Nathanial Hawthorne and the Scarlet Letter Essay

Beth MaGee 12-06-10 Prof. Sheehan Amer. Lit. Nathanial Hawthorne and the Scarlet Letter If you were able to attend any one of thousands of high schools across the United States, it is inevitable that sooner or later, on almost every English and literature reading list, you would be required to read Nathanial Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Why is Hawthorne considered to be a great American writer? What makes The Scarlet Letter so pivotal to American literature? What is the significance of the ideas put forth in The Scarlet Letter and are they still relevant for today’s readers?

Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is famous for presenting some of the greatest interpretive difficulties in all of American literature, and is frequently regarded as the greatest novel in American literary history. The Scarlet Letter attained an immediate and lasting success because it addressed spiritual, cultural, and moral issues from a uniquely American standpoint. This novel represents the height of Hawthorne’s literary genius and remains relevant for its philosophical and psychological depth, which is why it continues to be read as a classic tale on a universal theme.

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One of the first mass-produced books in America, it sold 2,500 volumes within ten days and earned Hawthorne $1,500 over 14 years. The book became an immediate best-seller in the United States and it initiated Hawthorne’s most lucrative period as a writer. 20th century writer D. H. Lawrence said “there could be no more perfect work of the American imagination than The Scarlet Letter. ” Nathanial Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter in mid-March 1850. This novel is considered his most famous novel and the first quintessentially American novel in style, theme, and language.

Set in seventeenth-century Puritan Massachusetts, the novel centers around the travails of Hester Prynne, who gives birth to a daughter after an adulterous affair. Hawthorne’s novel is concerned with the effects of the affair rather than the affair itself, using Hester’s public shaming as a springboard to explore the lingering taboos of Puritan New England in contemporary society. The Scarlet Letter is famous for presenting some of the greatest interpretive difficulties in all of American literature.

Hawthorne worried that his writings “do not, nor ever will, appeal to the broadest class of sympathies,” and this, he was convinced, meant they would “not attain a very wide popularity. ” In this estimation he was far too modest, for his work has been at the center of the American canon since the first copies of The Scarlet Letter came off the press. So while not recognized by Hawthorne himself as his most important work, the novel is regarded not only as his greatest accomplishment, but frequently as the greatest novel in American literary history.

After it was published in 1850, critics hailed it as initiating a distinctive American literary tradition. The Scarlet Letter was an immediate success for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the United States was still a relatively new society, less than one hundred years old at the time of the novel’s publication. Indeed, still tied to Britain in its cultural formation, Hawthorne’s novel offered a uniquely American style, language, set of characters, and–most importantly–a uniquely American central dilemma.

Besides entertainment, then, Hawthorne’s novel had the possibility of goading change, since it addressed a topic that was still relatively controversial, even taboo. Certainly, Puritan values had eased somewhat by 1850, but not enough to make the novel completely welcome. It was to some degree a career-threatening decision to center his novel around an adulterous affair. But Hawthorne was not concerned with a prurient affair here, though the novel’s characters are.

Hawthorne chose to leave out the details of the adulterous rendezvous between Hester and Dimmesdale entirely. Instead, he was concerned with the aftermath of the affair–the shaming of Hester, the raising of a child borne of sin, and the values of a society that would allow a sin to continue to be punished long after it would seem reasonable. Hawthorne takes advantage of his greatest assets as a writer–his exploration of thoughts and emotions–and uses them to humanize all the parties involved in the affair, as well as to demonize the thoughts that become consumed by it.

Chillingworth, notably, becomes the embodiment of Puritan values, which led people to lynch and destroy in the name of God but motivated in large measure by the people’s own repressed sins of lust, greed, and envy. The Scarlet Letter also became intensely popular upon publication because it had the good fortune of becoming one of America’s first mass-published books. Before The Scarlet Letter, books in America usually were handmade, sold one by one in small numbers. But Hawthorne’s novel benefited from a machine press, and its first run of 2,500 copies sold out immediately.

As a result, then, The Scarlet Letter benefited not only from its implicit controversial subject matter but also from an unusually large available readership. Readers who agreed or disagreed with the book’s choices, however subtly, could spread the word. The novel also benefited because of Hawthorne’s support and respect among New England’s literary establishment. In 1850, adultery was an extremely risque subject, but because Hawthorne had the support of the New England literary establishment, it passed easily into the realm of appropriate reading. Thus, the novel became popular not only with the masses.

It was heralded as “appropriate” reading despite its attention to adulterous love. The Scarlet Letter was also successful because it explored American, specifically Puritan, history. Nathaniel Hawthorne had deep bonds with his Puritan ancestors and created a story that both highlighted their weaknesses and their strengths. His knowledge of their beliefs and his admiration for their strengths were balanced by his concerns for their rigid and oppressive rules. The Scarlet Letter shows his attitude toward these Puritans of Boston in his portrayal of characters, his plot, and the themes of his story.

