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American Literature 101: Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


The main aim of the American Literature 101 series is to offer readers prominent authors and their impacts on their time. With their distinctive powers and values, American Literature brought a new impact to world literature. Consisting of different races and identities from all around the world, the United States of America both culturally and literarily has an important place in the world. Key elements are individuality and uniqueness, hence the reader can understand the hidden part of human nature. The huge divergent identical background of the United States of America shows the exceptional nation’s culture and literature. With the corresponding texts, the reader can understand the core of the American culture better. Writers of the United States of America have been gathering striking issues throughout centuries.

American Literature series consist of five main articles:

3. American Literature 101: Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

4. American Literature 101: Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville

5. American Literature 101: Moral Dilemma between Europe and America, Daisy Miller by Henry James

American Literature 101: Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

American short-story writer and novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, U.S. He is known as one of the prominent fiction writers in American Literature. Hawthorne’s ancestors have rooted New England immigrants who had been living since the founding generation. Hawthorne was the son of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Clark Hathorne. His father, a sea captain, died in 1808 of yellow fever while at sea. After his father’s death, Hawthorne’s mother Elizabeth moved her and her children back into her parent’s house. Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College from 1821 to 1825. There, he acknowledged his passion for writing and decided to become a writer. Nathaniel Hawthorne was the great-great-grandson of the Salem Witch Trials judge John Hathorne. Therefore, Hawthorne later added a “w” to his name, to keep relations away himself from this side of the family.

During that time, Hawthorne lived in the general environment of his society strictly connected to the rules of the Puritan mindset, and he was a supporter of a covenant with God and devoted themselves to work for the sake of God. Puritan society was against committing a sin, which made them stiffer towards the people who conformed to sinful rules in Christianity. In addition, while Hawthorne was writing, his work was affected by the environmental and incidental problems of his district.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, oil painting by Charles Osgood, circa 1841

In the time, when Hawthorne wrote Scarlet Letter, he was a part of the American Renaissance that occurred in the 19th century, which is considered the romantic period in American literature. Firstly, the movement originated from Europe, at the end of the eighteenth century and came to America in the nineteenth century. American literature between 1830-1865 was considered a romantic period, which corresponds to the writing date of The Scarlet Letter. According to the supporters of romanticism, writers are not interested in facts or details. They emphasized emotion, a love of nature, and imagination; spiritual motives become more important. Mark Bevir explains: ‘’The American romantics believed that personal intuitions have moral authority precisely because individuals contain the divine within themselves.’’ Unlike European romanticism, the American romanticism movement recognized the writers celebrating American beauty and began to create their own cultural identity with the new writing style. This was because they thought the power of their writing style was under English- European impact. Mark Bevir states, ‘’American romanticism differed from British in its close relationship to both Unitarianism and frontier individualism.’’

The Scarlet Letter by Hugues Merle (1861), Hester Prynne and Pearl are in the foreground and Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth are in the background

Scarlet Letter takes place in the Puritan town of New England. A crowd gets together to witness the punishment of Hester Prynne, who had a child in the absence of her husband, and who was found guilty of committing a sin. She was sent to the town prison with her infant daughter, Pearl, and with the scarlet letter “A” on her dress which is an indicator of Hester's sin. She thinks that her husband, Roger Chillingworth has been lost at the sea and died. However, during the execution of Hester, he comes back and finds her with the baby girl. Villagers of the town judge Hester because of her affair, and as an example of Puritan society, they immensely blame her for having a child without a husband. Hester’s illegitimate child counted as a great sin. As Hawthorne writes, "..the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single holiday, they appeared scarcely graver than most other communities at a period of general affliction."

The Scarlet Letter, 1926 (movie)

Even if Hester accepts that she had an affair with another man, she never revealed his identity. Rather than revealing Pearl's father's name, she decided to wear ‘’A’’. After Hester refused, Chillingworth desires more to find out Hester’s lover's name and starts behaving obsessively. He has introduced himself as a medicine man and covered his real identity to everyone except Hester. Chillingworth learns that the father of Pearl is Arthur Dimmesdale, who is a young priest, one of those pressuring Hester to name the child’s father during her trial. He plans evil things while Hester supports herself by working as a seamstress. Pearl grows into a stubborn, naughty, beautiful child. Excluded by society, they live in a small cottage on the outskirts of Boston. When community officials want to detain Pearl from Hester, Arthur Dimmesdale prevents it from happening and supports Hester to change the community's mind. However, Arthur gets a disease because of the burden. He relates himself to the results of Hester’s exclusion and thinks about his actions and although he wants to tell the truth to everyone, he cannot find the courage. Hence, day by day, his situation gets worse. He stops eating and sleeping. When Chillingworth found out that Arthur was a hidden lover, he determines to act as a friend. Even if he aims to ruin Dimmesdale, he doesn't act like it.

