I have a confession to make: I didn’t like “The Scarlet Letter” when I had to read it high school. I found it tedious and impossible to relate to. But when I revisited it as an adult, I enjoyed it. It was easier to pick the human stories out of Hawthorne’s dense and wordy writing. As I’ve matured, Hawthorne’s themes have become clearer and more relatable.
I think, at its core, “The Scarlet Letter” is a love story, and a beautiful one at that. The novel uses the age-old trope of forbidden lovers, except instead of two rival families keeping the lovers apart, the grander forces of community and faith do.
But let’s start at the beginning: some literary scholars are interested in why Hawthorne wrote “The Scarlet Letter” at all. There is an obvious connection: Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather was one of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials. Hawthorne was filled so much guilt about his ancestor’s actions that he even changed the spelling of his last name: his grandfather had spelled it Hathorne, and Nathaniel added the “w” to distance himself from his relatives.
“The Scarlet Letter” is a novel about many things, including what is to be a community and what it is to be an outsider of that community. This timeless idea was relevant in Puritanical Massachusetts as well as in Hawthorne’s own time of the nineteenth century. Hawthorne lived in a shaky America, an America still trying to figure itself out.
The nineteenth century was one of especially rapid change in America, from Westward expansion to the Civil War. This period also saw a tremendous rise in alcohol abuse. In the span of about 50 years, the First Temperance Movement took off and by 1825 the American Temperance Society was founded. The temperance movement put out journals, produced plays, and rallied against the production and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The push for temperance affected many aspects of American life, and in its strictness mirrored America’s Puritan beginnings.
“The past is never dead,” Hawthorne wrote in “The Custom House,” an essay that precedes “The Scarlet Letter.” This story is certainly not stuck in history. Hawthorne writes about how sin creates isolation, how isolation creates sin, and so on--making it an endless cycle. In his novel, sin is quite literal, as the setting of the novel is a strict Puritan society. But really, Biblical sin could stand as a metaphor for breaking any kind of community-established strictures. Once someone has been ostracized and isolated, the subsequent loneliness will lead that person to break the rules again, if doing so can lessen the pain of being alone. Continually breaking rules only perpetuates the shunning from the community.
Isolation, Hawthorne suggests, is inherently against human nature. And Hawthorne shows us two kinds of isolation: Hester becomes physically isolated, shunned by her community for breaking the norms. Dimmesdale becomes emotionally isolated, his guilt fueled by his immense religious piety. The pair each deals with their guilt in different ways, with liberation for one and grave consequences for the other.
In 21st century America, it seems to me, that being forced to be an outsider is deeply relevant. The main difference is that mobility between communities is now easier. But how many people have had to leave a school, town, or city because they didn’t uphold the pre-established norms of their community? We can learn something from Hawthorne, who is able to turn his protagonist’s shame into pride.
Join Lean & Hungry Theater for our 1-hour performance of The Scarlet Letter on February 28, 2014 at 8:00 pm in Artisphere’s Dome Theater. The performance will be broadcast live on WAMU 88-5, Washington’s most-listened-to radio station. Click here to buy tickets.