How does Hawthorne's Transcendentalism affect The Scarlet Letter?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, founders of the Transcendental movement, Nathaniel Hawthorne associated with them, perhaps, in an effort to discover more meaning behind the shadows of life that he so often perceived. A movement in the Romantic tradition, Transcendentalism holds that every individual can reach ultimate truths through reason and sensory experience. Here are its basic tenets:

  1. In every aspect of Nature, God is present--even in every human being.
  2. Everyone is capable of learning about God through intuition.
  3. In all its manifestations, Nature is symbolic of the spirit.
  4. The world is good, and evil is nonexistent.

While Hawthorne rejected much of this ideology, finding it too optimistic, he was partially influenced. Tenets 1 and 3 seem the ones more closely embraced by Hawthorne. 

  • Tenet 1

Shrouded by his Puritan guilt for the transgressions of his ancestors, Hawthorne sought to define humans, not in two groups--the elect and the damned--as the Calvinists had, but as essentially good, although weak at times. True, people sin, Hawthorne seems to say, but by admitting sin, one can improve. As his characters in The Scarlet Letter are in many ways allegorical, Hester Prynne develops this idea of Hawthorne's that one must "Be true! Be true!" and show one's "worst" in order to improve; for it is secret sin and its hypocrisy which damn a man spiritually. 

Underpinning the importance of Nature, Hawthorne has Hester take forest walks with her daughter Pearl where they encounter the workings of Nature. Hester arrives at certain truths on her walks and when she meets the Reverend Dimmesdale there. Even little Pearl senses Nature as she tells her mother that the sunshine does not like her, and as she refuses to cross the brook until her mother replaces her letter of shame upon her breast, "Come and take it up!" As Hester does so, Nature reacts,

...there was a sense of inevitable doom upon her as she thus received back this deadly symbol from the hand of fate....the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed like fading sunshine....

Moreover, it is in the forest where the genuine emotions of love and passion have been and are expressed between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester; it is in the forest in which the sun shines on them that truths can be expressed. It is in the forest where Hester's beauty returns to her and Dimmesdale no longer holds his heart and feels free: 

Here seen only by her [Hester's] eyes, Arthur Dimmesdale, false to God and man, might be, for one moment true!

  • Tenet 3

That Nature is symbolic of the spirit is evident in a passage involving the character of Chillingworth, who gathers "a bundle of unsightly plants" in Chapter X, Dimmesdale asks his physician from where he has brought "such a dark, flabby leaf?" Chillingworth replies that he has found it growing upon an unmarked grave. Further, he tells the minister,

"They grew out of his heart, and typify, it may be, some hideous secret that was buried with him, and which he had done better to confess during his lifetime."

Other examples of how Nature represents the spirit occur with the elf-child Pearl as she is in harmony with the sunshine that follows her along a forest path, as well as the babbling brook that cheers with Pearl in her delight. Also, when Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold in the night (Ch. XII), a meteor "burning duskily through a veil of cloud" reflects his spirit and that of Chillingworth who hides beneath.

quentin1 | Student
Hawthorne knew Emerson personally, it is true, but perhaps the largest influence on Hawthorne from the New England Transcendentalists came from Margaret Fuller, one of the founding figures of 19th century feminism. Fuller and Emerson both believed in the freedom of the individual spirit. They believed that society blinded individuals and constrained their abilities to achieve their full individual potential. They also believed that one should follow their highest moral impulse, no matter how much conflict it might cause in their relations with society and family. Clearly, Hester Prynne has all the characteristics of a 19th century feminist and transcendentalist, even though she inhabits the world of 17th century Puritan Boston. Hawthorne's views of Hester seem to reflect his own views of transcendentalism and feminism in his own 19th century time. He admired Margaret Fuller, but thought that she was too aggressive. He feared that her views might lead to social disruption. Hawthorne believed that women along with slaves should be granted equal rights gradually over time, not right away. This view on Hawthorne's part might explain the conclusion of The Scarlet Letter when Hester comes back to Boston and wears the scarlet letter. Hawthorne is expressing his views on how women of his own time should act. A good book to read about the effect of transcendentalism on Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter is The Cambridge Companion to Hawthorne by Leland Person.
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The Scarlet Letter

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