Hester’s situation is accepted by society as time passes. Her attitude towards people and her mild-hearted personality affects every person in the town. On the other hand, Arthur becomes very ill, and he feels cursed by the mercy of God. Dimmesdale cannot stand the guilt and goes to the square where Hester was punished years earlier and shouts. Yet, he still disguises his sin and cannot confess it in public. Several days later, Hester decides to meet Dimmesdale in the forest, where she removes the scarlet letter from her dress and tells Arthur about her husband and his desire for revenge towards him. As soon as she told the secret to Arthur, she persuades Arthur to leave and that they can start a new life in Europe. However, as Arthur reaches downtown, he is aware that he is dying and there is no redemption for him. He was torn between his sin and conscience. Finally, Dimmesdale is crushed due to his guilt and admits his sin to the crowd. He eventually died in the arms of Hester. After this tragic incident, Hester takes Pearl and starts a different life in Europe. In the following years, she comes back to Boston where she died and where she shares the same grave with Dimmesdale.

The Scarlet Letter, 1926 (movie)

As mentioned, Puritan society is so dependent on their rules. Their religious principles are above everything. For this society, 'A' represent shame and constantly reminds sin to Hester. With this shame, she doesn’t have a place in society. She is "separated" from her child which is why she accepts this accusation without questioning the rules embodied by the Puritan society. Although initially, nobody understands the 'A' symbol, this became a life force for Hester. As Hawthorne wrote in the novel, “The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. 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.” Being an outcast in society turns out a price for Hester and gains self-confidence by learning how independent a woman can be. Even if this process is not easy for Hester, she manages to overcome it. Yet, she does not forget totally why she lives outside of society. In the beginning, she carries ‘A’ as a drawback but then this symbol turns into an important precept that guides her mindset and inner self. As Hawthorne states, “It was as if she had been made a fresh out of new elements and must perforce be permitted to live her own life and be a law unto herself without her eccentricities being reckoned to her for a crime.” She became both her lawyer and judgment; in this way she embraces this life and became her own master. Just to figure out how one can live without caring about people's thoughts and society pressure.

Then she occupies herself with needlework. She designs her art which is combined with her misery and hope. Hester finds a way to express her emotions with the help of the needlework. She finds a place for gaining money and presents what she was living. As Hawthorne said: ‘’Hester sought not to acquire anything beyond a subsistence, of the plainest and most ascetic description, for herself, and a simple abundance for her child’’. To her, this is not more than gaining money, however, one can see that the dress which she made for her child, Pearl, has another meaning. At the same time, society slowly started to respect her, due to her isolation and self-reliance. On the other hand, she helps other isolated persons in society. ‘’ Much of the time, which she might readily have applied to the better efforts of her art, she employed in making coarse garments for the poor.’’ She develops empathy and makes herself respectable among these poor people and society.

Arthur Dimmesdale’s conflict is the pain inside of his heart and it made him more miserable and guilty. In comparison to Hester, he decides to hide his sin and he approves his punishment. He mentions that his soul is the sinner and society gives him respect because even a true priest like Dimmesdale condemns himself. Yet, the reason behind that condemnation is unknown to society. Of course, this respect makes him feel even worse. He gets a disease due to constant thinking. A conflict between his personality and moral identity leads him to destruction. In the end, he finds the solution by admitting his sin. As Dimmesdale mentions ‘’People of New England, ye, that have loved me! Ye, that has deemed me holy! Behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last- at last! I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood, here, with this woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me at this dreadful moment, from groveling down upon my face!’’ It is a purification for him. Dimmesdale cannot take the weight of the sin which he has kept for years. By forgetting his position in the public, he finds courage and confesses for his salvation.

Hester, Arthur and Pearl illustration by Adam H. Cooper

To sum up, Scarlet Letter offers the readers to observe the American environment when the Puritan mindset was dominant in American society. This was an example of how to live in Puritan society. This still counts as one of the most prominent Hawthorne novels. Even though this story was a long time ago, it is still a relevant topic today. Society is always and will always be a part of one’s identity.


Bevir, Mark, British Socialism and American Romanticism, Jstororg, retrieved (November 1,2021)

Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice, The Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne, HistoryofMassachusettsBlog, retrieved (November 1,2021)

American Romanticism Overview, University of Alabama College of Arts & Sciences, retrieved (November 2, 2021)

T.C. Dokuz Eylül University, Ake 2022 Romanticism in America, Lecture Notes, 2020

Image Resources

Nathaniel Hawthorne, oil painting by Charles Osgood, circa 1841 [Painting]

Hester, Arthur and Pearl illustration by Adam H. Cooper [Illustration ]


Author Photo

Aylin Usta

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