To understand a book the reader must understand the background and lifetime of the author. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s childhood was one in which he was brought up by a conservative family in a Puritan Community. He was not totally sold on his culture’s ideas on many subjects. His own uncle was a judge in the witch trials of Salem. Hawthorne was embarrassed about his uncle and his involvement in the witch trials. Hawthorne was born July 4, 1804 and the only son of Captain and Elizabeth Clarke Manning Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s father died when he was four, so he was brought up mainly by his mother.
His mother moved his family to her uncle’s house, where she distanced herself from Hawthorne. After she left he was brought up by his grandmother. She was an avid Puritan and instilled these beliefs into Nathaniel Hawthorne. He felt so distanced from his family he added a ‘w’; to his last name so it would be different. Hawthorne’s education was not the norm for a Puritan boy. He was injured when he was nine, so he did not go to school, which was no problem for Hawthorne who was not a big fan of school at the time. This time allowed for Hawthorne to explore and do many things other children could not do because of school.
During Hawthorne’s early childhood he did a lot of soul searching and finding his place in society. After he recovered from his injury he resumed school and went to Bowdoin College. He was an average student there and graduated in the middle of his class. After graduating he went spent twelve years in ‘this dismal chamber’; which was a room in his mother’s home. In the twelve years that Hawthorne spent in seclusion, he perfected his skills as an author. He published his first book, Fanshaw: A Tale, and was unsatisfied with it and tried to remove all the copies he could find from circulation.
He then began to publish tories in newspapers and books, these books contained stories from many different authors but were related in the subject matter they discussed. His first story that gained him fame was the first volume of Twice-Told Tales. He later began to struggle financially, so he started to work a normal job and try to earn enough money to support his fiancee Sophia. He later married Sophia, and they moved to Concord, Massachusetts where he acquired a job working for the government. He did not like this job and had very little time to write but worked anyways for the need of money.
He later lost his job ecause of a change of presidency. After loosing his job he had a lot of free time, in which he wrote his most famous book The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne was an average man who struggled with the ideas of his culture. He went so far as to remove himself from the Puritan community. In many of his stories Hawthorne is well know for depicting his own struggle with Puritanism in his books. This is evident in The Scarlet Letter. To depict Hawthorne’s culture he uses many types of symbolism to create an accurate template of his ancestors.
The Scarlet Letter begins with ‘The Custom House’;, the preface to the novel. When this book was first published ‘The Custom House’; was always included in the book. Since it had no major connection to the main novel it was later kept separate. The only connection between the two pieces of work is when Hawthorne talked about finding a scarlet letter A in a Salem custom house. ‘The Custom House’; is basically an attempt by Hawthorne to give his novel a historical connection, one that is believed to be fake by many critics.
The preface is important, though, because it gives the reader a background to the story that follows. Hawthorne talks of his ancestors, ‘I know not whether these ncestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties. . . ‘;(8). These examples provide a reason for why he is so interested in the Puritan Community. He describes a surveyor, who is considered to actually be Hawthorne himself , he focuses on how the surveyor reacts to his culture. ‘The Custom House’; is broken down into four sections. I. The Salem Custom-House and Hawthorne’s ‘doom’; to it. II. The Custom-House inmates. III. Surveyor Pue on his manuscript. IV. Hawthorne’s escape as ‘a citizen of somewhere else’; to the world of the rtist’; (Berner 273). The first section explains the ‘Salem House’s appearance, its employees and visitors. . . the larger community of Salem, which in Hawthorne’s case means his stern, disapproving ancestors. . . ‘;(Berner 273). He contemplates if he should, ‘take shame upon myself for their (his ancestors) sakes. . . ‘;(8).
The second section is a detailed description of the Custom-House and everything involved with it. The third is basically what Hawthorne believes his orders are from Up. Finally the fourth is how Salem revolves around Up and how the community tries to execute his commands. Along with the relationship between Hawthorne’s discovery of the scarlet letter in ‘The Custom House’; and the actual novel The Scarlet Letter, the main connections are the characters and the culture are similar in both ‘The Custom House’; and The Scarlet Letter.
The using of this preface was a brilliant idea by Hawthorne because it gets his readers in his mindset he suggests that, It contributes greatly towards a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of imself to appreciate (23). and this detail helps the reader understand the story behind the story. Instead of the reader struggling for this during the first chapter the reader goes into the story with a strong background which contributes to the effectiveness of the novel.
The First chapter is a continuation of the Custom House because it describes the setting of the novel which is in seventeenth-century Boston. He describes parts of the town and goes into great detail in describing the town. He goes so far as to talk about, ‘. . . a grass plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweeed, appleperu, and such unsightly egetation. . . ‘;(48). This sets the mood for the story as a gloomy one because he does not bring out the best points of the town.
He mentions one nice part of the town near the jail, an irony in itself,’a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in. . . ‘;(48). This great detail and is shows how Hawthorne does not treasure his culture when he picks out the jail as the nice part of town, this foreshadows many things in the story. The mention of the prison might imply a theme of punishment, but the one ositive of the town mentioned, the rose bush, might imply a good theme.
