“The Scarlet Letter” study help

Grace Chalhoub

Background on Hawthorne and “The Scarlet Letter” publication

Nathaniel Hawthorne (or, as he was known at birth, Nathaniel Hathorne) was born in Salem in 1804, bearing a heavy legacy. His great-great-great-grandfather was the Puritan magistrate William Hathorne, who immigrated from Britain to Massachusetts in the early 1600’s, becoming a zealous Puritan judge and inflicting punishments on those who did not strictly follow Puritan tenets. He became infamous as an especially brutal adversary to Quakers, whipping Quaker women in the streets and inflicting other cruel punishments on Quakers. Hawthorne’s remorseless great-great-grandfather John Hathorne was one of the prosecuting judges during the Salem Witch Trials, and would become one of the judges featured in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” In addition, Hawthorne was related to some of the accused witches and wizards that his great-great-grandfather had prosecuted, such as John Proctor and Sarah Wilson. Many scholars assume that Hawthorne was so ashamed of his extremist Puritan ancestry that, in his early twenties, he changed his surname ‘Hathorne’ to ‘Hawthorne.’

In his twenties, Hawthorne began writing and publishing short stories. He published his first novel “Fanshawe” when he was 21-years-old, but later disliked the novel so much that he destroyed every copy that he could find. He first experienced success with his collection of short stories “Twice-Told Tales,” published in 1837. In Graham’s Magazine Edgar Allan Poe gushed praise for some of Hawthorne’s stories, writing that “the style of Mr. Hawthorne is purity itself. His tone is singularly effective- wild, plaintive, thoughtful, and in full accordance with his themes… Upon the whole we look upon him as one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our country has as yet given birth.” While Poe and Hawthorne’s relationship wouldn’t always be amiable, Poe’s review for “Twice-Told Tales” surprised readers who were familiar with the Gothic writer’s normally harsh critiques.

In his early thirties, Hawthorne met the Transcendentalist educator, translator and publisher Elizabeth Peabody. She invited him to her house, where her sickly sister Sophia had remained bedridden for most of her life with incurable migraines. Elizabeth allegedly told her sister that Hawthorne was “handsomer than Lord Byron,” begging her to leave her room and meet him. Shortly after their first meeting, Sophia’s headaches seemed to be mysteriously subsiding. Hawthorne and Sophia married in 1842 and moved to Concord, Mass., where Hawthorne associated with some of the foremost Transcendentalist thinkers and writers, including the essayists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as well as the radical Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott, the father of “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott.  He also befriended Romantic writer Herman Melville, author of “Moby Dick,” and fireside poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. While Hawthorne never became a Transcendentalist like his friends, he was nevertheless influenced by the movement, entertaining some Transcendentalist philosophies in his Romantic and Gothic works.

When published in 1850 following Hawthorne’s few-year stay in his native Salem, “The Scarlet Letter” was an immediate success, and became one of the first mass-produced novels in the United States. However, it wasn’t well-received by everyone, many of whom believed that Hawthorne treated his adulterers with a little too much sympathy. In the United States some readers considered “The Scarlet Letter” pornographic, and across the ocean Czar Nicholas I was so offended by the novel that he banned its publication in Russia. Hawthorne’s lack of concern for societal disdain proved in his favor, as “The Scarlet Letter,” by ignoring moral standards of the time, became known as one of the first psychological novels of the United States.


“The Scarlet Letter” is a Romantic and Gothic novel. For more information, check out the Eagle Edition’s articles on the development of Gothic literature here and the traits of Gothic literature here.

Historical context for Massachusetts Bay Colony

“The Scarlet Letter” takes place in the 1640’s, as indicated by the death of the real-life historical figure John Winthrop (1587-1649) in Chapter 12. The book takes place only 20 years after the pilgrims landed in America in 1620, during the early days of the Puritan church. Boston was merely a town, and New England was still extremely wild and heavily wooded. As Miller writes in “The Crucible,” “the edge of the wilderness was close by. The American continent stretched endlessly west, and it was full of mystery for them. It stood dark and threatening, over their shoulders night and day” and “the Salem folk believed that the virgin forest was the Devil’s last preserve, his home base and the citadel of his final stand. To the best of their knowledge the American forest was the last place on earth that was not paying homage to God.” In “The Scarlet Letter,” the forest poses a very similar threat, where the “Black Man” or Satan can lurk without being seen, and where witches such as Governor Bellingham’s sister go at night to dance with the Devil.    

