Romanticism in The Scarlet Letter

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  • 0:00 American Romanticism
  • 1:07 Society
  • 3:12 Nature
  • 4:51 The Self
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is widely acknowledged to be a leader in the American Romantic movement of the mid-19th century. In his 1850 masterpiece, 'The Scarlet Letter', Hawthorne's Romantic ideals shine through.

American Romanticism

Nathaniel Hawthorne is widely recognized as one of the leaders in the important American Romantic movement of the mid-19th century. The Romantics celebrate the power and beauty of nature and of the individual spirit which blossoms when connected to these natural forces. They are skeptical of the unquestioning belief in modern progress and in the social institutions that they feel stifle individuality.

Nowhere are Hawthorne's Romantic ideals more evident than in his 1850 masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, the story of the adulterous Hester Prynne and the punishment she endures at the hands of her Puritan community. In this 1640s Massachusetts Bay Colony, a strict Christian doctrine is thought to be the only way to a pure society.

True to the Romantic ideal, Hawthorne's novel explores society, nature, and the individual self to show us that we are more than others say we are, and far greater than what our world expects us to be.

Society

In Hester's community, there is simply is no such thing as a private morality. The sin of one is considered the sin of all. The laws of the church were also the laws of the government in her community.

This is why she was imprisoned for a time and why her punishment was so public and enduring. Initially, she was sentenced to wear the scarlet letter, signifying her sin for the rest of her life. She was brought to the scaffold to face the mockery and condemnation of the entire town. She was excommunicated from the church and barred from any respectable home. Wherever she went, she faced ridicule and scorn.

But Hester loves the man she had an affair with, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, so much so that she refuses to identify him publicly. To name him would be to destroy his standing in the community and may even lead to his execution. After all, as a reverend, Dimmesdale was to be the moral light of the community, an example for all to follow of the fulfillment of Christ's commandments on Earth.

Hester and Dimmesdale's relationship puts them in direct conflict with their community, with the church and government laws they are expected to submit to. Their community condemns their love; it calls their relationship evil. For a time, Hester buys into this belief. She condemns herself almost as harshly as her community does--at least, for a while.

Dimmesdale, likewise, is a creature of his community. He is consumed and ultimately destroyed by guilt. For seven long years after the affair, Dimmesdale agrees with the judgment of his community, condemning himself for his love of Hester.

He believes himself a sinful, fallen man. He loathes the hypocrisy of his social mask, pretending to be what his community requires him to be, when he knows he is someone else entirely.

Nature

Hester's exclusion from her community gives her at least something of a reprieve from its judgment. She lives literally and figuratively outside of the community. Figuratively, she is already an outlaw, forever in violation of the community's rules. Literally, she lives on the outskirts of the town, on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea and separated from the mainland and the town by a thick patch of forest.

This physical and ideological separation from the community shapes both Hester and Pearl in powerful ways. In her years of solitude, Hester begins to reevaluate her own values and the condemnation of her community.

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