He implies these things to get the reader in the right mindset either happy or sad. This also serves as a hint and helps the reader find the main idea of the story. The second chapter is when we meet the main characters and are introduced to the plot of the story. Hester Prynne, an immigrant from England, was sent ahead by her husband, Chillingsworth, who was supposed to meet her within the next year. During her stay in Boston she grows restless of waiting for her husband and figures he has died. She is mothering a child when we first meet her. The problem is she is not married and committed adultery.
This is a crime in Boston that is punishable by death, but because she is a newcomer she is allowed to live but not without paying an extreme cost. She has to wear a letter ‘A’; on her chest for the rest of her life so that everyone will know, and remember that she committed her crime. She is also forced to stand before the community for three hours with her child to humiliate her. While serving her time of humiliation in front of the community she recognizes her husband from England. He is shocked to see his wife and asks the townspeople why she is being humiliated.
Chillingsworth becomes aware that she committed adultery as she is being questioned by the head minister, Dimmesdale. Chillingsworth is outraged and vows to find the person who committed adultery with his wife. Chillingsworth reveals, ‘It irks me, nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity should not, at least, stand on the scaffold by her side. But he sill be known! -he will be known! -he will be known! ‘;(63). He goes to the jail where Hester is being held and acts as a doctor. The two begin to talk and they both accept responsibility for their actions.
Chillingsworth does not wish to seek revenge against Hester but tells her he ants to know who she committed her crime with. Chillingsworth then requests that she not tell anyone their relation so he is not humiliated in his new surroundings. Later Hester is freed and she moves to the outskirts of town and earns a living as a seamstress and makes a fairly good living doing this. Although her work is popular with the townspeople, she is outcast from the community. Hester realizes that she had done wrong and does not hate her community for outcasting her.
The story then focuses on Pearl, Hester’s daughter, and describes her as a beautiful and graceful girl. She is a very mart girl but is mischievous, some times disrespectful, and often talks to her mother about her crime. Pearl is a target of disrespect by her fellow townspeople, which creates in her hatred against many things. She is most fascinated with the letter ‘A’; on her mother’s chest and knows it has to do with her. The townspeople notice that Pearl is not having a normal childhood, and rumors are circling that Hester should have her daughter taken from her.
Hester is horrified and goes to deliver garments to the governor, Bellingham, and more importantly plead for the custody of her daughter. She meets there Chillingsworth, Dimmesdale, and another reverend John Wilson. Chillingsworth is now Dimmesdale’s personal physician and is constantly growing closer to him carrying out a, ‘scheme of vengeance, what could I do better for my object than to let thee live. . . ‘;(73). Hester begins to plead to Bellingham for her daughter’s custody, he is entertained with the sight of such an unusual girl and asks Pearl if she knows religion well.
Pearl says yes, and he then asks her, ‘Canst though tell me, my child, who made thee? ‘;(113). She knows the proper answer to this question because her mother had taught her a lot about eligion, but she answers, ‘[she] had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison-door’;(114). Even though this answer does not amuse Bellingham, Dimmesdale persuades the governor to let Hester keep her daughter and in this scene we first see Dimmesdale’s affection for Pearl.
Dimmesdale’s health is declining, so his doctor, Chillingsworth, decides to move in with Dimmesdale. Chillingsworth is slowly entertaining ideas that Dimmesdale might be the father of Pearl because of how he reacts when around Hester and Pearl and can see that Dimmesdale is holding something back. Suspicions are beginning to rise about Chillingsworth’s practices because Dimmesdale is not getting any better and because Dimmesdale trusted, ‘no man as his friend, he could not recognize his enemy when he later actually appeared’;(134).
Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale meet at the scaffold where Hester was punished in front of the community and he confesses his guilt to her for not coming forward as a letter ‘A’; is imprinted on his bare chest out of sympathy for Hester. He regrets not admitting to being Pearl’s father, ‘He resolved not to be pilloried beside her on her pedestal of shame’;(121). Hester understands why he does not confess and is concerned about Dimmesdale’s health. She tells Chillingsworth that she must tell Dimmesdale the truth that Hester is married to Chillingsworth and that he was trying to avenge the crime of adultery.
She confesses this to Dimmesdale, removed her letter ‘A’;, and he realizes his doom. They then plot to leave for England. The two are discussing this along a stream and are on one side of it while Pearl is observing from the other side. Pearl will not join them until her mother replaces the letter on her chest. After returning to town Dimmesdale is overcome by desires to commit evil and realizes he has sold his sole to the evil. The most important sermon will happen a day later, and he must be at his best for it is the sermon on Election Day. This next morning Hester and Pearl arrive in town for the festivities.
She is met in the town by the sailor she is going back to England with, and he informs her that they will have another passenger, Chillingsworth. Dimmesdale goes on to give one of the best sermons he has given. After giving this speech he faints and asks for Hester to help him up. He then confesses his sin of adultery in front of the entire community, after this confession Dimmesdale dies. Hester then decides to leave Boston and Chillingsworth with nobody to ‘leech’; dies shortly after bringing, ‘himself nearer to her [Hester] level, or perhaps below it, by the revenge which he had stooped for’;(173).
