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“The author should be in his work like God is in the universe present everywhere and visible nowhere”-Gustave Flaubert. Many fictional authors like to present their ideas and views through their writings. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is an example of a novel where the author’s life is evident in the novel. Hawthorne’s Puritan background and his life experiences contributed to his creation of The Scarlet Letter, one of the most famous novels about Puritan life. In this novel, Hester Prynne, the central character, is required to wear the scarlet letter “A” on her chest to depict her shame to the public. She spends her whole life paying for her sin. It is the first novel that demonstrates the harsh Puritan lifestyle and beliefs. It is a masterful exploration of humanity’s unending struggle with sin, guilt, and pride. Different themes in The Scarlet Letter present Hawthorne’s personal beliefs. The Scarlet Letter is a reflection of Hawthorne’s personal life and views.
Hawthorne’s past and family life influenced the novel, The Scarlet Letter. He relies on his own experience because he is attempting to give a genuine picture of the times by presenting a realistic setting and accurate puritanical philosophies (“Background”). Hawthorne lived a relatively withdrawn life devoted to developing his literary art. Hawthorne grew up in New England. Robert Spiller writes, “We can understand New England without Hawthorne, yet Hawthorn without New England we cannot comprehend” (Diorio 22). Therefore, the culture of New England is tightly woven into Hawthorne’s life and writing. Because of this influence, Hawthorne uses the early New England colony as the setting of The Scarlet Letter. He describes the setting as a period in the history of New England. “â€¦the grim rigidityâ€¦these good people would have argued some awful business in handâ€¦But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn” (Hawthorne 95). Hawthorne has a special relationship with New England. Perhaps, it is not merely the local color of New England that Hawthorne portrays in his work, but rather the subconscious mind of the reign (Diorio 22). His memory of his childhood was an important part in his life; it influenced his view of Puritan life as well, and ultimately led to the setting of The Scarlet Letter.
Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts. His original name was Nathaniel Hathorne, but he later added a “w” in his last name to separate himself from his Puritan background. Hawthorne’s forefathers were really strict Puritans, and his great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was a judge presiding on the Salem witchcraft trial of 1692 (“Biography”). Although Hawthorne did not experience that strict judgmental period, he later learned more about the history of that period (“Hawthorne”). One of the most important qualities that Hawthorne did not like about Puritans was that they were extremely judgmental. They judged harshly and absolutely. For example, when Hester goes out from the prison and on the way to the scaffold, Hawthorne writes a paragraph of the conversation by a group of women who feel that Hester deserves more serious punishment than she receives. Instead of walking through the crowd, standing on the scaffold, and wearing the scarlet letter “A” on her chest, they argue that she should die for her sin (Hawthorne 56). She has to receive the cold stares from the people everyday. Everyone hates her just because she has a baby without a father. Her punishment for her sin lasts her whole life; this is too harsh (Hawthorne 75). Hawthorne describes the reality of that period in New England, the crucial judgment through people’s daily life. Hawthorne did not like the way that Puritans handled affairs, and he spent a great deal of his life in renouncing the Puritans. Therefore, The Scarlet Letter becomes his best approach to convey to the readers and the world his feeling about the Puritans.
Hawthorne came from a Puritan family of declining fortunes. When he was young, he read through the whole Bible and he went to the church frequently (“Hawthorne”). Therefore, he had some of his own ideas about Puritans, some of these ideas were positive feelings for the Puritans, and some were negative. He also developed these ideas in The Scarlet Letter. Although Hawthorne did not like the way Puritans punished people, he still liked some Puritans’ practices. Puritans helped the poor. This is also reflected in The Scarlet Letter. For example, after Hester knows that what she did was wrong and the acceptance of her sin and fate helps her lead a humble life. She does really well as a seamstress; her handiwork becomes the latest fashion. Therefore, she makes a new life with Pearl through her sewing. She gives her finished productions of her needle to the needy. “None so ready as she to give her little substance to every demand of povertyâ€¦.None so self-devoted as Hester, when pestilence stalked through the town”(Hawthorne 146). Although it takes nearly all her life and sometimes bitter-hearted paupers who she helps do not accept her, she keeps doing this. Hester is finally granted redemption when the townspeople accept her back into the society. Hester does all this to repay her mistakes that she committed before, and she helps many people in the small town. Hawthorne uses Hester to depict the Puritan values he respects and appreciates. Hester represents the values of hard work and charity.
