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Although The Scarlet Letter is primarily a work of fiction, Hawthorne includes several historical persons in novel. He probably does this to create a sense of history and realism for the reader.
John Winthrop, the real-life first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (which later became Boston) is briefly mentioned in the novel when he dies. His death occurred in 1649, on the same night in which Hawthorne has the character of Arthur Dimmesdale suffering in guilt-ridden agony on the scaffold. By linking these two events in time, Hawthorne gives the reader a historical perspective on the time in which events in novel are occurring.
Richard Bellingham appears prominently in several chapters in the middle of the book. He too was a real-life governor of Boston after John Winthrop. He is depicted as a relatively positive character, although at one point he is on the verge of taking Hester Prynne’s daughter, Pearl, away from her mother. He is dissuaded by Dimmesdale, who is a fictional character.
Dimmesdale is also associated with another real-life character, the Reverend John Wilson. Wilson was a leading clergyman in Boston during this time. He is referred to several times in the book as a sort of elder and mentor to Dimmesdale.
Mistress Hibbins is a character who is based on the historical figure of Ann Hibbins. The real-life Hibbins was executed for witchcraft in 1656. Her guilt in this matter is controversial, and was disputed even then by some of the clergy. However, Hawthorne characterizes her in no uncertain terms as a witch who associates with the evil beings of the forest in the novel.
Hawthorne probably included these real characters to give his novel a historically accurate feel. The primary characters, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, Prynne, and Pearl are all fictional. The section that precedes chapter 1, “The Custom House,” shows the narrator discovering the manuscript of The Scarlet Letter among the piles of old documents and junk. This too, makes the story sound more realistic. By combining fact and fiction, Hawthorne causes the reader to consider the Hawthorne's major ideas: the effect of society's often erroneous judgments upon others, and the effect of guilt on people who live with a secret sin or crime.
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