I need help with an analysis of fiction and fact in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The fact to "The Scarlet Letter" is that while working in a customs house in Salem, Hawthorne discovered a scarlet letter A upstairs. This ornately embroidered letter was of such ancient artistry that even if the threads were removed to be studied, no one would be able to replace them:

But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little of the glitter was left. It had been wrought,...with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stich...gives evidence of a now forgotten art, now to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads....This rag of scarlet cloth...on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital A....While thus perplexed...I happened to place it on my breast. it seemed to me...that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as ofburning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor....

Prying further into the manuscript, Hawthorne finds the record of other doings and sufferings of "this singular woman," for most of which the reader is referred to the story entitled "The Scarlet Letter";

and it should be borne carefully in mind, that the main facts of the story are authorised and authenticated by the document of Mr. Surveyor Pue. The original papers, together with the scarlet letter itself--a most curious relic--are still in my possession."

If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an hour, it might well be deemed a hopeless case. Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet , and showing all its figures so distinctly--...is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests.

Thus, Hawthorne constructed his narrative around cloth remnants and the bits of manuscript strewn upon the floor.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial