illustrated portrait of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Was Nathaniel Hawthorne a profoundly Christian writer?

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Nathaniel Hawthorne was a profoundly Christian writer and placed particular emphasis throughout his work on the operation of divine providence.

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The Christian faith was of profound importance to Nathaniel Hawthorne. There is no doubt, however, that he departed from and reinterpreted the faith of his ancestors, the best-known of whom is probably John Hathorne, the grim and bigoted hanging judge who presided at the Salem witch trials. Hathorne would undoubtedly have regarded his descendant's transcendental spirituality as heretical, but Hawthorne was at least equally appalled by John Hathorne's interpretation of Christianity. Hawthorne's works continually stress the centrality of divine providence in the Christian vision and the folly of human judgment. This is particularly apparent in The Scarlet Letter, in which Mr. Dimmesdale makes the following impassioned plea:

She recognises, believe me, the solemn miracle which God hath wrought in the existence of that child. And may she feel, too—what, methinks, is the very truth—that this boon was meant, above all things else, to keep the mother's soul alive, and to preserve her from blacker depths of sin into which Satan might else have sought to plunge her! Therefore it is good for this poor, sinful woman, that she hath an infant immortality, a being capable of eternal joy or sorrow, confided to her care—to be trained up by her to righteousness, to remind her, at every moment, of her fall, but yet to teach her, as if it were by the Creator's sacred pledge, that, if she bring the child to heaven, the child also will bring its parents thither! Herein is the sinful mother happier than the sinful father. For Hester Prynne's sake, then, and no less for the poor child's sake, let us leave them as Providence hath seen fit to place them!

Dimmesdale believes in a benevolent God, who has arranged for the redemption of Hester Prynne's soul. However sinful she may have been, it is not for other flawed human beings to judge her and meddle with the workings of divine providence.

This notion that God has arranged everything for the best, and that it is wicked for humans to try to circumvent his plans, arises again and again in Hawthorne's work and is the main theme of several short stories. In "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," for instance, the old people who believe that they can grow young again reap only disappointment and, even at the end of the story, fail to be cured of their folly.

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