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(34) Reaction against Puritanism in N. Hawthorne.

T h e  A m e r i c a n  R e n a i s s a n c e  ( 1 8 3 6 – 6 1 )

- 1836, the publ. of R. W. Emerson’s Nature – 1861, the beginning of the Civil War

- a distinctive period of great growth and achievement of Am. lit.: writers find Am. topics, use Am. setting, and adapt Eur. forms

- 1850 – 55, an esp. wondrous half-decade with the publ. of: N. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, H. Melville’s Moby Dick and Pierre, H. D. Thoreau’s Walden, and W. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass


N a t h a n i e l  H a w t h o r n e  ( 1 8 0 4 – 6 4 )

L i f e :

- b. in Salem (New En.) on July 4th, in a Puritan family (his ancestors incl. one judge active in the persecution of the Quakers, and another in the witch trials of 1690s – A. Miller’s The Crucible)

> a close relation to his country: studied the history of his family and country

- ambivalent about his Puritan heritage: admired the strong will x but: disapproved the dogmatic behaviour

- uni education (Bowdoin College, ME) >> Salem

> the y. of his self-imprisonment in Salem the central fact in his career

- a man completely alone, obsessed by the notion of solitude, intensely shy and proud: shy because he was proud

- never went to church, though liked observing the congregation assemble

- divided himself into 2 personalities and led an inner monologue: created an imaginary storyteller and imaginary audience into his mind and made them lead a dialogue

- secretive about his private life x but: spoke more about himself and with greater honesty than any oth. Am. of his generation: prefaces to all his books, journals recording his daily activities, and his stories and romances filled with anguished confessions

> the subject of admiration by E. A. Poe, H. James, T. Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence; and of the dedication of H. Melville’s Moby Dick

W o r k :

G e n r e :

[see his Preface to The House of Seven Gables]

=> the essential difference btw the romance x the novel lies in the imaginative freedom granted to the writer of a romance enabling him to pursue psychological and mythical truth more single-mindedly

- the 1st paragraph:

(a) Novel aims ‘at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience’

(b) Romance presents ‘the truth of the human heart...under circumstances...of the writer’s own...creation’, incl. ‘the Marvellous’ [= supernatural]

- the 2nd paragraph, the concept of the usable past: ‘to connect a bygone time with the very present’ means to prolong a legend

- the 3rd paragraph, the refusal of moralising: ‘to impale the story with its by sticking a pin through a butterfly’ means ‘thus at once depriving it of life’

C o n c e r n :

Evil / Sin:

=> Spiller: ‘The central theme of most of most of his stories is not sin as a theological problem, but rather the psychological effect of the conviction of sin on the lives of the early colonists.’

- the Unpardonable Sin of the rejection of love, isolation from community, and Faustian desire for a higher knowledge and power

- the Calvinist sin of pride – “Ethan Brand”: ‘The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its mighty claims!’

- the evil existing in every human mind as a potential to be (or not to be) awaken by circumstances

- H.: ‘There is evil in every human heart, which may remain latent, perhaps, through the whole of life; but circumstances may rouse it to activity.’

Source of Imagination:

(a) Puritanism / history:

- the symbolic mode of perception of the reality of the Puritans: reality as a code for soul searching

- the concept of human nature as sinful and corrupted

=> less interested in the theological x but: more in the psychological aspects of sin

(b) Romanticism / Transcendentalism (though never became one):

- the concept of man’s nature as good x but: corrupted by the society

- participated in the Brook Farm community experiment

- lived some time in Concord, in the Old Manse built by R. W. Emerson’s grandfather, and got acquainted with the grandson

- interested in Gothic romances as a youth

T h e m e s / M o t i f s :

- mirrors: a doorway into the spiritual world – ”Egotism; or, the Bosom Serpent”

- coldness and torpor from coldness: his longing for warmth (and his own habit of burning his works) – “Ethan Brand”

- doubleness, contradictions, and inner tensions: both in his character and in the force of his writing

- created a theology personal to himself: believed in the orig. sin, predestination, Providence, his own unworthiness, and the future life where the guilty would be punished

- laid more emphasis on sin and retribution than on reformation through the divine grace x but: did not consid. all sinners hopelessly damned

