The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ Introduction

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Nathaniel Hawthorne spent many years writing short fiction before the publication of The Scarlet Letter. During the years the author spent refining his talent, he was also developing a keen interest in the past and studying the history of his own family. The period which interested Hawthorne most was the 17th century, when the Massachusetts Colony was a lonely outpost in the New World. Life for the colonists demanded hard work and constant caution against the threats of wild animals, Indian attacks, disease, and hunger.

In addition to these threats, many people of the time feared individuals whom they considered witches. By 1692 in Massachusetts Colony, interest in witchcraft had reached such intensity that more than 100 people were charged with casting spells and practicing magic. The hysteria in New England resulted in a long series of trials, imprisonments, and cruel deaths. Two of Hawthorne’s ancestors were involved in this. The first, Major William Hathorne (Nathaniel Hawthorne added the “w” to the family name after graduating from college), played an active role in the persecution of Quakers. His son, Judge John Hathorne, had served as one of the magistrates ordering the execution of twenty persons during the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials. Hawthorne addresses this in “The Custom-House,” the early pages.

Both religious leaders and government officials expected complete obedience from the new citizens of Massachusetts. Their demands were based on a very strict moral code. People who defied the moral code faced harsh penalties. Adultery, which is the subject of The Scarlet Letter, was often punished in front of the entire community. Great wooden platforms provided a stage for public whippings and humiliation. Facing such harsh penalties, the accused person was constantly reminded of the wrongdoing.

In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne narrates the effects of a single wrongful act upon the lives of four people. Hester Prynne, the main character, willingly accepts her public punishment for the crime of adultery. But she is not alone in facing the effects of her crime. Her illegitimate daughter Pearl, isolated because of the disapproval of the townspeople, develops into a stubborn, unmanageable child. Hester’s minister, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and his physician, Roger Chillingsworth, are also caught up in Hester’s crime. Through the interactions of these four characters, the plot of The Scarlet Letter unfolds. Their suffering represents Hawthorne’s belief that people who hide their wrongdoings do not escape the results of sin.

It is important to understand that we are studying Nathaniel Hawthorne, the writer, out of chronological order. He is, in fact, a writer of the Transcendental Period, 1820-1865. We are discussing Hawthorne here, in the Puritan times (1642), because this is the time in which he set this novel, The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne painted a picture of Puritan society with amazing detail. As you prepare to read, remember the journals and personal accounts of the real people we have already met in Unit 1. Think about the roles of women and the attitudes of society. Remember, in Puritan times God’s laws were the laws of the community.  We will revisit Hawthorne when we get to the Transcendental writers.

The Custom-House: At the beginning of the book, you will read “The Custom-House.” It was actually written to increase the size of the novel. Hawthorne considered the story itself to be too small. It creates a picture of society during Hawthorne’s times, and allows Hawthorne to pretend to have discovered the object (the scarlet letter) in the Custom House.

In this introduction, Hawthorne writes about his days working at the Custom-House. It is a fact; in the early 1840’s, he indeed works in Salem’s Custom-House, which gives him a factual basis for a fictional setting. He describes the people working around him, and his malcontent with this lifestyle of working for the republic. He wants to be a writer, but he has become “content, choosing not to exert himself” because there is no reason to take a risk when he’s being supported so well. Hawthorne was finally able to leave his duties at this job when General Taylor, a Whig, was elected to the presidency. Democratic “enemies” were relieved of their posts and Hawthorne began his writing career again. He uses this place of work to introduce the main story. He did not really find a scarlet letter there, but the actual place of employment was his inspiration for the beginning of the story. Realize that the introductory chapter is dry reading compared to the actual novel. Once you begin The Scarlet Letter, you will most likely find it to be a wonderful tale.


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