Dark Romanticism in Historical Fiction Novel “The Scarlet Letter”
Romanticism is an artistic movement that started toward the end of the 18th century and peaked in the first half of the 19th century. Romantic writers and artists glorified the past and nature. They lifted up heroes whose examples would raise the quality of other people around them.
Such celebration of well-being, happiness, and a greatness beyond measure produced an opposite reaction in other writers. This movement became known as Dark Romanticism because stories focused on personal failing, crime, insanity, torment, melancholy, ostracism, and whether mankind could be salvaged. The best examples of Dark Romantic writers in America are Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. While other writers of their time believed in the goodness of people and nature and that people are best when independent of society, Poe and Hawthorne used sin, alienation, and guilt to demonstrate humanitys broken nature and tendency toward self-destruction.
Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter is a historical fiction novel. It tells the story of Hester Prynne, a woman condemned by the Puritan religious community. Hester was sent to the New World by her husband. He planned to join her later, but instead was captured by Indians and assumed to be dead. Hester was alone and worked as a seamstress. She turned to a local pastor, Arthur Dimmesdale, for comfort. Eventually Hester and Arthur committed adultery, and she became pregnant. Hawthorne used the judgment and sentence of the Puritans as the name of this novel. Hester was also forced to stand on the scaffold for three hours to publically shame her for the sin. Despite this humiliation, Hester refused to reveal the name of the babys father. The scarlet letter A that was embroidered on her clothing was a visual and colorful reminder that Hester was a sinner in a black and white world. Hester believed the letter was too deeply branded to remove (64; ch.3). Hester in time overcame the sin and was the heroine of the story. Hawthorne used the symbolism of the scarlet letter and the sin it publicized to eventually become a judgment on the hypocrisy of the religious community.
Edgar Allen Poe also used sin as the cause of his terrible short story, The Black Cat. It is the tale of a condemned man. He and his wife had a beautiful black cat named Pluto. The cat and the man had a friendly relationship for many years until alcoholism destroyed the mans personality. The alcohol made him angry at the world and violent. One night he came home drunk and tried to grab the cat. Pluto bit him, and in a rage the man pulled out a knife and cut out the cats eye. From then on, Pluto scrambled away at the sight of his master. At first the man was shamed by his behavior, but this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of perverseness. In another fit of rage, the man took Pluto outside and killed him by hanging. That night, his house burned down. Only one wall survived, and the man found a cat with a rope around the neck imprinted there. The man felt guilty and was at first happy when he found another cat similar to Pluto for his new house. It was the same size, color, and even missed an eye. The only difference was a white patch that in time reminded the man of the gallows. This terrified the man and he avoided the cat. One day in another drunken rage, he tried to kill this cat but his wife intervened. The cat was saved, but the man killed his wife with an axe. He hid his wifes body inside a basement wall and sealed it up. When the police investigated, the man remarked how solid the wall was and tapped on it. There was a loud wailing from inside. The police knocked down the wall and found the wifes body, and on her head was the screeching black cat. The man broke down at the sight of his crime and the cat as he wailed I had walled the monster up within the tomb! Poe used the sin of alcoholism as the basis for his story. The man struggled with morality. Even though he realized he was behaving sinfully, he could not change his behavior. The black cats became visible symbols of his sin and pushed him further toward madness. Both Poe and Hawthorne used sin and human frailty as the basis of these stories. However, Hawthorne believed that mankind could overcome sin, while Poe believed that sin inside all men is an irresistible death sentence.
Alienation is another common theme used by Hawthorne and Poe. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester was alienated from the rest of society. Everyone knew that she was different because she was forced to wear a scarlet letter at all times. Measured by the prisoner’s experience, however, it might reckoned a journey of some length; for, haughty as her demeanor was, she perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung in the street for them all to spurn and trample upon (The Scarlet Letter ch.2). The letter convicted her and alienated Hester from the entire community. While it reminded all of what she had done, it was really a warning to behave as they were told and a threat that anyone could be alienated just like Hester. Poe wrote his poem Alone after the death of his foster mother, the woman that had raised the young boy after his parents died. The poem is written from the perspective of a young man, and it demonstrated Poes alienation from other people that he experienced from a very early age. In Alone, Poe stated his longstanding isolation with the line From childhood’s hour I have not been As others were; I have not seen As others saw (Alone lines 1-3). Hawthorne used alienation as something that was imposed upon Hester by the community. Poe used alienation as something that came from inside because of his differences with other people.
Finally, both authors used the theme of guilt which can push mankind toward destruction. Hawthorne used Arthur Dimmesdale to symbolize the burden of guilt. His sin was secret from the community since Hester did not reveal it, but Dimmesdale suffered even more than her because of his unbearable guilt. Because his guilt was not revealed, it took two avenues. The guilt gave him a sense of empathy for other sinners that was demonstrated through his eloquent sermons. Also, Dimmesdales health began to fail because he could not forgive himself for his failings and his cowardice in letting Hester face the punishment all alone. In this case, his guilty heart caused his physical deterioration. Poe also used guilt in The Tell-Tale Heart. In this short story, Poe told of a man that murdered an older neighbor because of his vulture-like eye. The man insists he is not crazy because of how precisely he planned the murder. The old mans body is hidden in pieces under the floor. When the police came to investigate, the man brought chairs and the police sat right over the body. The man noticed a ringing in his ears that grew louder. Eventually he became convinced it was the sound of the dead mans heart beating under the floor. Believing the police could hear the heartbeat and knew he was a murderer, the man confessed his crime. Hawthornes Dimmesdale broke down physically because of his guilt. Poes narrator experienced guilt in a different way as it caused him to mentally descend into madness. Both Hawthorne and Poe used a guilty mind to cause a breakdown instead of the actual sins.
Hawthorne and Poe used similar themes in their Dark Romantic styles. While some of the themes overlapped, the authors did not always use them in the same way. Hawthorne did not hide the fallen nature of humanity, but his writing showed that one could sometimes overcome that harsh reality to have some version of a success life. Poe was more of a pessimist and his writing demonstrated his understanding of human hopelessness. Other writers believed in the goodness of people and nature, but Poe and Hawthorne used sin, alienation, and guilt to show that man is more likely to self-destruct than succeed in life.
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