Hawthorne’s father was a sea captain. Like the other men in the town, Hawthorne’s father sailed the seas for a living. He died when the young Nathaniel was four years old. Elizabeth Clarke Manning, his mother, who was only twenty-eight at that time, when she returned to live with her natal family, she raised Hawthorne and his two sisters by herself. She endured the discussion from the neighbors and people around. She worked all the days to earn money in order to give her three children a better life (Baym vii). In Hawthorne’s memory, his mother was really mighty, beautiful and strong. Likewise, in The Scarlet Letter, Hester withdraws to a life of seclusion, and raises her daughter, Pearl, by herself. “â€¦Hester, with a morbid purpose, had bought the richest tissues that could be procured, and allowed her imaginative faculty its fully play in the arrangement and decoration of the dresses which the child wore, before the public eyesâ€¦” (Hawthorne 82). Hester seeks to impose a tender, but a strict control over the infant immortality that is committed to her charge. Hawthorne describes Hester as a perfect mother, though she carries sin all her life. Hester represents many qualities of his own mother.
At the age of nine, Hawthorne suffered a foot injury which caused him to be lame for three years. This misfortune, however, probably fostered his great interest in reading (“Hawthorne”). He liked to read classic literature, such as The Faerie Queen, Pilgrim’s Progress, the works of Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, and endless Gothic romances. These works of literature led him to see the spiritual significance in natural events (Biography 11). After he graduated from Bowdoin College, he returned to his mother’s house in Salem, and read New England history for twelve years as well as writers such as John Milton (“Background”). Perhaps, because of his love for classic readings, he had distinctive interest in literature and writing. The sentiments of these literatures also influenced Hawthorne’s own work in his later life. He was good at describing slight things through exquisite and classical writing. In addition, The Scarlet Letter uses some beautiful illustrations to describe scenes. For example, “â€¦Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, which it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s” (Hawthorne 183). His sensitive words can lead people to another world to view this world.
Hawthorne’s daughter Una, christened after Spenser’s heroine in The Faerie Queen, served as the model for Pearl. Hawthorne acquired the idea of Pearl from Una. Una is Hawthorne’s first child with his wife, Sophia (Baym ix). Una was a talented and natural child in Hawthorne’s eyes, as the same, Pearl is described as a child of nature, an elf from the forest. For Hester, Pearl seems rather an airy sprite. When Pearl looks in her wild, bright, deeply black eyes, it invests her with a strange remoteness and intangibility. It is as if she is hovering in the air and might vanish, like a glimmering light. “At first, she had flirted fancifully with her own image in a pool of water, beckoning the phantom forth, as it declined to venture, seeking a passage foe herself into its sphere of impalpable earth and unattainable sky” (Hawthorne 160). Una has many similarities with Pearl. For example, both of their mothers are romantic, and they both like to make beautiful clothes for their daughters. Both of them are raised free from strict Puritan schooling and Puritan strictures (“Hawthorne”). Therefore, Hawthorne writes Pearl as a character that mirrors his daughter, Una. In addition, because of the unexpected death of Hawthorne’s father, he developed a fear of abandonment. This fear had a lasting impact on both his personal life and writing. Indeed, the theme of the orphaned or abandoned child occurs through much of his work (Diorio 25). In The Scarlet Letter, Pearl is also a character like this. In the other people’s eyes, Pearl is a demon origin. She is a living scarlet letter to Hester. She is treated as an elf and no children want to play with her. She does not grow up with religious education, which makes people think that she is abomination (Hawthorne 92). Hawthorne created Pearl in The Scarlet Letter through his fear of abandonment when he was young and his own daughter, Una.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, as one of the most famous writers, is relevant in themes and attitudes, such as irony, ambiguity, and paradox. He believes in the existence of an active evil, which has the same concept in The Scarlet Letter. In Hawthorn’s family history, his great-great-grandfather Judge Hathorne was cursed by one of the convicted witches. The convicted witch while accompanied by the others issued the curse on her way to the Salem gallows. Later, when Reverend asked her to confess, she exclaimed, “I am no more of a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take my life, God will give you blood to drink.” It is known that the Reverend choked on his own blood in 1717 (“Hawthorne”). As a young man, Hawthorne had been fascinated and deeply moved by this family story when he heard about this. In the Chapter 8, the appearance of old Mistress Hibbins is a specific representation of a witch, the evil. When Hester and Pearl Prynne departed from the house, Mistress Hibbins opens the chamber window, and ask Hester to come to a merry company in the forest, which is a witch party (Hawthorne 106). From this part, Hawthorne describes the evil side through the character, Mistress Hibbins.
