For Nathaniel Hawthorne, the definition of history is different. It is not only battles, annexation and colonization, but it is a desire for transformation and revolution. In The Scarlet Letter, the social as well as the personal history converge together. It also reflects the native liberty as well as the memories of English civil war. It often talks about the religious, political and cultural history of America. Apart from this Hawthorne also knew the consequences of various acts like the fugitive slave law, the property acts of married women, the Indian Removal Acts, the European revolutions of 1848. These historical facts affected the literature of America. The insight of the society also changed drastically. It is very clear in the writings of Hawthorne that he wants to go back into the old puritanical world of England. His advocacy is a true approach to recreate the history by questioning it in the present circumstances.
He becomes nostalgic and it shows that his understanding of history is the fusion of philosophical and personal insight. The Scarlet Letter talks about truth and history, punishment and Judgment; it also reflects a conflict between public and private life. The puritanical New England which Hawthorne talks about is known about the rustic dwellings, townships, busy market places, dark forests and jagged coastline. The distinct boundaries and geographical description reflects the cultural panorama of America. The character ‘Hester Prynne’ is like a threat to disrupt the power politics of the society. The graveyard, the forest, the scaffold, the prison and the Scarlet Letter, reflects the individual and social trauma, redemption and exposure. The novel seems to be a protest against cultural utopianism. This cultural utopianism along with the moral insignia, acts like a dream which is almost impossible to achieve. The bodily presence of Hester on the scaffold highlights the committed crime and sin. This sin is proved by the presence of the baby. This baby is the result of the adultery and sin. Thus, Hester is proved as a sinful woman. She becomes the symbol of hatred and that is why she is banished from the town. The border area between the forest and the town acts like the puritanical division between the uncultured and cultured. Here one can mark the sexual disparity and its connectivity to the puritanical as well as Elizabethan cultures. Both the cultures support the banishment of immoral women. Readers are reminded of Anne Bradstreet who was the first American woman poet. She has also struggled as a puritanical wife. In one of her poems she has raised her voice for the support of women. The poem says :-
“Now say, have women worth? Or have they none? Or had they some, but with our Queen isn’t gone? Nay Masculine, you have thus taxed us long, But she, though dead, will Vindicate our wrong, let such as say our sex is void of Reason, Know it’s a slander now, but once was Treason.”1
We cannot say that Hawthorne was a feminist writer but we cannot deny also that there is a fragrance of feminism in his writings. He has raised questions about this ‘sexual disparity’. In Salem Gazette, one of his most famous letters Hawthorne wrote on the American feminist Anne Hutchinson. In this letter he says :-
“We will not look for a living resemblance of Mrs. Hutchinson though the search might not be altogether fruitless. But there are portentous indications, changes gradually taking place in the habits and feelings of the gentle sex, which seem to threaten our-posterity with many of those public-women, whereof one was a burden too grievous for our fathers The Press, however, is now the medium through which feminine ambition chiefly manifests itself…”2
It is very interesting to note that Hawthorne was never in favor of equality of sexes. He liked the image of a submissive woman which was very typical in the male dominated society. When looking for another social issue in the writings of Hawthorne, we will find liberty and democracy as a major issue. He was a kind of writer who has always supported the Federal union of America. He has also respected the individual liberty and democracy. In the preface “Custom House” there are several things to notice like cultural histories, ideologies and few autobiographical elements. Hawthorne was a cultural theorist who witnessed the evolving culture of America. Novels like The Blithedale Romance, The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables reflects the history of American society. Hawthorne has said about the plot of The Scarlet Letter that it was the result of “ the period of hardly accomplished revolution, and still seething turmoil, in which the story shaped itself ” (51 68). In the preface of Twice-Told Tales, Hawthorne has remarked that his characters are not secluded. This clearly shows that the author has the quest for self-consciousness. This self-consciousness plays a very important role in repentance for a committed crime. Hawthorne, most of the time writes about the morbid character of a man. It is very interesting to find out that the theme of crime and punishment is directly associated with the kind of society in which we live. So there is a link of the individual with the world. This becomes very clear by a poem “on crime and punishment” written by Khalil Gibran. The poem says:-
“Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you, So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also. And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree, So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all. ”3
Gibran is trying to say that crime is also a part of the society and we cannot ignore this. So if we take the society as a ‘body’ then crime becomes the part of the body. This body is driven by the soul and this soul is guided by the nature. So the darker and the sinful character lie in each of us. We cannot ignore this. The most striking feature of Hawthorne is his style of writing. It is lucid and flowing. The analysis of the situation is accurate. The objects as well as characters are represented in detail. The “Twice Told Tales” and “Mosses from an old Manse” are written with interesting plot and sketches in the mind of the author. In most of the writings of Hawthorne we will find that the main concern of the plot is the conflict between a strong puritan and a mild English Society. This conflict is based on several issues like appreciation of art, charity, gaiety and sympathy and respect for tradition. Hawthorne presents English culture and traditions as a valuable product of historical origin and puritans have distanced themselves from it. Several critics have described Hawthorne as a writer who has used allegory as a tool of writing. For him