The Scarlet Letter Background

The Scarlet Letter
Background Notes
(“notes section” of notebook):
Nathaniel Hawthorne
I. Background on Nathaniel Hawthorne
1804-1864 (Born on July 4th)
 Born in Salem, Massachusetts
 His ancestors were wealthy, influential
– William Hathorne
– John Hathorne: presided over the Salem witch trials in
His father died of yellow fever when he
was four years old
 Hawthorne, his mother, and his sisters
lived with his mother’s relatives after his
father’s death
 He graduated from Bowdoin College in
Maine in 1825
E. He returned to Salem where he
struggled as a short story writer for 12
 F. In 1842, he married Sophia Peabody
 G. He published The Scarlet Letter in
1850, which finally brought him
recognition as an author
 H. He died on May 16, 1864 in Plymouth,
New Hampshire
II. Hawthorne’s Literary Times
A. Wrote during the Romantic Period
1. return to nature
2. belief in goodness of humanity
3. rediscovery of artist as a supremely
individual creator
4. exaltation of the senses and emotions
over reason and intellect
Example of art from the Romantic Period
The Lady of Shallot (1888)
B. The Romantic Period lasted from 1830-1865
C. Literary contemporaries: Emerson, Thoreau,
Melville, Stowe, Poe, Whitman
D. The Scarlet Letter is considered a piece of
American Romantic literature because it is set
in a remote past (the Puritan era 200 years
prior to Hawthorne’s time) and because it
deals with the interior psychology of individual
E. Revolt against rationalism/logic
The Scarlet Letter—Themes
Civil law versus Natural law
 The nature of sin and the effects of sin on
the individual
 In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne analyzes the
effect of one sin on the four main characters who
are closely intertwined because of that sin (Hester,
Pearl, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth)
The individual’s relationship to society
The Scarlet Letter—Setting
Puritanism in the Massachusetts Bay
Colony, 1642
 The Scarlet Letter has unity of place. All
action occurs in the center of Boston and
the outskirts of this village.
 Accurate historical references are made to
the actual governors, ministers, and
practices of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
of 1642-1650.
NOTE: Hawthorne did not live during that
time and was not a Puritan. Hawthorne
wants the reader to react to these
III. Historical Commentary
1. A religious group that
migrated from England to the
Massachusetts Bay Colony in
New England in the early 1600s
2. Believed in a “pure”
interpretation of the Bible
which did not include some of
the traditional practices of the
Church of England
3. Religion and government were closely
4. Ministers counseled the magistrates in all
affairs concerning the settlement and its
5. The Puritans had strict rules against
theatre, religious music, sensuous poetry,
and frivolous dress
6. Remember: The Puritans did not seek
religious freedom for ALL; they still
persecuted and banished individuals whose
beliefs were different from their own
7. People were completely INTOLERANT of
sin. They believed that any sin committed
in the community would cause God’s
wrath to be visited on them. An illness or
misfortune would show God’s disapproval.
8. Puritans looked for sins that had been
committed in the community so that the
sin could be brought out in the open and
the members of the community could
express their scorn for that sin.
9. Puritan theology valued hard work.
Idleness was an invitation to sin.
IV. Themes
A. Alienation
B. Appearance versus reality
C. Breaking society’s rules
D. Private versus public life
E. Effects of revenge
V. Religious Terms
repentance: deep sorrow for a sin
preternatural: out of the ordinary;
contrition: sorrow for a sin, with a sincere
desire to atone for it
(religious terms, contd.)
penance: punishment for a sin
atonement: to make amends for a sin
penitence: the state of being regretful
for sinning
VI. Symbols
the color black
the forest
the brook
the rosebush
Hester’s clothing
Pearl’s clothing
Pearl’s name
the meteor
golden embroidery on the “A”
VII. Style (paraphrase!)
Hawthorne focuses his attention on the
problem of evil and the NATURE OF SIN.
He is not a moralist, but like a psychologist,
he analyzes the inner world of the human
mind and heart. In TSL, he analyzes the
effects of ONE sin on the four main
characters who are closely intertwined
because of that sin.
Essential Question
What is a sin? Is a crime against civil law
necessarily a crime against moral law?