The Scarlet Letter Reference
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Scarlet Letter

(American History Through Literature)

Hester Prynnes punishment. Hester stands on the towns scaffold holding her daughter, Pearl. GETTY IMAGES Hester Prynne's punishment. Published by Gale Cengage GETTY IMAGES

Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804864) novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) raises important questions about the relationship between literature and history. A historical novel set in seventeenth-century New England, it offers Hawthorne's interpretation of the meaning and legacy of the Puritan culture that defined the region. Like many nineteenth-century American authors, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper, and Lydia Maria Child, Hawthorne looks to America's colonial past as a source of subject matter in a country that he lamented (in the preface to his 1860 novel The Marble Faun) had "no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a common-place prosperity" (p. 854). As did his contemporaries, Hawthorne saw in an exploration of the past an opportunity to evaluate how that past shaped the character and culture of America in his own day. Through this interpretation of the past, however, Hawthorne could also consider issues that were important to mid-nineteenth-century America, including the relationship between the individual and the community, the impact of a society's codes and values upon its members, the place of women in American culture, and the difficult position of the artist or independent thinker in any society, past or present.


Hawthorne raises some of these concerns in "The Custom-House," which serves as a preface to the novel proper. "The Custom-House," set during Hawthorne's day, provides insights into Hawthorne's own relationship with the state, as he had been a public employee at the Custom House of Salem for three years prior to writing his novel. Turned out of office when the presidential administration changed in 1849 and the anti-Jacksonian Whigs came to power, Hawthorne defended his record as an employee but also revealed his uneasiness over the conditions that arise when individuals remain too long dependent upon the state. He presents his former coworkers as marked by "the lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses" (p. 124), suggesting that lifetime government appointments undermine the self-reliance and personal initiative valued in Hawthorne's culture. Hawthorne had depended on patronage appointments himself, for until the success of The Scarlet Letter, he had been unable to support his family on the proceeds of his writing career. But he claims that his powers of imagination and creativity were diminished while under public employ, returning only after he had been dismissed and no longer had to conform to a particular political identity.

Hawthorne also makes use of his position as a "surveyor" in the Custom House to assess the traditions from the past that have given rise to the concept of an "American" identity. Hawthorne explores the ways in which individual identity is shaped by family, place, and the past, suggesting that his own identity is bound up with the tales of his ancestors and the town of Salem. He describes the attachment to place as an "instinct" that impels an individual to return after periods of absence, an instinct that comes into play for The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne at the end of the novel. In addition to the questions he poses about individual identity, Hawthorne, like many of his contemporaries, looks to the Puritan past of New England as the source of America's democratic impulse. Sacvan Bercovitch has pointed out the way that Hawthorne, in common with many mid-nineteenth-century historians, saw in the early settlers' desire to create a new order that separates itself from Old World hierarchies and institutions the foundation for the balance between individual liberty and the consent to compromise that allows for both America's progress and stability (pp. 368).

Hawthorne links the preface to the novel proper through the explanation of his discovery in the Custom House of a manuscript and the remnants of an embroidered letter A

(The entire section is 5,860 words.)