isolation was the root cause of all sin and evil. The author’s understanding of the society was guided by his experience. In The House of Seven Gables Hawthorne has presented a wide perspective of the transitional phase of the economical, political, social and spiritual history of the 19th century America. The approach of the writer is personal as well as social in writing about such burning issues. Often Hawthorne writes about the plight of the poor. In The Old Apple Dealer (1842) he has written about the condition of a beggar. His most penetrating comments on the poor sections of the society can be seen in The Procession of life. Here he has written about numerous occupational diseases and hazards. His attention also goes to men of wealth and power. He shows them as unhappy and corrupt. Their only service is to exploit the poor. The gouty, old fashioned and aristocratic Europeans are treated less harshly by Hawthorne as they are out-fashioned and they have nothing to do or contribute in the advancement of America. He has even not spared the businessmen. In The Celestial Railroad, these businessmen are depicted as moderns who want to take the railroad towards the heaven. Their heaven has nothing to do with the almighty God but their heaven lies in the stockholding of the railroad. Here the “capitalists of the city are among the largest stockholders” of the railroad. Here human values are like objects to buy and sell. Here morality has nothing to do with the humanity. It has limited its self to business transaction. When Hawthorne writes about the capitalists and businessmen, he frequently uses words like ‘sordid’, ‘materialistic’, ‘corrupt’, ‘shrewd’, ‘lonely’, ‘calculating’, ‘guilt ridden’; these words describe their real characters and business schemes. Sometimes he uses typical words like ‘artificial’, ‘wild’, ‘intricate’. He emphasizes on a fact that the wealth and power of American business is moral irresponsibility which can lead the country towards damnation. It seems that Hawthorne has his own understanding of the American economy and business. In some of his later stories he writes about equality and the demand of the common man. In The Procession of Life he talks about “classification of society”4. He talks about the real democratization of art and politics. Here he also points out that there should be a common humanity. Coming back to his novels like The Scarlet Letter we will find that it is perhaps the best known novel written by Hawthorne. It is like an album of pictures where diseased human nature has been shown. The interest of the readers never fades for a moment. The writer is often telling his plot with energy and concentration. The reader will surely read it quickly with an excitement to turn the next page. The story is about Love, Jealousy. Hatred also evolves out from the injured love. There is a woman who is guilty of adultery. She becomes a subject of punishment. She is young and beautiful. The partner of her sin is a minister of the church. She is doomed to wear the scarlet latter. In the climax of the novel the woman is left alone. There are four major characters present in the novel. They are the minister, the husband, the child and the woman. The readers are expected to show sympathy with the woman. The husband who is an old man is the personification of the injured love. It is shown in the novel that he has left his wife not even telling her and wandered away. Hawthorne has tried to convince the readers that the husband has wished his happiness in her loneliness. The story seems very realistic as it is the truth of a civilized society where a woman is often looked as a commodity. There is fear, shame and hatred which have been revealed through the book. It is also a fact to notice that the issues which have been taken into account by the author are not merely social and local but they are universal in appeal. It can be applied to any society. In one of his other stories, The New Adam and Eve, Hawthorne has written about new man and woman along with the ideas of new Democrats, who are able to create a new equitable society. In The Hall of Fantasy, issues like social reformation and democracy are discussed in detail. Apart from the social reformation, Hawthorne also talks about the equality of man. He is worried about the rampant corruption of the modern man and his society. Hawthorne points out that the utilitarian and the materialistic bent of the society is responsible for the unhappiness and corruption of the modern man. Tales which embody such themes are entitled as The Artist of the Beautiful (1884) and The Celestial Railroad. They reflect the mechanical pragmatism of America. From 1830’s to the 1840’s Hawthorne was busy in writing about the American materialism. This can be found in his references of factories and machines. There are several references of American economy in The American Notebooks.
As for example, Hawthorne has talked about the summer tour of England. Here he often looked for factories in villages.
“The machinery whizzing, and girls looking out of the windows at the stage, with heads averted from their tasks, but still busy”….5
By the end of 1840’s Hawthorne was convinced that machines and factories have replaced human values but they were also antithetical to the human nature. The heart, the soul and the imagination were now busy in making machines. In “The Procession of Life”, Hawthorne has referred the place having factories as the place “Where the demon of machinery annihilates the human Soul.”6 This mechanical replacement according to the author is “fast blotting the Picturesque, the poetic, and the beautiful out of human life ”7. In The New Adam and Eve Hawthorne has tried to show through the innocent couple about the ugliness and perversion of a modern city. Anonymity, stressed the author, was another drawback of a modern life. This city life has been successfully handled by Hawthorne in Wakefield (1834). The author Hawthorne had become more skeptical about the city life by the end of 1840’s. In The Intelligence Office he has portrayed a lost city dweller who is in search of a true place in world . It seems that he too is a victim of identity crisis. This identity crisis was a common feature of the city life which has become mechanical day by day.
1. Emerson, Everett. Ed. Major Writers of Early American Literature University of Wisconsin Press, 1976, P.36.
2. Hawthorne, Nathaniel.Selected Tales and Sketches (the Best short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne). Digireads.com publishing, 2007, P.286.
3. Gibran, Khalil. The Prophet. The Floating press, 2009, P.37.
7. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Fire Worship(From “Mosses From an Old Manse”),2005.