- observed the ‘little particulars’, details, double meanings, and sometimes a whole series of meanings

- preocc. with women of strong passions and/or the inner world of isolated individual trying to regain a place in society


Fanshawe (1828):

< Fielding and W. Scott, his 1st romance

- a story of abduction: the ward of a rural Am. college president kidnapped and saved by the eponymous student x but: refuses to marry her, and prefers reading himself to an early grave

The Scarlet Letter (1850)

The House of Seven Gables (1851): an allegory

The Blithedale Romance (1852): a satire on the pretensions and delusions of social reformers

The Marble Faun (1859): a conflict btw the Am. x Old World values, in the Ita. setting

Short Stories:

Twice Told Tales (1839):

- his 1st coll. of short stories and 1st acknowledged book

- the material drawn from his notebooks: themes of New En. history, loneliness, isolation, and evil

- conc. also with the supernatural

Mosses from an Old Manse (1846)

The Snow-Image and Other Twice Told Tales (1852)

“Egotism; Or, the Bosom Serpent”, “Ethan Brand”, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”, “Roger Malvin’s Burial”, “The Grey Champion”, “Young Goodman Brown”

T h e  S c a r l e t  L e t t e r :

“The Custom-House” (= preface):

- H. found the scarlet letter while working in a Salem custom house >> started the story >> the whole story grew from the letter

- the letter as a symbol:

(a) its location on the dress, sky, and chest; its personification in Pearl = the living scarlet letter with the same function

(b) the beauty of the committed sin [sic]: the beautifully embroidered letter, the beautifully dressed Pearl

(c) the shifts of its meaning: Adultery >> Angel >> Able >> also Am. (Puritans the 1st to call themselves Am.)

“The Prison Door” (= the 1st chapter):

(a) the Puritanism:

- the motif of Puritanism associated with the motif of prison: the Puritan elders of distinction present in the depressive atmosphere before forcing Hester on the pedestal

- contrasts the orig. utopia x the sad reality of cemetery and prison (church, school, and prison the 3 institutions of the Puritan society)

(b) the wild rose bush:

- pathetic fallacy = correspondence btw mind x nature

- the wild rose bush = a neglected piece of land x a moral blossom associated with Pearl claiming to have been made by plucking out of a rose bush

The Sin:

- the moral and psychological aspects and consequences of committing a sin

- Arthur Dimmesdale: ‘Arthur’ suggests Adultery, ‘Dimmesdale’ (= ‘dim valley’) suggests dim mind >> the sin of adultery and being silent about his fatherhood

- Roger Chillingworth: ‘Chillingworth’ (= ‘frozen worth’) suggests his desire for revenge in cool blood >> the sin of not forgiving and being silent about the fatherhood

- Hester Prynne >> the sin of adultery and not revealing the fatherhood

=> no black and white sinners, all have some justification

- Roger: knows the truth of Arthur’s sin would destabilise the church

- Hester committed adultery out of love and belief of her husband being dead

The Consequences:

- Hester encounters Roger >> her transgression of moral rules (to wait about 8 y. before re-marriage) turns out to be a sin really: for mere transgression receives no capital punishment by the elders

- Arthur: becomes a broken man x but: gains a more complex view, humility, gift of empathy, and the power of speech and words

- Roger: becomes a demonic figure with a twisted body x but: becomes a local doctor successful in his profession

- Hester: becomes a model of a sinner who repents and becomes a social worker x but: pays with a self-imposed solitude, isolation, and the loss of feeling, femininity, and passion

x but: her bad side waits for the forest scene to reappear


Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. The Cambridge History of American  Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cunliffe, Marcus. The Literature of the United States. London: Penguin, 1991.

Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1994.

McQuade, Donald, gen.ed. The Harper American Literature. New York: Harper & Collins, 1996.

Ruland, Richard, Malcolm Bradbury. Od  puritanismu k postmodernismu. Praha: Mladá fronta, 1997.

Vančura, Zdeněk, ed. Slovník spisovatelů: Spojené státy americké. Praha: Odeon, 1979.

Other Sources

Peprník, Michal. Semináře: Americká literatura 1. ZS 2004/05.


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