How can Hawthorne’s stories be seen as a response to the political freedom asserted by the American Revolution?
How can Hawthorne’s stories be seen as a response to the political freedom asserted by the American Revolution and established by the republic that followed?
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Evert Augustus Duyckinck made this statement about Hawthorne:
Of the American writers destined to live, he is the most original, the one least indebted to foreign models, or literary precedents of any kind.
Like the burgeoning country, Hawthorne was free from the influences of Europe, creating his own style in the first truly American novel, "The Scarlet Letter," published in 1850. His protagonist, Hester Prynne, is like no other feminine main character: She has incredible inner strength, a strength men like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, initiators of the Revolutionary American thought, would admire.
In his novel, Hawthorne castigates a society that restricts so adamantly the passions of its people; freedom of spirit is absolutely essential to one's life. Hawthorne's narrative of the individualistic Hester Prynne is the narrative of a woman not unlike the French painting of La femme Liberte, who leads the revolutionaries. For, she makes a mockery of the symbol of her sin by refusing to be less of a person after her punishment. Her faith in herself wins out over the weakening Puritanical religious thought; it, too, succeeds in its revolution and wins Hester freedom, at least a freedom of heart.
Hawthorne's themes often include an individual's inner struggles for self-assertion, or at least, a break from oppression, a struggle shared by many a revolutionary. Hawthorne wrote,
Every individual has a place to fill in the world and is important in some respect whether he chooses to be so or not.
This concept of the individual and the individual's rights is the concept written into the Declaration of Independence. It is also a revolutionary literary concept as well, especially in the character of Hester Prynne, a woman condemned in the first chapter by the Puritan women who derogate her expressive spirit and "waywardness," saying she needs suppression. Hester Prynne represents the Revolutionaries in heart. She, like them, is as Hawthorne himself has expressed, as heroic as the Revolutionaries:
The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one's self a fool; the truest heroism is to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom to know when it ought to be resisted and when it ought to be obeyed.
Hester Prynne, who symbolizes the passion of the individual human heart that needs individualistic expression, is a truly Revolutionary heroine in spirit.
One of the ways in which Hawthorne's stories can be seen as a response to the political freedom embraced as a result of the American Revolution lies in his emotional explorations. The framers envisioned freedom to be its own good, representative of the good in terms of political and spiritual conceptions of a good life. They embraced this because of their experience with the tyranny of King George as well as the Enlightenment ideals which suggested that political order should embrace freedom as a defining part of government. Hawthorne responded to this by exploring a sense of emotional complexity within the notion of freedom. For example in "The Devil and Tom Walker," one sees freedom employed to accomplish self serving ends in terms of revelling in both money and spiritual hypocrisy. The idea of expressing freedom as something that might not be aligned with an outward articulation that is for the benefit of others or for pure means is something that the framers do not clearly address, as the notions of civic virtue and acting within the general good were almost understood as part of the Republic. At the same time, we can see the ideas expressed of social ostracizing and peer pressure in "The Scarlet Letter." Here again, the framers do not envision a world where individuals would scapegoat one another and target individuals or group of individuals. Such a practice would be antithetical to the ideals of the Revolution. With Hawthorne's exploration of such ideas, one sees that while political freedom can be guaranteed, individual actions that are geared towards such ends can only be controlled, at best, and not mandated.
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