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was settled by Puritans seeking religious freedom. Puritanism had emerged from the religious turmoil that had been disturbing England since the establishment of the Church of England in 1534. Those with Calvinist ideas–that the Catholic Church was completely corrupt, that Catholic rituals and mass distract from the message of God, and that people are predestined to end up in heaven or hell–complained that Henry VIII and his successors had not gone far enough in purging the Church of England of Catholic influences.

When James I became King in 1603, he grew very annoyed with Puritans’ religious demands and sought to authorize canons demanding complete loyalty to the Church of England and its teachings, and punish Puritan ministers and other dissenters by expelling them from their homes, but the House of Commons never authorized these canons. Meanwhile, Puritans continued to face persecution and intolerance from other Christians.

Puritans who were unhappy with James I’s religious leadership, known as separatists, departed on the Mayflower in 1620 and founded their own Puritan theocracy in the Plymouth Colony. Non-separating Puritans, or Puritans who did not want to completely separate from the Church of England but still sought to follow Puritan doctrine, followed in 1630. Headed by Puritan lawyer John Winthrop, they established Massachusetts Bay Colony, which Winthrop hailed as the “city upon a hill,” or the highest moral example for the rest of the world. They ensured that Puritans held ultimate power in the government by only granting men in the Puritan church the right to vote, and developed strict laws to keep inhabitants in check.  

Puritan tenets were pessimistic and ruthless. Puritans believed that all people were inherently sinful from birth due to the original sin of Adam and Eve (a story that recurs throughout “The Scarlet Letter,” with Hester and Dimmesdale as the parallels of Adam and Eve). They also believed that there was no real way to atone for one’s sins and that no amount of good works can redeem a sin, which explains why Hester is continuously punished by being forced to wear the scarlet letter despite her many good deeds in the community.

One of their beliefs that was inconsistent with most other Christian sects was the belief in predestination. Puritans believed that God had, before their births, selected “the elect” who would inherit heaven after death. While it was almost impossible to determine whether you were going to heaven or to hell, Puritans believed that a strong faith in God and Puritan doctrine was indicative of salvation.   

Historical context in 1850

The idea of marrying for love was relatively new in 1850. 37 years before Hawthorne wrote “The Scarlet Letter,” Jane Austen had published her comedy of manners and social commentary “Pride and Prejudice,” in which protagonist Elizabeth Bennet refuses to marry simply to please her parents, wanting to marry for love. Austen, unlike many of her contemporaries, believed that marrying for love could–and should–be a reality, however difficult to attain, lest couples suffer from marital unhappiness.

Hawthorne goes a step further. He claims that it was inevitable that Hester Prynne would commit adultery because she did not love her husband, and found somebody she truly loved. Women’s rights had not changed drastically from the 17th to 19th century. In the 1600’s, women had few options, and either married or joined a convent, a reality that persisted through the 19th century (although some new options were presenting themselves with the advent of feminism). Marriage’s objective was not love, but comfort, wealth or position. Many young women were not even aware of all that marriage constituted, like sex and childbearing. Therefore, when Hester Prynne agreed to marry Roger Chillingworth, she probably wasn’t sure of what she was agreeing to, but was under the impression that she would be comfortable and secure with Chillingworth. Therefore, when she falls in love with the charismatic Dimmesdale, Hawthorne argues that Hester’s situation had propelled her to commit her sin. So, even though “The Scarlet Letter” takes place two centuries before Hawthorne had published the book, he is commenting on 19th-century society as well as Puritan society.  

Morality novels, or novels with the intent to promote certain morals, were very popular in the Victorian era. But Hawthorne, while encouraging some morals in “The Scarlet Letter,” is more psychological. Rather than condemning the sinners as irredeemably evil, he explores the psychological reasons that his adulterers have sinned. Hester Prynne didn’t love her old, absent husband, and found love in a younger man. Dimmesdale is a normally reserved and self-restrained man, but, as Hawthorne reveals to us, he is also intense, and he succumbs to bouts of passion. Hawthorne’s complex characterization was a breakthrough in American literature, and is one of the many reasons that “The Scarlet Letter” is one of the most beloved and widely read works of American literature.    

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Quotes were obtained from https://www.eapoe.org/works/criticsm/gm542hn1.htm and https://www.fcusd.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=19207&dataid=43149&FileName=CrucibleScriptPDF.pdf