Hawthorne treats pride as evil, too. He illustrates miscellaneous aspects of pride in various characters, physical pride, spiritual pride, and intellectual pride (Major Theme). Pride is also another important theme in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne uses different features of the characters to show the aspects of pride. For example, Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, acquiesces to evil and is consumed with vengeance. His pride is wounded by Hester’s sinful act with Dimmesdale. After he comes to New England, his intelligence, learning, especially extensive acquaintance with the medical science and chirurgical profession, makes him have a high social position in the town (Hawthorne 108). He lives with Dimmesdale to heal his pain, but actually, he is torturing him and reprisal the sin of Dimmesdale. He tortures Hester as well. After Hester returns back to the prison, Chillingworth comes to see her, and he makes her promise that she will not reveal to anyone his own identity forever, or he will reveal the identity of her lover (Hawthorne 69). His observation of man’s selfishness helped him to produce Roger Chillingworth. Hawthorn knew Hester’s loneliness, as he had known his wife Sophia’s, because he had experienced it himself. He knew the cruelty which society forced upon Hester by making her wear the scarlet letter because he could feel such cruelty himself (“Hawthorne”). His own pride and selfish makes him create Chillingworth this character.
Nathaniel Hawthorne believes in fate and free will, in his eyes, he believes that all the things that has happened, are happening, and will happen are all fated. For Hawthorne, he thinks that all things happened in his life are arranged by fate. He thought his meet with his wife Sophia was a fate. He later described the occasion of their meeting when writing to Sophia, “At length, a certain dove was revealed to me in the shadow of seclusion as deep as my own had been” (Baym x). He represents his thought of fate and free will into the characters in The Scarlet Letter. Dimmesdale, as one of the most important character under Hawthorne’s pen, experiences fated arrangements, sinful act with Hester, and the pain on the chest matched with the scarlet letter. He dies on the scaffold which is the same scaffold Hester stood on before. One of the most important fates is the encounter with Hester in the forest. The excitement of his feelings lends him unaccustomed physical energy, and hurries him town ward at a rapid pace (Hawthorne 194). The fate interview with Hester becomes the transition of The Scarlet Letter. It is also Hawthorne’s fate encounter with Sophia contribute to The Scarlet Letter.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is an example of an author who uses his own life experiences through the novel. Gustave Flaubert says that an author should represent his life experiences throughout his work, and convey his idea and worldview. Hawthorne’s his Puritan background influenced his view of Puritan and led the setting of The Scarlet Letter. His love for reading classical literatures affected his writing style. His memory of his mother and his childhood led him describe mighty and beautiful image of Hester in The Scarlet Letter. His later life produced the characters in his novels such as Pearl. His beliefs of evil, pride, fate and free will, guilt, the dark view of human nature, also became the main theme of his novel. The Scarlet Letter was created through these different elements. Because Hawthorne enchased his life experiences and thoughts of this world in his novel, The Scarlet Letter could touch the readers and became one of the most famous novels in American literatures.
Reuben Paul P. “Chapter 3: Nathaniel Hawthorne” Perspective in American Literature. March 9, 2009
“Background-Information-Biography”. Monkey Note. March 9, 2009
“Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1860-1864)”. Mystica. March 9, 2009
Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter. London: J.M Dent Sons. 1906.
Nina Baym. The Scarlet Leer A Reading. New York: Twayne Publishers. 1986.
Mary Ann L. Diorio. Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1967.
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