Intro to Scarlet Letter

Introduction to The Scarlet
Born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts
Ancestors include Major William Hathorne, a “bitter
persecutor of Quakers”, and Justice John Hathorne,
the chief interrogator of accused witches during the
Salem Witch Trials
Nathaniel added the “w” to his surname to distance
himself from his Puritan predecessors
Attended Bowdoin College from 1821 to 1825;
befriended classmates Franklin Pierce and Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow
Fell madly in love with Sophia Peabody; engaged in
secret in 1838; married in 1842
1839: became Measurer at the Boston Custom House
1840/41: left his post to join with transcendentalists at
Brook Farm…
Brook Farm
Utopian community,
founded by idealists who
hoped to combine manual
labor with art and
Emerson and Thoreau
visited, but never totally
bought into the commune
Hawthorne wasn’t a huge fan of work. (Throughout
his life, he would complain that menial labor stultified
his imagination.)
1844, became Surveyor of Boston Custom House
1849, ousted from the Custom House; mother dies;
pens The Scarlet Letter
1850, TSL published and is an instant success
1852, appointed Consul to Liverpool, England; post
was a reward for Hawthorne’s authorship of President
Pierce’s campaign biography
1857-59, lived in Rome and Florence
May 19, 1864: died at Plymouth, New Hampshire. In
his last years, Hawthorne was distraught by the threat
and the actuality of the Civil War.
1828: Fanshawe. Published anonymously and at his own expense.
He later burned as many copies as he could find.
1830 -37: publishes the stories that would be collected in Twice
Told Tales, including “The Minister’s Black Veil”
1846: publishes a second collection of stories, Mosses from an Old
Manse; includes “Young Goodman Brown” and “Rappaccini’s
1850: publishes TSL
1851: a prolific year; publishes The House of the Seven Gables and a
bunch of other stuff I’m not going to waste slide space on
Hawthorne rubbed elbows
with some of the most
brilliant thinkers and
writers of his age, including
Henry David Thoreau and
Ralph Waldo Emerson.
More Buddies!
…like Louisa May Alcott and Franklin Pierce.
was especially taken with
Hawthorne. He admired
the “power of blackness” he
discovered in Hawthorne’s
writings. He even
dedicated Moby Dick to
A sign o’ the times
While Hawthorne’s own era was fraught with instability and
crisis, he often looked to an earlier, equally fragile time in
American history for his material. It is worth our time to take
a look at some of the anxieties facing Puritans, as these
anxieties inform TSL.
Colonial MA timeline
1620: Mayflower lands at Cape Cod; Mayflower
Compact is signed
1621: peace treaty signed between Plymouth Pilgrims
and Wampanoag Tribe
1629: King Charles I dissolves Parliament in England,
creating an influx of immigrants to America
1630: Boston is established; John Winthrop becomes
the first governor of Massachusetts
Colonial MA timeline
1634-38: Pequot War
1636: Roger Williams founds Rhode Island after he is
banished from Massachusetts for calling for, among
other things, separation of church and state.
Providence soon becomes a refuge for those fleeing
religious intolerance. (Oh how I loves the irony!)
1636: Harvard College founded.
1638: Anne Hutchinson banished for nonconformist
religious views (more on her later).
Colonial MA timeline
1646: Massachusetts passes a law that makes religious
heresy punishable by death
1656: Ann Hibbins is tried as a witch and executed.
She was reputed to be the sister of governor Richard
1675-76: King Philip’s War. (I’m sure Metacomet really
appreciated his nickname.)
1692: Mass hysteria grips Salem; 20 are executed for
Anne Hutchinson was a
major player in the
theological crisis which
questioned the Calvinist
belief that God’s grace
alone could lead to
salvation. She argued that
an individual could take a
more active role in his/her
spiritual destiny. She was
accused of sedition and
banished with her family.
The Devil
It was believed that the devil was real and
walked among the living, preying on the
souls of the faithful.
Reading Hawthorne
Themes, motifs, anxieties, and whatnot…
Hawthorne doesn’t address a wide range of
themes. However, he explores his strong,
interrelated themes with complexity and
Hawthorne’s favorite themes
Individual’s complex life and antagonistic relationship
with society
Dangers of simplistic moral judgments
Eruptions of what is suppressed
Men’s anxieties about women’s sexuality
Interpenetration of past and present
Hawthorne’s favorite themes
The dangers of isolation and exile
The importance of self-knowledge
Impossibility of earthly perfection
Perverse secrecy
Cold intellectuality
“The fortunate fall”: lost innocence as the price of
mature awareness
“The moral and
psychological issues that
[Hawthorne] examines
through the conflicts his
characters experience are
often intricate and
mysterious. Readers are
frequently made to feel that
in exploring Hawthorne’s
characters they are also
encountering some part of
Hawthorne’s favorite motifs
Light and dark
Masks and veils
Shadows and mirrors
The labyrinthine path
The moonlight of imagination
The fire of passion
The cave of the heart
Hawthorne toys with the Old World Gothic romance by
replacing the castle on the moors with the American
wilderness and the wilderness of the mind.
Interpretations of Hawthorne’s imagery remain
deliberately unstable: the scarlet A is a badge of shame
transformed into an emblem of triumph.
The “structured irresolutions” require readers to become
collaborators who examine character and behavior.
Commentary on Hawthorne
“His first novel [TSL], his masterpiece, is an indictment
of Puritan America, but also of his own society.”
“He wrote about his own society and its antecedents,
but it turns out that he also wrote about ours.”
“Hawthorne was a shrewd and large-minded writer who
read widely and pondered deeply about the human
condition and American identity from Puritan times to
his own.”
Critics on Hawthorne
Henry James: great imaginative writing, limited by
shallow American culture and too much allegory
Early 20th c. critics: a dreamer of dreamlike fiction, an
heir of Puritan gloom
Mid-century “new critics”: concentrated on the
symbolism and organic unity of his fiction; analyzed
recurring character types and themes
Semioticians: examine signifiers such as the scarlet
Writing in two
Hawthorne is considered
both a “romancer” (probing
inner mysteries) and a
“realist” (assessing
American character and
Celebrated individualism
Revered the natural world
Focused on passion and
Incorporated mystical
Stood in opposition to
order and rationality in
favor of freedom and
Experienced its height in
the early to mid-18th c.
More of a technique as
opposed to a literary
Employs verisimilitude
Reaction against
romanticism; instead of
trying “transcend” human
experience, it attempts to
explore it in actuality
Governed by laws, inspired
by the scientific method
Emerged from the onset of
the civil war
The End!
Hootie says hi.