What is connection between The Scarlet Letter and Transcendentalism?

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Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The novel lends itself to many interpretations, of course, but the influence of Transcendentalism is certainly evident, primarily through the characters of Hester and Pearl. Emerson wrote in "Self-Reliance" that "[s]ociety everywhere is in conspiracy against [the individuality] of every one of its members" and that "[t]he virtue in most request is conformity." Hester represents the life of one who rebelled against her society and who only conformed, for a short period of time, out of necessity. Her spirit remained unbroken by the forces of the theocracy in which she lived. Pearl also lived an individual life, dressed in bright colors by her mother to distinguish her from those who wore the Puritan gray.

Another element of Transcendentalism is reflected in the symbolism of the novel's natural setting. For the Puritans, the forest was a place of darkness and evil where Satan himself reigned. For Hester, however, it was a place of beauty and freedom where truth could be realized. In the forest with Arthur and Pearl, away from her repressive society, she could be the person she really was, free to express her love and take pride openly in her beautiful child. Arthur himself, as soul sick and tormented as he was, found joy within the natural environment and dared to hope again that life would not always be one of pain and loneliness. Arthur's dream of happiness ends when he leaves the forest and returns to the settlement. The beauty, peace, and freedom experienced by Hester and Arthur in the forest seems consistent with Emerson's words in "Nature." He wrote that the woods was a place where "sanctity reign[s]," a place of "uncontained and immortal beauty."

edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Some scholars view Hawthorne as an anti-Transcendentalist because his view of humanity is much darker than that of the Transcendentalists. Self-determination, a cherished ideal of the Transcendentalists, is notably absent in The Scarlet Letter. Because of her parents' penury, Hester is obliged to marry a man she does not love and live in a religious colony whose values she does not share. Her life is a struggle because of forces outside her control and her moments of happiness and fulfillment are fleeting, at best. Hester is marginalized, maligned, and neglected by society and its institutions and lacks the resources to live on her own terms in the way that, say, Thoreau and Emerson, both men of means and education, did. Though Hawthorne seems to agree with the Transcendental idea that Nature represents a sanctuary, he also argues that humanity is well past any Edenic illusions that Transcendentalists might claim and that self-reliance is a theoretical construct, not a reality. Hester and her daughter cannot survive without submitting to societal authority and thus live a diminished existence. The men in her life are cruel and cowardly, representing not the best of humanity, but rather its worst. 

MaudlinStreet eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although the novel was published in 1850, its subject is colonial 17th-century America. Thus Hawthorne applies the principles of trascendentalism to an earlier time-period in the guise of a historical romance.

Transcendentalism was a reaction against the religious orthodoxy of Puritan New England. Transcendentalism focused on mysticism, idealism, and individualism. God was seen not as a distant and tyrannical authority, but as an extension of the natural world. Because of a belief in the profound unity of all matter, knowledge of the world and its laws could be obtained through a kind of spiritual congress with the world.

Hawthorne was on the edge of the transcendental movement. Hawthorne even mocks his transcendentalist contemporaries in "The Custom-House," referring to them as his "dreamy brethren indulging in fantastic speculation." Where they saw the possibilities of achieving knowledge through mystical experience, Hawthorne was far more skeptical.

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The Scarlet Letter

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