Realism in The Scarlet Letter: Where are there examples in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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For his magnum opus, The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne chose a real historic setting: the years 1642-1649, the period in which John Winthrop, whose death is represented near the middle of the novel, established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This Puritan colony had as its intent the establishment of an ideal community with civil and religious perfection.  In order to maintain this ideal, strict moral regulations were established; in fact, a prison was constructed as a place of enforcement for the enforcement of these regulations.

Another real person added as a character to Hawthorne's narrative is Governor Bellingham, who represents Richard Bellingham, who came to America from England in 1630, and who was governor of the colony in 1644, 1654, and 1655.  Another real character is the governor's sister, Mistress Hibbins, who represents Ann Hibbins, a Puritan woman executed in 1656 for witchcraft.  Still another real character is John Wilson, an active and strong figure of Puritan intolerance, who also arrived in America in 1630.

And, while Hawthorne's discovery of the scarlet letter on the second floor of the Customs House is fabricated, the author's re-creation of the stigma placed upon a woman such as Hester Prynne is lent reality as similar ways of marking trangressors was certainly done by the Puritans.  Certainly, placing this worn scarlet letter in the real, ancient Customs House where Hawthorne actually worked, lends a realistic overtone to the letter.

At the same time, however, the reader should understand that Hawthorne takes authorial liberties with historical events and characters.  For, his use of different events, while meaningful, is also powerfully symbolic.  For instance, in his first chapter, "The Custom House," Hawthorne recreates for the reader this ancient building and all that is associated with it in order to lend both authenticity and the "Puritan guilt" which permeates his narrative.  Thus, Hawthorne introduces his narrative as his moral parable as well as a retelling of some real events and people.

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