Type of Culminating Activity
Master of Arts in English, Literature
Steven Olsen-Smith, Ph.D.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter portrays his understanding of Puritan doctrines and culture. He addresses sin and redemption through his primary characters Hester Prynne and the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, whose adultery has resulted in the birth of Pearl and Hester’s scarlet A. He demonstrates Hester’s refusal to publically accept her sin as such. He also outlines the physical demise and spiritual indecision of the minister as Dimmesdale struggles to live two opposing lives. I call attention to how Hawthorne takes his knowledge of the New England Puritans and alters the historical context to emphasize his Romantic views of sin and redemption.
Insufficient attention has been given to Hawthorne’s precise changing of historical Puritan beliefs in order to depict his Romantic notions. At initial glance, it appears that Hawthorne does one of two things: he either disconnects entirely or adheres strictly to Puritan doctrines and culture. But using a historical approach, I examine the Puritan background to accentuate Hawthorne’s nuanced fusion of Puritanical conceptions with Romantic perceptions of sin and redemption.
For instance, while the Puritans viewed sin as evil and believed in the weight of collective guilt, Hawthorne accepts that there was “an educative effect” in sin (Mills 97). He agrees with the Puritans that sin was a result of wickedness, but disagrees that sin damned a person forever. Hester’s overcoming society’s stipulations placed upon her indicates Hawthorne’s Romantic assertion that the individual determines her course.
Also, while the Puritans believed in predestination, Hawthorne claims that redemption consists of self-realization and empowerment. Dimmesdale attempts but fails to break free of the Puritan belief in predestination. Hester rejects predestination and becomes her own savior, eventually advising other society members. Her self-realization allows Hester to break free of the cultural norms and focus on impacting society for the good. She uses her wisdom to comfort the discouraged individuals struggling against the system.
Thomson, Lehtie Chalise, "“A Moral Wilderness”: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter" (2011). Boise State University Theses and Dissertations. 235.