What elements of Realism are in The Scarlet Letter?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a movement of literature that was begun in the mid-nineteenth century, Realism coincided with Hawthorne's publishing of The Scarlet Letter. While his novel's characters are more symbolic than real and his narrative can be considered allegorical, there are, nevertheless, several elements of Realism contained in Hawthorne's work.

  • Realistic settings

As an introduction to the setting of his novel and as a means of creating a realistic narrative, Hawthorne prefaces his chapters with "The Custom House," a rather verbose description of his three years as a customs official. During his tenure there, he states that he came across a yellowed bundle of documents on the second floor of this official building; within this bundle, he discovered

...a mysterious package a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded....a "rag of scarlet cloth"... in the shape of the letter A.

Convinced that there is a "deep meaning, worthy of interpretation," Hawthorne admits that he has created a tale of his own invention; however, he states, "What I contend for is the authenticity of the outline."  Thus, the philosophical and psycholocial aspects of his narrative are intended to be realistic.

Indeed, the setting of the Puritan village with its prison and cemetery and scaffold accurately represents Puritan settlements of men in "sad grey" clothing and "goodwives" in the mid-seventeenth century. In addition, Hawthorne peoples his Puritan colony with real historical figures such as the Reverend Mr. Wilson, Governor Bellingham and his sister Mistress Hibbins, who represents Ann Hibbins, who was burned as a witch in 1656.

  • Objective narration

Although Hawthorne intrudes some into his narrative, especially near the end when he instructs with his theme of "Be true!" for the most part, the omniscient narrator is an invisible presence outside the story that is objective and unbiased. Most salient is Hawthorne's withholding of direct judgment upon his characters, using characterization methods instead to illustrate his themes.

  • Morality as a Theme

Many aspects of morality are examined in The Scarlet Letter: religion, marriage, family life. Prevalent throughout the narrative is the overriding suppression of the Puritan/Calvinistic doctines which prohibits the Reverend Dimmesdale from confessing his sin and which punish Hester for hers. The hypocrisy of this theology which permits allows no transgressions is a trope found in Mistress Hibbins' witchcraft, the governor's resplendent mansion and the commission of Hester's needle for ornate gloves and clothing, but her prohibition from certain places and functions.  The marriage of Roger Chillingworth is also examined as as a sinful one on Chillingworth's part.

  • Psychological characterization

Hawthorne's examination of the human heart is extremely detailed. With Dimmesdale, he analyzes the effects of secret sin; with Chillingworth, he analyzes the effects of pride and the violation of the soul of another; and, finally, with Hester, he assiduously analyzes the effects of her sin and its condemnation as well as the affect of this sin upon her as she is at first unwilling to repent her sin and name her partner--"the scarlet letter has not done its office"--but finally consents to all that the letter implies and reattaches it to her bosom both on the demand of Pearl, and later when she returns to the Puritan village from years spent in England.


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The Scarlet Letter

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