Transcendentalism in The Scarlet Letter

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  • 0:04 Transcendentalism & the Novel
  • 1:13 Transcendentalist Themes
  • 6:54 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.

This lesson explores transcendentalism in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece, ''The Scarlet Letter.'' The lesson argues that this important philosophical and aesthetic movement plays a vital role in Hawthorne's novel.

Transcendentalism & the Novel

Though at times critical of the highly influential American transcendentalist movement, Nathaniel Hawthorne was nevertheless powerfully impacted by it, as evidenced by his most famous novel. Centered upon the development of a personal, highly individualized relationship with God, transcendentalism views nature as a means of accessing this divine spirit, while rejecting all forms of social constraints, from formal education to organized religion. Civilization, the transcendentalists argue, does nothing more than stunt and deform the individual's spiritual, mental, and emotional development, taking him away from God and from himself.

Such themes play a vital role in Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter. Set in 1640s Massachusetts Bay Colony, it tells the story of Hester Prynne and the punishment she endures at the hands of the Puritan community, a community dedicated to purifying society through a strict interpretation of Christian scriptures. The novel examines Hester's spiritual and emotional growth as she endures and eventually transcends her outcast state.

Transcendentalist Themes

The Individual Versus Society

One transcendentalist theme we see in The Scarlet Letter is that of the individual versus society. Condemned and ostracized for the sin of adultery, Hester lives figuratively and literally on the outskirts of the Puritan community with Pearl, the daughter Hester conceived during her affair. They are exiled from the Church and its sacraments, and are not accepted into any respectable home unless to help its occupants. Despite her many acts of charity, from tending the sick to feeding the poor, her community scorns her.

This is exactly what the transcendentalists loathed about society as a whole. They believed that social institutions, from schools to hospitals to churches, warped the human soul and spirit. Society's teachings were so damaging that they made hypocrites and lemmings of its citizens. Such hypocrisy can be seen in the poor and sick whom Hester helps; they can't see how ridiculous they are to accept her help in one instant and condemn her in the next.

Society, for the transcendentalists, is a blinding, deforming, and devouring force. What matters to them is the individual, who has the potential to be beautiful, divine, and free. Hester and Pearl live as social outcasts who can't attend Church services, and Pearl is not accepted into the Puritan school. Children are taught to shun and mock them both. They are literally alone even when in the midst of the community, yet they seem closer to the divine and are more free than others in the community.

The Sacred Within

Another theme is the idea of the sacred within. Transcendentalists don't believe in organized religion, and certainly not in the highly restrictive Christianity practiced by the Puritans. For the transcendentalists, God cannot be confined to a single name or religion. The deity, for them, is far bigger, and can be understood through reading the sacred texts of all faiths and taking from their teachings that which resonates in the soul. Above all, one develops a sense of the sacred and the moral by turning inward.

This is the inner sense of morality that Hester learns to cultivate across her decades as a social outcast. At first, she accepts nearly every bit of scorn heaped upon her; she has internalized and believes almost everything the Puritan doctrine teaches about sin. So initially, she believes that she is an abject sinner, far more corrupt than the rest of her upstanding community. Yet she harbors a seed of doubt, because she loves Reverend Dimmesdale, and there is something in her feelings for him and for their affair that she can't condemn entirely. For Hester, Dimmesdale is her true husband, the one given to her by God. She does not feel love for Roger Chillingworth, the man the Church recognizes as Hester's husband.

Indeed, as the years pass, Hester begins to have what in the Puritan community are considered dangerous thoughts. She develops an acute sense for the moral hypocrisies and the moral suffering of others; she can feel the secret weight of sin in the townspeople as they pass by her. She alone recognizes how diabolical the widely-respected Chillingworth has become.

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