Hawthorne’s Puritan Background in His Novels
Nathanial Hawthorne successfully exposed the puritanical lifestyle in its’ entirety within his celebrated novel, The Scarlet Letter. He was born during the 19th century, but set his story in the 17th century, revealing his keen knowledge on the subject of puritanism. His desire to examine the curious human nature compelled his beginning within this particular time period. “Hawthorne’s works probe into human nature, especially its darker side. He set many stories against the somber background of Puritan New England, the world of his ancestors” (Clendenning). Nathanial was one of the few authors of his time willing to step out on a limb and depict a more obscure way of life to readers, catching the eye of many a critic. He received a plethora of analyses, both favorable and unfavorable. Nonetheless, he set plenty of his other writings within this certain time period as well. Despite Hawthorne’s being born in the 19th century, he took the risk of portraying a grimmer time period in which Puritanism was prominent. His primary motive was to illustrate the act of isolation practiced on notorious sinners, which was unfortunately scorned upon by many critics.
During the sixteenth century, a religious movement known as Puritanism surfaced within the Church of England. Most Puritans strayed from the organizational church in order to participate in a more profound form of worship. They were frequently satirized for allegedly living solely by His word, and using the Bible to pilot their lives. The Puritan movement to create a sovereign church helped to found New England. Under siege from church and crown, it sent an offshoot in the third and fourth decades of the seventeenth century to the northern English colonies in the New World–a migration that laid the foundation for the religious, intellectual, and social order of New England (Delbanco). Thousands of Puritans inhabited what would eventually be New England, and claimed they had not separated from the Church of England, but merely migrated to pursue a more self-righteous method of reverence. Their method appears hypocritical to historians, however, due to the fact that Puritanical documents indicate a rigidly religious lifestyle.
Hawthorne grew up aware of the Puritanical regime his relatives embraced throughout their lives. His inquisitiveness allowed his knowledge to adequately expand on the subject, and he eventually reached the point of setting his books during this era. “The Hawthorne legacy was one of strict Puritanism which Hawthorne grappled with in his stories and novels, The Scarlet Letter perhaps being the most well-known” (Nathaniel). Puritanism was widespread throughout New England, and continued expanding outside into more western territories. Nathaniel could have chosen any town practicing this way of life; nevertheless, he had emotional ties to Massachusetts. “This old town of Salem- my native place, though I have dwelt much away from it, both in boyhood and maturer years- possesses, or did possess, a hold on my affections, the force of which I have never realized during my seasons of actual residence here” (Hawthorne). He ended up moving away from Massachusetts after completing The Scarlet Letter, yet looked back on his years in Salem fondly after realizing the positive effect it had on his life. Experiencing a different town gave him a newfound appreciation for his home, and he continued setting his novels in [Puritanical] Massachusetts.
Most of Hawthorne’s works dealt with dark themes, which attracted numerous critical readers. Sin and its’ consequences were of utmost importance during Puritan times, so his preference for gloomy theses was easily incorporated in his writing. “Hawthorne often dealt with the themes of morality, sin, and redemption. Among his early influences were the parables and allegories of John Bunyan and Edmund Spenser” (Clendenning). John Bunyan became a preacher after being baptized, and began giving sermons without permission from the Anglican Church. This landed him in jail for quite a while, so to pass the time, he wrote his most famous work: The Pilgrim’s Progress. (John). “Bunyan’s remarkable imagery was firmly rooted in the Reformation doctrines of man’s fallen nature, grace, imputation, justification, and the atonement–all of which Bunyan seems to have derived directly from Scripture” (John). Bunyan’s themes appear to directly coincide with Hawthorne’s [themes], and provide readers with another sense of his aspiration to write novels set in Puritan times. Bunyan’s ability to incorporate the darkness of fallen nature with the light of the Gospel inspired Nathaniel to highlight the flaws of human nature and the supposed methods of chastisement for these individual and societal imperfections. Nevertheless, even with sufficient inspiration, Hawthorne was unable to evade the derisive voice of his critics. “The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass-produced books in the United States upon its release in 1850 and it gathered much praise and criticism for the novels supposed morbidity” (Nathaniel).
Despite Hawthorne’s dark settings within his novels, he considered himself a romance writer. He believed his dissection of the aspects of human nature suitably regarded his writings as romantic. Unlike most fiction writers of his time, he was not primarily interested in stirring the reader by sensational or sentimental effects. Hawthorne called his writing “romance,” which he defined as a method of showing “the depths of our common nature.” To Hawthorne, romance meant confronting reality, rather than evading it (Clendenning). Nathaniel was not compelled to trigger a warm satisfaction in readers through his work, but rather give them a sense of reality, no matter how ugly the genuineness may be. He created this veracity gracefully, though, providing intriguing story lines and relatable characters. Readers develop empathy for Hester as she expresses her feelings for Dimmesdale, and they sympathize with little Pearl as she longs for a father figure within her family. People resent Dimmesdale for abandoning his family on the scaffold and blame Chillingsworth for preventing the three of them from being together. By setting Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl on the scaffold as they create an electrifying union, he dampens the mood as they are in a place of disdain. Similarly, when Hester and Dimmesdale connect in the forest, the reader cannot help but consider the malevolence within the trees. Only bad happenings occur in the forest, and those who enter voluntarily must be evildoers.
Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, has received much commentary and popularity because of its’ prevalent setting and melancholic themes. Puritans certainly glorified the Lord, but in doing so, created a corrupt society by taking legal actions to the extreme. Isolation, as seen with Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, is an outdated form of humiliation sure to psychologically damage any human being. Nathaniel’s exploration in human nature revealed this, and he enlightened readers through the scene in the forest when Hester hurls the ‘A’ off of her chest. His heritage helped inspire him to write not only during Puritanical times, but also in his home state of Massachusetts. After leaving Salem, his appreciation for his home intensified, he reiterates to readers. “And yet, though invariably happiest elsewhere, there is within me a feeling for old Salem, which, in lack of a better phrase, I must be content to call affection” (Hawthorne). His unwillingness to write about light subject matter attracted all sorts of criticism during his time, while literary enthusiasts of the current era praise his exceptional work. Critics believed he should keep the settings of his writing in the present, as he supposedly lacked proper expertise on Puritanism, a much darker time. To conclude, despite the unscrupulous reviews Hawthorne received in the 19th century, his novel has become a classic due to his remarkable portrayal of such a grim time period, and his detailed examination of the evolution of human nature.
Clendenning, John. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” PBS. PBS, 2007. Web. 08 Nov. 2014. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americannovel/timeline/hawthorne.html>.
Delbanco, Andrew. “Puritanism.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <http://www.history.com/topics/puritanism>.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, and Leland S.. Person. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2005. Print.
“John Bunyan Archive.” John Bunyan Archive. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <http://www.chapellibrary.org/literature/bunyan/>.
“Nathaniel Hawthorne – Biography.” Nathaniel Hawthorne. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <http://www.egs.edu/library/nathaniel-hawthorne/biography/>.
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