Historical Context

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The Transcendentalist Movement

The Scarlet Letter, which takes as its principal subject colonial seventeenth-century New England, was written and published in the middle of the nineteenth century. Hawthorne began writing the novel in 1849, after his dismissal from the Custom-House, and it was published in 1850. The discrepancy between the time represented in the novel and the time of its production has often been a point of confusion to students. Because Hawthorne took an earlier time as his subject, the novel is considered a historical romance written in the midst of the American literary movement called transcendentalism (c. 1836–60).

The principle writers of transcendentalism included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and W. H. Channing. Transcendentalism was, broadly speaking, a reaction against the rationalism of the previous century and the religious orthodoxy of Calvinist New England. Transcendentalism stressed the romantic tenets of mysticism, idealism, and individualism. In religious terms, it saw God not as a distant and harsh authority, but as an essential aspect of the individual and the natural worlds, which were themselves considered inseparable. Because of this profound unity of all matter, human and natural, knowledge of the world and its laws could be obtained through a kind of mystical rapture with the world. This type of experience was perhaps most famously explained in Emerson's Nature, where he wrote,

I become a transparent eyeball, I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.

Even though Hawthorne was close to many transcendentalists, including Emerson, and even though he lived for a while at the transcendentalist experimental community of Brook Farm, he was rather peripheral to the movement. Hawthorne even pokes fun at Brook Farm and 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.

Abolitionism and Revolution

More important to Hawthorne’s literary productions, and particularly The Scarlet Letter, were abolitionism and European revolution. These, in Hawthorne’s view, were episodes of threatening instability. Abolitionism was the nineteenth-century movement to end slavery in the United States. Though it varied in intensity, abolitionism contained a very radical strain that helped to form a climate for John Brown’s capture of Harpers Ferry in 1859. (John Brown intended to establish a base for armed slave insurrection.) The rising intensity and violence of abolitionism was an important cause of the Civil War. Hawthorne’s conservative position in relation to abolitionism did not necessarily mean that he was pro-slavery, but he did quite clearly oppose abolitionists, writing that slavery was “one of those evils which divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivances.”

What Hawthorne feared were violent disruptions of the social order like those that were happening in Europe at the time he wrote The Scarlet Letter . The bloody social upheaval that most interested Americans began in France in 1848. This, and other revolutions of the period, pitted the lower and middle classes against established power and authority. While the revolutions eventually failed, they were largely waged under the banner of socialism, and it was this fact that caused concern in America; as one journalist wrote, as quoted by Bercovitch, here, there were “foreboding shadows” of “Communism, Socialism, Pillage, Murder, Anarchy, and the Guillotine vs. Law and Order, Family and Property.” Critics have recently pointed to Hawthorne’s guillotine imagery in “The Custom-House” (where he even suggests the title “The Posthumous Papers of a Decapitated Surveyor” for his tale) and metaphors...

(This entire section contains 782 words.)

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of his own victimization as some evidence of his sympathies with regard to revolution and social order.

The Puritan Colonies

The novel was written in the mid-nineteenth century, but it takes the mid-seventeenth century for the events it describes (1642–49). The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by John Winthrop (whose death is represented near the center of the novel) and other Puritans in 1630. They sought to establish an ideal community in America that could act as a model of influence for what they saw as a corrupt civil and religious order in England. This sense of mission was the center of their religious and social identity. Directed toward the realization of such an ideal, the Puritans required a strict moral regulation; anyone in the community who sinned threatened not only their soul, but the very possibility of civil and religious perfection in America and in England. Not coincidentally, the years Hawthorne chose to represent in The Scarlet Letter were the same as those of the English Civil War fought between King Charles I and the Puritan Parliament; the latter was naturally supported by the New England colonists.

Social Concerns

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Nathaniel Hawthorne has been described as the chronicler of America’s Puritan heritage. The Scarlet Letter is the best known of dozens of novels and tales in which the writer recreates the ambiance of a period in American history when religious and social intolerance stifled individual expression and forced young men and women to restrain their natural passions. Not only were personal idiosyncrasies looked upon with disdain or even hostility; the countryside was in the grips of hysteria stirred up by preachers and politicians who engendered a religious fervor among the populace, to the point where deviance from strict religious practices or small social or moral transgressions became evidence of imagined crimes of heinous proportions. Hawthorne’s own ancestors participated in the famous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts.

The attitudes that dominated New England society during the turbulent decades of the early colonial period form the basis for the portrait of society that the novelist aims to capture in his tale of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale’s ill-fated love affair. The novelist believed the American character was shaped in part by the events and communal state of mind of this bygone era and that future generations must understand their ancestry to make sense of contemporary society.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1640s: The Puritans believed in their mission to establish a model community for the Protestant world.

    1850s: America had developed an ideology of “manifest destiny” that held that the prosperous expansion of Americans across the continent was inevitable and ordained and implied that the country was destined to become a great global power.

    Today: America’s global power seems both assured with the splitting of the Soviet Union and a thing of the past with the rise of countries like Japan and Germany to economic power.

  • 1640s: The colonists, though not clearly provoked, fought with the Narraganset Indians against the Pequot Indians, at one point killing seven hundred Pequot men, women, and children.

    1850s: Native land claims had all but been eliminated east of the Mississippi with President Jackson’s removal of the “five civilized tribes” in the late 1830s. Their bitter march to Oklahoma is known as “The Trail of Tears.”

    Today: Native peoples survive and grow in geographically dispersed areas and continue to fight legal battles over land claims.

  • 1640s: Anne Hutchinson had recently disturbed the Massachusetts Bay Colony by asserting that inward knowledge of the Holy Spirit, not outward good works, led to salvation.

    1850s: Transcendentalists disturbed orthodox religious views by claiming that God and the knowledge of his laws could be experienced by the individual open to revelation.

    Today: While religious fundamentalism is rising and many others are skeptical of religious belief, the idea that God is present in Nature, or the individual, remains popular.

  • 1640s: Women were rigidly excluded from official positions of political or religious power.

    1850s: The women’s suffrage movement gained strength after the first women’s rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. The two principal issues were ownership of property and voting rights.

    Today: After gaining the right to vote in 1920, women now hold political offices from mayor to senator to vice president. While women have made gains in the business world, they are still underrepresented in executive positions and still encounter discrimination.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading