Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter (1850)

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne: (1804-1864)

      Born July 4th, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts. Died May 19th, 1864 in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

      One of his ancestors was a judge in the 1692 Salem witch trials.

      His birthplace is now a museum.

      Joined a utopian transcendentalist farm in 1841 (he left later that year).

      He is famous for his short stories, though The Scarlet Letter is considered his masterpiece.

      His works are considered Romantic.

The Scarlet Letter: (1850)

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.

 

Theme:

Sin and Knowledge. (as with the biblical story of Adam and Eve, sin is associated with knowledge but also results in expulsion)

The contrasting nature of civilization and the wild, town and forest. In the forest, only nature’s rules apply and the characters seem to exploit the freedoms that can be found there. In the town, there is only one authority that matters: human authority and order.

 

Plot:

      Fictional account of events recorded in a manuscript Hawthorne came across.

      Hester Prynne, carrying the scarlet letter “A” as a symbol of adultery on her breast, lives in a cottage with her daughter Pearl, unaccepted by the town.

      Sent to American by a husband, Roger Chillingworth, who allegedly died at sea, Hester has an affair and gives birth to a child while waiting for him.

      Chillingworth appears in town, revealing his identity only to Hester, vowing revenge.

      Chillingworth moves in with Dimmesdale, a minister, to provide him with medical care.

      He discovers a mark on Dimmesdale breast, convincing him that he is Hester’s lover. He proceeds to encourage Dimmesdale’s self-torment.

      Hester and Dimmesdale decide to flee to Europe (with Pearl). Before their ship sets sail, Hester realizes that Chillingworth will be on the same ship as them.

      Dimmesdale takes Hester and Pearl up on the town scaffold and confesses, then dies.

      Frustrated in his revenge, Chillingworth dies a year later.

      Hester and Pearl leave Boston and many years later, Hester returns alone.

      Pearl has married a European aristocrat and has established a family.

      When Hester dies, she is buried next to someone who is also an adulterer, presumably Dimmesdale (there is an “A” on the grave).

 

More:

The Puritans: religious reformers who arrived in Massachusetts in 1630s, known for their intolerance to dissenting ideas and lifestyles.

The Scarlet Letter: initially a symbol of shame, it later becomes a powerful symbol of identity, thus changing from A for ‘Adultery,’ to A for ‘Able’