Even though he does not know Pearl very well Chillingsworth gives her a large amount of money in his will. After spending time in England Hester then returns to Boston and becomes a consultant for other women going through times of trouble. Hawthorne makes his novel effective in many ways. The first is his immense use of symbolism. The first type of symbolism is his use of light and darkness to describe a ood or sometimes an object. This does wonders for the reader because subconsciously when a reader hears dark, he thinks gloomy, bad and other related words.
When a reader sees light symbolism he thinks good, innocent, and perfect. Although each reader has a different interpretation the reader can easily get the main idea because this type of imagery is so broad. He talks of a jail which is, ‘marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front’;(47). Not only does Hawthorne use dark imagery for objects but for people too, hen describing the John Wilson the eldest clergy man in Boston, ‘He looked like the darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed to old volumes of sermons. . . ;(65). In this case Hawthorne is not using dark imagery to cause fear in the reader but to show the age of the character. In the preface ‘The Custom House’; when talking of his ancestors he admits, ‘The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember’;(7).
Hawthorne talks about how his family’s history sticks in his side like a thorn, always has een with him and will continue to be bothering him. The Scarlet Letter is the perfect expression of what Roy Male has called ‘Hawthorne’s tragic vision. ; There is light in this story as well as darkness. . . But the ‘radiance from above’; never reaches the center of the action to save, to rescue, to guide home. The saintly Mr. Wilson Walks by the scaffold carrying a lantern. . . but the light he sheds about him has no . . . effect on Dimmesdale. . . Hester’s dark glossy hair shines in the sunlight as though it were surmounted by a halo, making her almost an image of the divine maternity’;; but the Puritans look at he only as an adulteress, and the reader is likely to feel that she is only a suffering woman.
Though the novel shows us good coming out of evil, it shows it coming only at a tragic cost (Waggoner 47). When describing Pearl, Hawthorne shows that Hester recognizes, . . . her wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper and even some of the very cloud-shapes of gloom and despondency. . . [she] was now illuminated by the morning radiance of a young child’s disposition, but later in the day of earthly existence might be prolific of he storm and whirlwind (91). Hawthorne uses light and dark imagery to contrast Pearl’s different moods, using light to show her better moods but darkness when describing her mischievous side.
The second of Hawthorne’s many writing techniques is his usage of historical facts to form a picture a the readers mind. This is effective because if the reader understands this symbolism, he receives a background of the subject which Hawthorne is describing. In doing this Hawthorne uses many historical figures especially in ‘The Custom House’;. In ‘The Custom House’; he talks of Matthew(5) who is a tax collector in is gospel, Hawthorne relates this to the collection of customs. Hawthorne also goes on to use many historical figures like John Adams, Zachary Taylor, George Hilliard, and James F.
Miller. Each adds significance to ‘The Custom House’; and helps the reader relate to the story. In the story itself Hawthorne also uses many historical figures, he doesn’t use their entire name but uses their short name, sometimes even a nickname. Many of these references are related to the Bible because Hawthorne’s culture and audience was so religious. He mentions Daniel (62), a prophet who could read writings that nobody else ould, because Hester has a riddle which needs Daniel to interpret it. The most obvious religious symbol used is the devil in Hawthorne’s novel.
The devil, Cain, fascinated the Puritans which made it a relevant topic in The Scarlet Letter. Religion was a significant topic in Puritan communities which is why Hawthorne used it so frequently in his novel. Hawthorne also used many historical figures in the novel The Scarlet Letter. Again he did not use their full name, but used just enough of their names so the educated reader could understand. Many of his characters are based on actual people, Hester Prynne was formed after a lady in the Puritan community who was prosecuted much like Hester was.
Another actual figured, Governor Bellingham (69) who was governor in the story, as he was in actual life of Boston. This form of symbolism enhances the readers understanding if the reader is familiar with the symbols used. This makes for The Scarlet Letter to be harder to understand because the reader will not be familiar with the historical references used. Symbolism is greatly used in The Scarlet Letter some critics even argue, . . . there is a great deal of symbolism; there is, I think, too much. It is overdone at times, and becomes mechanical’ it ceases to e impressive, and grazes triviality.
The idea of the mystic ‘A’; which the young minister finds imprinted upon his breast and eating into his flesh, in sympathy with the embroidered badge that Hester is condemned to wear, appears to me to be a case in point. This suggestion should, I think, have been just made and dropped; to insist upon it, and return to it, is to exaggerate the weak side of the subject. Hawthorne returns to it constantly, plays with it, and seems charmed by it; until at last the reader feels tempted to declare that is employment of it is puerile (James 43).
Hawthorne uses many types of symbolism to explain his culture. Hawthorne struggles to explain the, ‘Importance of understanding mankind in whole, and the need of man’s sympathy with man based upon the honest recognition of the good and evil in our common nature’;(Stewart 265). Every person decides if his or her culture is acceptable through comparison, most decide it is acceptable and flourish in their society. But for those who cannot accept their own culture and it’s ideas they are left alone and must struggle to find out where they really belong.