Genre of The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

What kind of book is Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter? Hawthorne calls it 'A Romance,' but what does that mean? This lesson takes a closer look at these questions and explores the literary genre into which the novel fits.

The Scarlet Letter, A Romance

When Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter in 1850, its original title was The Scarlet Letter, A Romance. What did he mean by that? Today, when we hear a book called 'A Romance,' we might expect it to have Fabio on the cover and be about a damsel in distress.


That's not exactly what Hawthorne meant, though. Let's take a look at the genre of The Scarlet Letter so we can better understand why Fabio has nothing to do with Hawthorne. Genres are categories into which literature and other art are grouped according to various similarities.


The Scarlet Letter was published during the height of Romanticism in literature in the United States. Romanticism did NOT have Fabio-style romance novels in it. Instead, it was a literary movement which encompassed a rich and diverse tapestry of aesthetic ideas and theories. Dates are always a little squishy on literary genres, but the period of American Romanticism began somewhere around 1830 and lasted until about the Civil War in the 1860s.


One of the main tenets of Romanticism is the idea of the importance of the individual superseding that of the larger society. We see this in The Scarlet Letter in many ways, but especially through the character of Hester Prynne. Hester is set apart from society as a punishment for her crime of adultery. Hawthorne succeeds in making Hester a likable character despite this crime. She is strong and capable, she is kind, and she is humble.

Meanwhile, the people of the town (or 'society') are really quite nasty. They are rude to Hester even when she serves them, and they look down on her because of her past. Through this depiction, Hawthorne succeeds in showing his readers that society may not always have it right and one should rely on one's own reason instead.

Symbols and Layers

Symbolism, or using one object, character, or idea to represent something else, is another tenet of Romanticism. This literary technique allows a writer to tell one story while laying open to the readers several other stories as well. The Scarlet Letter, for instance, is ostensibly about a woman who committed adultery in colonial America. However, it is also a story about the politics and religion that were taking place in the middle of the 19th century when Hawthorne was writing. In addition to that, it is a story about hypocrisy, faith, and truth. Because each character and item in the story can be a representation of any number of other things, The Scarlet Letter, like most literature from the Romantic period, is many-layered and multi-faceted.

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