How are the eight tenets of Romanticism exemplified in The Scarlet Letter.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Like Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne was a Dark Romantic, a writer who wanted to leave behind the tangible, rational world and discover the unsettling truth that lies in the dark, irrational depths of the human mind--to remove, as Herman Melville's Captain Ahab says, that pasteboard mask that covers reality.

As a Dark Romantic, then, Hawthorne composed his novel The Scarlet Letter, incorporating many of the tenets of Romanticism:

1. On the journey to truth, Romanticism either explores the past and supernatural realms, or it contemplated the natural world. Hawthorne's novel is an examination of his Puritan past in his efforts to assuage his guilt for his ancestor's participation in the Salem Witchcraft Trials.

2. As the Romantic hero, who possesses qualities of youthfulness, innocence, intuitiveness, and closeness to the natural world,    the Reverend Dimmesdale is very naive.  For a long time, he never suspects the motives of Roger Chillingworth and maintains the naive notion that he can do God's work while hiding his sins. In Chapter X, for instance, he discusses secret sin with Roger Chillingworth, telling him there are men, who 

guilty as they may be, retaining, nevertheless, a zeal for God's glory and man's welfare, ... shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in the view of men....

and in Chapter XX, he feels inspired and in his zeal, he writes his sermon for the New England holdiay all night. 

3. Romanticism values feeling and intuition over reason.  Little Pearl senses the sin in Dimmesdale and points out to her mother how he holds his hand over his heart.  Worried about Dimmesdale's deteriorating health, Hester senses that Chillingworth is responsible for the minister's deterioration and vows to speak to her former husband.

4. Romanticism shuns the artificiality of civilization and seeks unspoiled nature.  In Chapter XIX, Little Pearl is happiest in the forest by the babbling  brook playing in the sunshine.  There, too, Hester meets Dimmesdale and they can talk freely without the constraints of civilization.

5. Romanticism contemplates nature's beauty as a path to spiritual and moral development.  Inspired by his walk in the forest with Hester and Pearl, Dimmesdale writes his greatest sermon the night before the New England holiday. (Ch. XX)

6. Romanticism champions individual freedom and the worth of the individual. In Chapter XIII, there is an exploration of Hester as an individual Hawthorne writes, "The scarlet letter has not done its office."  For, Hester yet retains her independence and vows to speak with Roger Chillingworth as she is shocked to see the change in the minister.

7. Romanticism prefers youthful innocence to educated sophistication. It is young Pearl who scolds her mother for removing the scarlet letter, and it is the ingenuous Pearl who notices the minister's turmoil.

8. Romanticism finds inspiration in myth, legend, and folklore.  Hawthorne finds inspiration for his story with the fabricated myth of the "scarlet letter," and he recreates the Puritan colony of the days of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. 


teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While it is difficult to reduce Romanticism to "eight tenets," one can explore some of the many ways A Scarlet Letter is a Romantic novel.

First, countering the Puritan notion that the child is born evil, stained with Original Sin, and in need of having this natural self "corrected," the Romantics saw the child's innocence as an exalted, uncorrupted state, an example of purity untainted by society. Pearl, though a child in the Puritan world, exemplifies the Romantic notion of the child as pure and wise. Even her name connotes her purity. Pearl is naturally attracted to what is truly good, rather than what society deems good.

Second, Romanticism sought to elevate the common, ordinary, or oppressed person. Wordsworth, for instance, took the rustic "clown" and imbued him with dignity. Hawthorne, likewise, imbues the fallen woman, Hester, with grace and purity, despite her "crime."

Third, the Romantics exalted nature. Pearl loves nature and Dimmesdale finds religious inspiration in nature. Nature is a realm of freedom, a place to escape the judgments of society. 

Fourth, Romanticism values feeling over reason. In fact, Romanticism is often understood as a reaction against eighteenth-century rationalism. In this novel, Dimmesdale's and Hester's love is depicted as more sympathetic than the cold "laws" of their society.

Fifth, on a like note, Romantics explored, rather than denied, the supernatural element, as this novel does. Nature itself has a sublime, supernatural, gothic quality in this novel that inspires both awe and terror. 

Sixth, the Romantics valued the individual over society: in this novel, the cruel fate Hester suffers at the hands of hypocrites is more important than the rules of the social order. In fact, her grace and purity make a deep impression on people, perhaps making a deeper impression on some hearts than conventional rules. 

Seventh, the Romantics valued the "antique," the life of former times, and often set their literature in the Middle Ages. Here, Hawthorne follows suit by placing his story in the Puritan past of the seventeenth century.

Eighth, as typified by the Byronic hero, the Romantics tended to define the hero as the suffering individual at odds with society rather than the military or political leader. Hester definitely fits that mold.



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The Scarlet Letter

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