To what extent do the characters reflect the real life of the author in The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is a known fact that Nathaniel Hawthorne's Puritan ancestor, John Hathorne, was one of the major judges at the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Because of his shame, Nathaniel added the w to his name in order to disassociate himself from this scandal. About his great-great-grandfather, Hawthorne wrote that he was 

so conspicuous in the martyrdom of their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him.

Certainly, the introductory to the novel "The Custom-House" puts forth several of Hawthorne's own ideas, among them his allusion to his ancestor in which Hawthorne states that he "take[s] shame upon myself" for the cruelties done at Salem. Also in the introduction, Hawthorne explores the problem of people's living and working too long in government positions which leads to stagnation and their complaisance with conventional and political ideas (as happens to those employees at the Custom House). In addition, this introduction acts as a tool for Hawthorne to introduce the scarlet letter for which his narrative is named. This discovery lends a historical tie and sense of realism to the author's examination of sin and its effects upon both the individual and society.  

In a way, then, the characters of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale both embody parts of Hawthorne's own spirit. His guilt over the sins of his ancestor are reflected in the torturous guilt that the Reverend Dimmesdale feels and under which his soul suffers to the extent that his health is affected. And the personage of Hester embodies some of Hawthorne's ideas about the historical influence of the Puritanical codes and values upon American society, including the stultification of the artist, as well as the position of women in American culture. Also, the villain Roger Chillingworth bears some resemblance in tone to the vindictive Salem judges, such as Judge Hathorne. Thus, with the narrative of The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne displays his sense that it is necessary for Americans to examine the past as it truly is part of their identities in the present.

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