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The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter with Course Hero's video study guide.

The Scarlet Letter | Context


Hawthorne had originally intended to write just a short story to be in a collection of stories about New England. His publisher encouraged him to bring out the novel alone, without other stories. Although Hawthorne didn't think The Scarlet Letter would be well received, he was mistaken. The novel became his first and greatest success and was soon recognized as a masterpiece. From its publication in 1850, the novel was a best seller—the entire print run of 2,500 books sold out in less than two weeks.

Critical Response

Early reviews praised The Scarlet Letter for its "tragic power" and "subtle knowledge of character." In the late 1800s, Henry James, another New Englander and major American author, wrote that the publication of The Scarlet Letter was "a literary event of the first order."

Not everyone was enthusiastic, however. Not surprisingly, some of the people Hawthorne had described in "The Custom-House" essay complained about his biting criticism. Hawthorne refused to back down: when the novel was reprinted, he didn't change a word in the essay. Religious leaders also complained that Hester is not punished more harshly for her sin.

Modern readers are attracted to the historical and biographical sources of the novel, to feminist readings of Hawthorne's deeply sympathetic depiction of Hester's troubles, and to Hawthorne's focus on the nature of language itself.

In this context, the biographical materials are appealing with respect to the themes of the novel. For example, Hawthorne's mother, shortly after her wedding, was sent to live with her husband's puritanical sisters. At the time that she was seven months married and nine months pregnant, her husband went off to sea. It is not a stretch to imagine the judgments this young woman suffered at the hands of her sisters-in-law and pain at the absence of her husband at the time she gave birth, nor can the widowed mother's strength in the solitary management of three children under age seven be ignored. Still, readers marvel at Hawthorne's brilliant depiction of the suffering and strength of his main character.

Moreover, questions of identity for a boy who never knew his father or a young woman who is far from home emerge in the bitter ironies of "The Custom-House" and the play with the nature of identity as Hester is named and judged by various characters. The slipperiness of meaning in the single letter A, possibly related to Hawthorne's impulse to add a single letter to his surname, initiates the potential for exploring the novel as a study in meaning at the level of the letter.

New England's Puritan Past

The Puritans followed the teachings of John Calvin (1509–1564), a leading figure of the Protestant Reformation. They believed in predestination, the concept that while all people are sinners, some (called "the elect") are destined from birth to receive God's salvation and go to heaven. The Puritans got their name from their efforts to "purify" the Church of England from within. Some Puritans, called "Separatists," left to form their own branches of Protestantism.

Of the nearly 150 courageous immigrants who entered Plymouth Harbor on a bitterly cold day in December 1620, only about 24 were Puritans, but that minority had an outsized influence on the new settlement. These Puritans, who were Separatists, wanted to establish a paradise on Earth and so founded the Plymouth colony. A decade later, a much larger group of other newcomers who were Puritans but not Separatists set up the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had several settlements, including Boston and Salem. Both Puritans and non-Puritans in Massachusetts Bay lived in a theocracy, a form of government based on the Bible and run by ministers. The Bible was the constitution. Only church members could be citizens.

The Puritans' brutal life in New England, marked by starvation, diseases, death, and conflict with Native Americans, helped convince them that life was filled with unending sorrow, hardship, and work. Although they had come to North America to seek freedom from religious oppression, they became as oppressive and judgmental as the people who had persecuted them in England. People were punished for offenses such as swearing, drinking, gambling, not attending church, and gossiping, as well as violations of the commandments against adultery, theft, and murder. Punishments depended on the crime. Minor offenses were usually punished only by fines. Public humiliation was common, including being put into the stocks and having to wear a letter, such as the A for adultery or a D for drunkenness. More serious crimes were punished by imprisonment, banishment, or infliction of physical pain, such as whipping or severing a finger or an ear. People were executed for such crimes as adultery, murder, and treason.

The Romance Genre

Hawthorne labeled The Scarlet Letter a romance, a type of work he described in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables in this way:

When a writer calls his work a romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a novel.

A novel, he elaborated, must adhere with strict "fidelity" to "the probable and ordinary course" of human experience. A romance, while it must present "the truth of the human heart," allows the author some leeway to "manage" the "circumstances." Scholars debate how widely accepted this distinction was in Hawthorne's time. Some argue that Hawthorne's definition of romance was idiosyncratic and that to most contemporaries, romance and novel were interchangeable terms for any lengthy work of prose fiction. Others say that Hawthorne's view reflected an emerging consensus.

Either way, Hawthorne saw a difference, which suggests how readers should approach The Scarlet Letter. While he commits to psychological truth in telling his story, he does not claim literal truth. A writer of romances can manipulate "his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights, and deepen and enrich the shadows."

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