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The influence of Transcendentalism on The Scarlet Letter


Transcendentalism influences The Scarlet Letter through its emphasis on individual conscience and societal critique. The novel explores themes of personal integrity, the conflict between individual morality and societal norms, and the importance of personal spiritual experience, all central to Transcendentalist thought.

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How does Hawthorne's Transcendentalism influence The Scarlet Letter?

A contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, founders of the Transcendental movement, Nathaniel Hawthorne associated with them, perhaps, in an effort to discover more meaning behind the shadows of life that he so often perceived. A movement in the Romantic tradition, Transcendentalism holds that every individual can reach ultimate truths through reason and sensory experience. Here are its basic tenets:

  1. In every aspect of Nature, God is present--even in every human being.
  2. Everyone is capable of learning about God through intuition.
  3. In all its manifestations, Nature is symbolic of the spirit.
  4. The world is good, and evil is nonexistent.

While Hawthorne rejected much of this ideology, finding it too optimistic, he was partially influenced. Tenets 1 and 3 seem the ones more closely embraced by Hawthorne. 

  • Tenet 1

Shrouded by his Puritan guilt for the transgressions of his ancestors, Hawthorne sought to define humans, not in two groups--the elect and the damned--as the Calvinists had, but as essentially good, although weak at times. True, people sin, Hawthorne seems to say, but by admitting sin, one can improve. As his characters in The Scarlet Letter are in many ways allegorical, Hester Prynne develops this idea of Hawthorne's that one must "Be true! Be true!" and show one's "worst" in order to improve; for it is secret sin and its hypocrisy which damn a man spiritually. 

Underpinning the importance of Nature, Hawthorne has Hester take forest walks with her daughter Pearl where they encounter the workings of Nature. Hester arrives at certain truths on her walks and when she meets the Reverend Dimmesdale there. Even little Pearl senses Nature as she tells her mother that the sunshine does not like her, and as she refuses to cross the brook until her mother replaces her letter of shame upon her breast, "Come and take it up!" As Hester does so, Nature reacts,

...there was a sense of inevitable doom upon her as she thus received back this deadly symbol from the hand of fate....the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed like fading sunshine....

Moreover, it is in the forest where the genuine emotions of love and passion have been and are expressed between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester; it is in the forest in which the sun shines on them that truths can be expressed. It is in the forest where Hester's beauty returns to her and Dimmesdale no longer holds his heart and feels free: 

Here seen only by her [Hester's] eyes, Arthur Dimmesdale, false to God and man, might be, for one moment true!

  • Tenet 3

That Nature is symbolic of the spirit is evident in a passage involving the character of Chillingworth, who gathers "a bundle of unsightly plants" in Chapter X, Dimmesdale asks his physician from where he has brought "such a dark, flabby leaf?" Chillingworth replies that he has found it growing upon an unmarked grave. Further, he tells the minister,

"They grew out of his heart, and typify, it may be, some hideous secret that was buried with him, and which he had done better to confess during his lifetime."

Other examples of how Nature represents the spirit occur with the elf-child Pearl as she is in harmony with the sunshine that follows her along a forest path, as well as the babbling brook that cheers with Pearl in her delight. Also, when Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold in the night (Ch. XII), a meteor "burning duskily through a veil of cloud" reflects his spirit and that of Chillingworth who hides beneath.

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What is the connection between The Scarlet Letter and Transcendentalism?

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. 

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What is the connection between The Scarlet Letter and Transcendentalism?

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."

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What is the connection between The Scarlet Letter and Transcendentalism?

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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