greatest allegory of a master allegorist.



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