He was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachussets. He was a descendant of a long line of puritan rulers. As a child, he heard many different stories from this puritan past. One of his forefathers was the one that prosecuted the famous witches of Salem, an episode that illustrates the puritan intolerance.
After graduating in Bowdoin College, he returned to his home town, where he spent 12 years in semi-isolation. During these years, he draws information about the early story of america, and writes his first tales. These are alegoric tales, centered in moral conflicts and in the effects of puritanism in the colonnies of New England. These tales were recopilated in Twice told tales. The historical past of America, and the roots of this country would always be a point of reference in his career. Journal of a solitary man is a sort of autobiographical work, about a man who spends a long time in isolation. When he leaves this isolation, he can no longer mantain a normal relationship with the other members of the community. Characters in Hawthorne´s novels are usually out of touch with the real people in conventional situations. His main characters are usually allienated, in some way or other.
In 1841 he spends 6 months in the communal society of Brook Farm, trying to get an economical stability that would allow him to get married, and to have time to write. Blithedale farm, a novel inspired in his stay in Brooke farm.
The following year he marries Amelia Peabody, from Salem, and they settle in Concord, Massachussets. During this period, in which he works for the government, he sets off to write his masterpiece, The scarlett letter, a story about an adulter puritan, Hester Prynne, which refuses to reveal the name of his lover.
In 1850, he moves to Lenox (Massachussets), where he enjoys the friendship of one of his admirers, the novelist Herman Melville. There he writes The house of the seven gables , about the decadence of puritanism in an old New England family, and
HAWTHORNE AND THE PAST
Another constant in his production is the constant dealing with the past. Past in Hawthorne is not just a temporal context for his novels and tales, but also the only way to understand present. He talks about American puritan past to make people reflect about American present, and about what America has inherited from that past. Besides, situating the facts in the past, allows him to create an atmosphere of vagueness, as if time had removed the limits between legend and reality, imagination and memory. He mixes real elements and supernatural ones, he introduces allegories and comparisons, abstract terms supplying concrete ones, creating a climate of vagueness, as if we saw facts through the fogs created by time. In this sense, he is an example of magic realism, which Suramerican writers would develope a century later. Besides, we have an intrusive narrator, which helps to increase the sensation of distance between the reader and the text.
THE SCARLETT LETTER
We can´t talk about this novel without understanding what puritanism was and what represented in the first times of the American community.
Puritanism is a religious reform movement in the Church of England during the late XVI and XVII century. It sought to purify the church from rests of Roman Catholic popery. Puritanism is the American version of Calvinism, the doctrine of the first colonists who arrived to America (1620, Plymouth Rock, Massachussets), from the U.K.. It is a very fatalistic and pessimistic doctrine. Puritans see the world as a sacred text written by God, and in which they must read the meanings which are hidden in every fact, circumstance, or event. For the Puritan, everything is extremely significative and symbolic. For them, law and religion is the same thing, God´s law and man made law is the same, and going against law is going against God himself. Example: what independence meant for Puritans.
PLOT AND MEANING: As we have said before, this novel presents the story of a woman, Hester Pryne, who is condemned by all the puritan community in Boston, to wear a badge of shame because she has committed adultery. She has a daughter, Pearl, fruit of this adulterous relation, and she rejects to tell the community who the father is. The other characters are Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl´s father and minister of the puritan community, and Roger Chillingworth, Hester´s husband. Hawthorme presents her as a good natured woman, who has sinned against the laws of men, but who hasn´t sinned against God. It is an attack on ad condemnation of Puritanism. He makes an heroine of a “fallen woman”, and presents the puritan community as the real sinners.
Hawthorne uses an exuberant imaginery to reflect this contraposition.
One example is the scene in the forest. Arthur and Hester meet in the forest after having repressed their love for seven long years. It must remembered that Nature, for the puritans, was the source of temptation and evil. As Hester removes the stigma that society has placed on her for her sin, the badge of shame, nature responds with ablessing on the couple in the form of a flood of sunshine, and Hester´s beauty, which has been dimmed over the years of shame, appears fully again. Sin only exists in the context of society, it is the repression of society the real sin in the novel. What society condemns, nature smiles upon and blesses.
This contrast between what is natural and good and what is agaainst conventions, and therefore, bad is evident in the emblematic letter A that Hester is forced to wear on her breast as a symbol for shame. Hester transform this symbol in a thing of beauty. The author describes it as artistically done, in accordance with the taste of the age, but beyond what was allowed by the austere regulations of the colonny.
The author uses this American puritan past to offer a reflection about sin, crime, and the effects of feeling guilty on the human beings.
The novel is structurated around 3 parallel scenes in the book, that mark three different stages. The common factor of these three scenes is that they take place in the scaffold raised in the square of the town.
The first scaffold scene presents a confrontation between Hester, accompanied by Pearl, and the puritan community. It is important here the symbolic use of colours used in this scene by Hawthorne:
Hester is wearing colourful garments, red clothes, she has shiny glossy hair. The intrusive narrator already mentioned identifies her with the virgin. The puritan community is wearing dim garments and gloomy clothes.
In this part of the novel, we are presented the dilemma the novel deals with.
The second scaffold scene takes place at night, the protagonist of this scene is Arthur Dimmesdale. he feels guilty and he can´t bear this psychological torture. He goes up the scaffold because he needs to confess his crime, although he knows there is nobody there to hear him. However he is heard by Roger, Hester´s husband. From this moment, Roger will display all his evil power to torture Arthur psychologically. In this scene we can see one of the examples of supernatural powers in the novel. There is a storm and
The lightning draws the letter A, now standing for Arthur, in the sky.
The third scaffold scene coincides with the end of the novel. Arthur delivers a sermon in which he insinuates that he is Pearl´s father. He dies in the arms of Hester. Some of the presents can see the letter A burnt on his flesh.
The letter A is a symbol, which stands for Adultery in the first scene, for Arthur in the second, and for Angel in the last one.
The Scarlett letter is also the story of Pearl, Hester´s daughter, who is the scarlett letter, the symbol for adultery, in human form. To the child, the letter A stands for Arthur. The first thing she sees, when she begins to become aware of the world surrounding her, is the letter A on her mother´s bossom. In the first scene on the scaffold, Arthur urges Hester to confess who Pearl´s father is. She keeps silent, but Pearl, holds her arms at Arthur, with a half pleasant half plaintive murmur. This chapter is called “the recognition”. Allthroughout the rest of the novel, Pearl will urge her father, by means of insinuations and bits of play, to recognize her as his daughter.
Finally, we must say that the value of this masterpiece are found in Hawthorne´s ability to transform the raw materials of social, religious, and familiar history into works of literature, and his dealing with the past as key for the understanding and correcting of the present and as a literary device to achieve the magic and semi legendary atmosphere that surrounds his narrative.