A 1641 Boston law provided death as punishment for crimes of adultery (the scaffold then was used only for executions), and in 1644, Mary Latham and James Britton were reported in John Winthrop’s journal to have been put to death for adultery. But corporal punishment, or whipping, was the usual punishment in Puritan Massachusetts for adultery, signaling that the ultimate possible punishment offered by the Bible and the law was too harsh. Hawthorne’s ancestor, Major John Hathorne, was magistrate in Salem in 1688, and he ordered a woman named Hester Craford to be severely whipped in public after she gave birth to an illegitimate child.

Later, even these punishments subsided. A Plymouth law of 1694 called for the display of an A on the dress. John Hathorne recorded this case in his journal, and it became the subject of his story, “Endicott and the Red Cross,” in which a Salem woman, required to wear the red letter A, added wonderful embroidery to it. The admonitions in the Bible to not judge others were still trumped by the Puritan society’s desire to punish what seemed to be obvious transgressions against society. Now, however, it seemed that the Puritan communities had found themselves in he difficult place of punishing adultery too leniently, because many found the embroidery of the A too light a sentence, but whipping and execution too harsh. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne offers a way of looking at adultery that would let people suffer appropriately for their own sins without forcing the society to worry about which punishment was proper, that is, redefining it as a private matter in which the society had no compelling interest to get involved. This view was already palatable to many in Hawthorne’s generation.

Again, the admonition of Jesus in the case of an adulteress, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” had not become a guiding principle in the law. But Hawthorne was moving minds to agree that if adultery was a crime, it was a crime of the heart that need not be punished by society, since it had its own consequences in the guilt, shame, and suffering accompanied by personal indiscretion. Hawthorne began The Scarlet Letter in September, 1849, and finished it, amazingly, in February, 1850. Its publication made his literary reputation.

This novel was the culmination of Hawthorne’s own reading, study, and experimentation with themes about the subjects of Puritans, sin, guilt, and the human conflict between emotions and intellect. Since its first publishing in March of 1850, The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print. Even today, Hawthorne’s romance is one of the best-selling books on the market. Perhaps The Scarlet Letter is so popular, generation after generation, because its beauty lies in the layers of meaning and the uncertainties and ambiguities of the symbols and characters.

Each generation can interpret it and see relevance in its subtle meanings and appreciate the genius lying behind what many critics call “the perfect book. ” In The Scarlet Letter, the reader should be prepared to meet the real and the unreal, the actual and the imaginary, the probable and the improbable. What is Truth and what is Imagination? This is the Boston of the Puritans: Bible-reading, rule making, judgment framing. Surrounding it is the forest of the Devil: dark, shadowy, momentarily filled with sunlight, but always the home of those who would break society’s rules.

Enter this setting with Hawthorne and ample imagination, and the reader will find a story difficult to forget. Ironically, it is a novel in which, in terms of action, almost nothing happens. Hawthorne’s emotional, psychological drama revolves around Hester Prynne, who is convicted of adultery in colonial Boston by the civil and Puritan authorities. She is condemned to wear the scarlet letter “A” on her chest as a permanent sign of her sin. The narrative describes the effort to resolve the torment suffered by Hester and her co-adulterer, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale, in the years after their affair.

In fact, the story excludes even the representation of the passionate moment which enables the entire novel. It begins at the close of Hester’s imprisonment many months after her affair and proceeds through many years to her final acceptance of her place in the community as the wearer of the scarlet letter. Hawthorne was masterful in the use of symbolism, and the scarlet letter “A” stands as his most potent symbol, around which interpretations of the novel revolve. At one interpretive pole the “A” stands for adultery and sin, and the novel is the story of individual punishment and reconciliation.

At another pole it stands for America and allegory, and the story suggests national sin and its human cost. Yet possibly the most convincing reading, taking account of all others, sees the “A” as a symbol of ambiguity, the very fact of multiple interpretations and the difficulty of achieving consensus. Harrison, Kathryn. “Nathaniel Hawthorne. ” Introduction. Hester Prynne and the Scarlet Letter. New York: Random House, 2000. 1-6. Print. The main point of this article is an argument for why Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter are unforgettable to numerous readers.

Harrison argues Prynne would have simply suffered and vanished into time like many real life unwed mothers, if Prynne were no more than a simple unwed mother. Harrison states Prynne’s crime was in and of itself inconsequential and argues the real reason she survives in readers’ imaginations is because of her punishment for her crime. This article is important to my research because Harrison argues for why Prynne remains in readers’ minds long after they have finished the book and attempts an explanation for why this is. Hawthorne, Julian. “The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne – Magazine – The Atlantic. The Atlantic — News and Analysis on Politics, Business, Culture, Technology, National, International, and Food – TheAtlantic. com. Apr. 1886. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www. theatlantic. com/magazine/archive/1969/12/-i-the-scarlet-le tter-i-by-nathaniel-hawthorne/4668/>. The main point of this article is the argument that the Scarlet Letter is so impressive to readers and critics alike because it is the first of its kind. Julian Hawthorne also argues the novel is so well remembered and liked because it is alive-the meanings and analysis continue to change and grow with the passing of time, like all great literary works.

