The nineteenth century saw the emergence of two contrasting beliefs: Puritanism and Romanticism. Puritanism was characterized by qualities like darkness, blandness, and restriction, representing its authoritative principles. On the other hand, Romanticism embodied concepts of light, spontaneity, and freedom, reflecting its more liberal ideology.
Hawthorne’s deep understanding of Puritanism, stemming from his personal Puritan background, enabled him to adeptly integrate their stringent principles into his writing. One notable aspect is the oppressive character of the Puritan lifestyle, which forbids any indulgence in earthly delights and emphasizes the belief that God is omnipresent. Devotees must adhere to God’s desires as he serves as the central focus of their being. Despite Hawthorne’s familial ties to Puritanism, he skillfully conveys both his appreciation and concerns regarding their rigid customs in his book, The Scarlet Letter.
Within the context of the nineteenth century, a period in which Romanticism flourished, The Scarlet Letter incorporates elements from both Romanticism and Puritanism. Through the adept manipulation of syntax, diction, and character development, the author effectively merges these two ideologies. While Hester Prynne and Pearl serve as embodiments of Romanticism, Arthur Dimmesdale personifies Puritanism.
Syntax and diction are capable of reflecting the author’s belief, in this case, Romanticism. From the novel’s opening words, “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray steepled-crowded hats…” (Hawthorne 45), Nathaniel Hawthorne immediately shows his opinion of the Puritans by using negative connotations such as “sad-colored” and “gray” to describe their clothing. These words indicate Hawthorne’s view of the Puritans as a somber and melancholy group in society.
To demonstrate Romanticism in his writing, Hawthorne employs intricate sentence structures. For instance, instead of employing a concise style like that of the Puritans, he chooses a more elaborate approach, as seen in the passage: “Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Partiality, which so many illustrious painters have vied with one another to represent, something which should remind him, by contrast, of that sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem the world” (Hawthorne 54). This exemplifies the complexity characteristic of Romantic writings. Additionally, Hawthorne employs ornate language, as shown with the phrase “His gestures, his gait, his grizzled beard, his slightest and most indifferent acts, the very fashion of his garments,” which was deemed detestable by the clergyman; a signal that he secretly acknowledged more than he was willing to admit to himself…
Mr. Dimmesdale, aware that one unhealthy aspect was contaminating his entire heart’s essence…” (Hawthorne 136), emphasizes the presence of Romanticism in his writing. While Puritanism can be defined as simple, Romanticism is more complex. Hawthorne’s novel allows the distinctive traits of both beliefs to be showcased. In his story, the author showcases Romantic philosophies through the portrayal of Hester and Pearl. According to the Puritans, Hester Prynne violated a fundamental principle of their religion by engaging in sexual activity for lustful purposes.
By defying the “Puritanic code of law” (Hawthorne 50), Hester must wear a scarlet letter “A” on her bosom as punishment for her sin. However, Hawthorne contrasts Puritan beliefs by incorporating Romantic philosophy. Hester is depicted as a youthful and attractive woman who committed adultery but eventually gains the respect of the majority of villagers. The scarlet letter, once seen as a symbol of shame for “Adultery,” is also portrayed as a grand symbol when Hester wears it, transforming from a negative to a positive meaning.
Contrasting the belief of Puritanism, Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays a sinner as someone who can regain acceptance in society. Typically seen as repulsive and despised, Hawthorne depicts Pearl, the illegitimate child, contrary to society’s expectations. Despite being expected to be hideous, evil, and disgraceful, Pearl is depicted as a young and free-spirited child by Hawthorne. In her actions in the forest, Hawthorne shows Romanticism by highlighting her gentleness in this supposedly wicked place, unlike the Puritan belief that views everything in the forest as sinful.
In the “evil” forest, Hester finds solace and escape from her troubled life. Despite being Puritans, both Hester and Pearl exhibit qualities of Romanticism in their actions and descriptions. Unlike other Puritans who rely solely on their religious leader, Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearl embrace their own individuality and emotions. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, after committing an unforgivable sin, loses his faith in himself and resorts to inflicting pain and self-starvation as a means of dealing with his guilt. Rather than suffering internally, Dimmesdale believes that confessing his sins to the public would be less excruciating.
Dimmesdale, a devoted Puritan, obeys Hester’s pleas to keep their secret even though it is slowly killing him because he believes it is God’s will. He sees his suffering as punishment from God for committing adultery and worries that his actions prove his lack of sincerity in seeking salvation. In an effort to find redemption, he torments himself. However, because these punishments are inflicted in private, they do not fulfill Arthur Dimmesdale’s goals. He exemplifies Puritanism by closely adhering to its principles and making God the purpose of his life.
This protagonist serves as Hawthorne’s critique of the rigidness of Puritanism. Dimmesdale, a character who adheres to the Puritan ascetic rules, is depicted as bland until he betrays his own beliefs and confesses his sin, finding happiness in the process. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne challenges the strict teachings of Puritanism by incorporating Romantic elements. The characters Hester Prynne and Pearl exemplify the Romantic aspect of the novel as they endure the isolation imposed by society and succeed despite the hardships they face.
The character Dimmesdale demonstrates his loyalty to Puritan values by adhering to his religion and attributing his hardships to God. Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is widely regarded as an exceptional work within the Romantic genre. Nevertheless, readers must pay close attention to detail in order to fully understand the complex symbolism and ideas of both Romanticism and Puritanism present in Hawthorne’s writing style.