In The Scarlet Letter, what are some examples of the author's Dark Romantic roots from the text?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nathaniel Hawthorne's most famous novel is steeped in Dark Romantic elements, some of which are symbolism, the examination of emotion, and the conscious and unconscious mind. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne expresses a belief that, despite people's hypocrisy, weaknesses, and suffering, "the truth of the human heart" is strong and usually prevails. Perhaps his most memorable line is his exhortation at the end for people to

Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred! (Ch.XXIV)

From its beginning, the narrative of this novel illustrates the Puritanical themes of judgment and punishment which dwelt in the consciousness of Hawthorne, just as it does in his three main characters. Accompanying these ideas is the examination of the secret chambers of people's hearts and the hypocrisy therein which cloaks the truth. The vengeful Roger Chillingworth appoints himself as the judge of Hester and the Reverend Dimmesdale while posing as the solicitous physician. Interestingly, his role is not dissimilar, at least in part, to that of Milton's Satan, for, like Satan, Chillingworth chooses to commit an act that goes against the fundamental laws of God. Rather than attempting to destroy the hierarchy of Heaven, Chillingworth violates the sanctity of the human heart. When he speaks with Hester in Chapter III, he tells her, "Sooner or later, he must needs be mine" (Ch.IV). Like Satan, Chillingworth violates the laws of God and is foiled in his fiendish acts against the minister and Scarlet.

Because the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale wrongly seeks to hide his sin, his concealed sin rankles in his heart. In this characterization, there is evidence of a Dark Romanticism examination of the unconscious mind, as the hypocrisy of Reverend Dimmesdale, who exhorts his congregation to confess and repent their sins, is shown to tortures Chillingworth. In Chapter X, for instance, the minister and Chillingworth engage in an extensive discussion about concealed sin and its impact on the sinner. Reverend Dimmesdale tells his physician,

... methinks, it must needs be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it up in his heart. (Ch.X)

Indeed, it is Dimmesdale's secret sin which eventually destroys him.

The character of Hester Prynne, although she has been ostracized from Puritan society and lives on the edge of the village, regains some respect for her charitableness.

The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude....they had made her strong.(Ch.XVIII)

Hester emerges from her experiences of attending the sick and the dying as a respected person who is humble, truthful, and capable of caring for others.

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scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hawthorne's views as a Dark Romantic ruled his writing and much of his personal life.  Contemporaries such as Emerson liked Hawthorne but felt sorry for him because of his dark perspective of mankind.

In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne's belief that human nature is inherently evil drives most of the novel's characters and all of the plotline. Chillingworth is the epitome of most Dark Romantics' view of human nature.  He was once an average but intelligent man, who--though Hester found it difficult to love him or show him affection in their married life--was a decent but boring man.  When he discovers his wife's infidelity, Hawthorne portrays mankind's evil nature overtaking him and turning him into a fiend. Likewise, Dimmesdale who seems like a righteous, well-intentioned minister to his townspeople hides within his heart his evil nature--one that possesses a propensity to sin and then hide that sin.  At the novel's end, Dimmesdale's nature "eats" its way out to his exterior. Even little Pearl who is outwardly beautiful finds it natural to scream out in church (she is called a demon because of this) and constantly points out the sins in others (her mother, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, etc.).

Only Hester illustrates hope in Hawthorne's dark beliefs.  Admittedly, she has sinned before the book's action begins (presumably in Hawthorne's view she sinned because it is her nature to do so), Hester is able to redeem herself by the novel's end.  However, even her redemption is related to Dark Romanticism; she must struggle through the prime years of her life just to get by and provide for Pearl so she has very little happiness. Additionally, her "calling" at the end of her life is related to helping others who have either "given in to their sin natures" or who are tempted to.

Other Dark Romantics include Poe and Melville, and it is easy to compare characters' struggles with their "dark" natures from these authors' works.

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The Scarlet Letter

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