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Scarlet Letter: Nearly a Historical Document

Psychological insight, true love, untrue love, self-hate, sin, and redemption, could Nathaniel Hawthorne have possibly juggled with more ideas while recording The Scarlet Letter? The answer is yes. In contrast to the book’s countless appeals to our emotions and interests, Hawthorne has created a novel that preserves the way life was for Bostonian Puritans in the 1640s. The Puritan world in this time gave Hawthorne an imperative item- A community with active people instead of boring ones. The overall portrayal of Puritan society is conveyed by the actions and lives of the characters, the actual historical content involving government and leaders, and the stern, joyless world of Puritan Boston. The book’s mood relies on this dark world and characters.

The story’s characters display actions, dialogues, and intentions best represent the way of life in the mid-17th century in New England. The first example comes from the opening scene of the book when all the other women have congregated to see Hester Prynne at the jailhouse. Hawthorne quotes one women’s take on the situation…

“The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch-that is a truth…At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead.” This quote shows the strict punishment that is called for in this religious community. Although Hester receives a scarlet letter “A” instead of a hot iron, the citizens of the town are furious, and they call for more action. The women’s words also demonstrate the characteristics of the political leaders of the time, “God-fearing”. Laws

and actions were all aimed around pleasing and serving God in this Puritan world. One action, that was common for clearing one’s self of sin, was fasting. One may note the redemption methods of Dimmesdale…

“It was his custom, too, as it has been that of many other pious Puritans, to fast…” Dimmesdale and Chillingworth have also, a conversation that reveals common Puritan views on religion and sin. Puritans had defined views of predestination and reconciliation of sin, Dimmesdale says to Chillingworth…

“And I conceive, moreover, that the hearts holding such miserable secrets as you speak of will yield them up, at the last day, not with reluctance, but with a joy unutterable.” Bringing in all these examples, it is impossible to deny that Hawthorne was quite familiar with the people of whom he wrote, but how familiar was he with the past?

The book, we know, takes place in the 1640s, but how specific can it be? Could Hawthorne have not simply written about the type of puritan people back then, but some of the actual Puritan people? The answer is yes. The prime example is John Winthrop. John Winthrop, in the novel, is a minor character, yet few know, how major a character this Puritan really was in our country. John Winthrop was elected by the Massachusetts Bay Company to be governor of the Puritan colony. John Winthrop died in 1649, which is very near the time the author had his character die in the novel. The other historically accurate aspect of the novel was Boston itself. Hawthorne did not distort the layout of 1640 Boston to fit his novel better; he had actually accurately identified locations of important town centers. It is amazing how Hawthorne can use the actual facts from history and then maximize the feeling of the novel with the right passages and prose.

Through this careful placement of passages and careful selection of prose, Hawthorne produces a Puritan society that is ultimately not only accurately portrayed, but comes off as grim, gray, and depressing. This negative mood is essential to the novel. It makes the scenes at the end when Hester is finally touched by the light, much more powerful because it is in such intense contrast to the dark setting in the many pages prior. Hawthorne establishes this gray mood, for the most part, in the opening scene of the novel. The ugly women are standing around an old jailhouse waiting for Hester Prynne to be released, when Hawthorne first mentions the condition of the jail…

“…some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of it’s oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era.” The selective vocabulary here creates a purely telegraphic excerpt. The sentence has a sense of beautiful depression and seems to have come from a poem. Hawthorne was clearly choicey with his words, because they are what create this gloomy frame of mind in the reader, to have chosen such a hyphenated phrase as “beetle-browed”. In the same scene Hawthorne uses his women to communicate to us the harsh life that they suffered in the Boston.

“They were her countrywomen; and the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into their composition. The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and well-developed busts and on round

and ruddy cheeks that had ripened in the faroff island, and had hardly yet grown or thinner in the atmosphere of New England.” Faroff island of course, is representing England. The women and the men of this young country

It is simple to read The Scarlet Letter and appreciate the prose, plot sequence, and emotional roller coaster. What is not simple, is to appreciate the work Hawthorne put into using the setting to its fullest extent to enhance the scenes and their moods. Puritan society, because of this story, will forever be viewed as grim, dark, depressing, and unappealing. On more of a factual basis, the reader will learn about the Puritan beliefs and actions for justice. Hawthorne has immortalized a culture that has the worst reputation in colonial America, the Puritans.

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