The Scarlet Letter Questions and Answers
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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How does Hawthorne's Transcendentalism affect The Scarlet Letter?

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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...

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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.