The reason this article is important to my research is because it is another view on Hawthorne’s work from that time period. This article also argues that Hawthorne is a ‘genius’ because he wrote his novel in such a way that every reader can take something from the reading, no matter what time or place they read it. Poe, Edgar A. “Twice-Told Tales. ” Graham’s Magazine [Boston] May 1842: 569-77. Print. In this article, Edgar Allen Poe, an editor for Graham’s Magazine, endeavors to explain what the American public found and continues to find so compelling of Hawthorne’s novels and short stories.

This article is important to my paper because it’s an insight into what the people thought of Hawthorne and his work at the time of its publication Walker, Dr. Pierre A. “Why We Still Read Hawthorne 150 Years Later. ” Welcome to Nathaniel Hawthorne in Salem. Salem State College. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <http://www. hawthorneinsalem. org/page/11790/>. The main point of this source is attempting to understand why people still read Hawthorne’s work and why he is considered to be a ‘genius’. Over the years, Hawthorne’s writings have been linked to psychology, utopian movements, gender, history, politics, and many more.

According to this article, these are all correct analysis- who Hawthorne was and what his fiction means are all matters of interpretation. This is the real reason Hawthorne is considered a “genius”. This article is important to my research because Walker argues that interpretation of Hawthorne’s writings change with different audiences and different cultural and social movements. So, Hawthorne will always hold a favored standing in American literature regardless of literary criticism or the passing of time. SOURCE ONE Why do we still read Nathaniel Hawthorne 206 years after his birth and 146 years after his death?

Anyone who has read The Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables knows they’re not exactly page-turners, so what quality makes these writings so ‘great’? This is a necessary question anyone wanting to do research on Hawthorne needs to consider. In his essay, “Why We Still Read Hawthorne 150 Years Later”, Dr. Pierre Walker, associate professor of English at Salem State College, argues “all literature we come to think of as ‘great’ happens to be literature in which every generation of readers, listeners, viewers, and spectators is able to find its own most creative concerns. As he argues further “We don’t hold up The Scarlet Letter to see Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, we hold up The Scarlet Letter to see ourselves. ” Essentially, we think of Hawthorne as a mirror to see ourselves better and the issues we consider important. For example, when Hawthorne was first published, his short stories such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” were assumed to center on religion, since this is what was important at the time. Over the years however, critics have argued these stories center on what was happening at the time the writings were reviewed.

The stories themselves have not changed, only the way we view them. An illustration can be seen during the Feminist Movement, when the stories centered on gender and women’s rights (or lack thereof), or during the Civil Rights Movement, when they were about slavery and historical events. Over the years, Hawthorne’s writings have been linked to psychology, utopian movements, gender, history, politics, and many more. According to Walker, these are all correct analysis- who Hawthorne was and what his fiction means are all matters of interpretation.

This is the real reason Hawthorne is considered a “genius”. Walker ends his argument with this statement for why we still read Hawthorne two centuries later- “Whatever we talk about that is important to us, we are able to figure out ways to make him appropriate to the discussion. Whether this ‘genius’ required to do so is the readers or Hawthorne is debatable, but readers can’t develop the ‘genius’ unless we read Hawthorne in the first place. ” Basically, we read Hawthorne to understand why we still read Hawthorne. SOURCE TWO

In her essay “Hester Prynne and the Scarlet Letter”, Kathryn Harrison explains why the fate of a fictional, seventeenth-century adulteress named Hester Prynne should concern us today. After all, she argues, we live in an age where children are regularly born out of wedlock, so isn’t the concept of a public objection against adultery old-fashioned, if not irrelevant? “Hester Prynne might be forgotten, were she not unforgettable. ” Harrison argues Prynne might have, like countless real-life unwed mothers, have simply suffered and vanished into time, if Prynne were no more than a simple unwed mother.

Harrison states Prynne’s crime was in and of itself inconsequential and argues the real reason she survives in readers’ imaginations is because of her punishment for her crime. “She makes her punishment into a spell which removes her from ‘the ordinary relations with humanity’. ” According to Harrison, Hester Prynne isn’t only the creation of Hawthorne’s imagination but the “herald of the modern American heroine” because Prynne and the women in literature who follow her refuse to accept the existence they are offered.

She offers Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, and Toni Morrison as writers who give examples of female heroines who “shatter the smooth faces of convention and reveal the dark longings of the unconscious. ” The story of Hester Prynne and her ‘mystic symbol’ will “compel by virtue of it’s uncanny light, a light that is to reveal all secrets, and the daybreak that shall unite all who belong together. ” SOURCE THREE Nathaniel Hawthorne has the distinction of being one of the few American authors whose reputation as a writer has not changed with the passing of time, or whose literary standing ‘yo-yos’ as different generations review his works.

With the publication of Twice-Told Tales in 1837, Hawthorne was labeled as a “true American writer” and a “genius” and still holds these descriptions two centuries later. As early as 1830, Hawthorne’s writing was being criticized and assessed. He had many favorable reviews from Longfellow, Poe, Lowell, Melville, James, and Emerson. Edgar Allen Poe, an editor for Graham’s Magazine, endeavors to explain what the American public found and continues to find so compelling of Hawthorne’s novels and short