Romanticism, Reason, and Puritanism in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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Romanticism, Reason, and Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter



The novel, The Scarlet Letter, is about the struggle three people face while trying to live their lives and find happiness in a Puritan society.  In the early 1640s, Hester has come to the small town of Boston, Massachusetts, from Great Britain, while her husband, Chillingworth, ties up all of the loose ends back in Great Britain.  Hester and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the town's priest, engage in the act of adultery and produce a baby girl named Pearl; though, only Hester knows that Dimmesdale is the father.  She has promised Dimmesdale not to reveal his identity.  Hester is put on display in front of the entire town to punish her, and to also serve as an example in hopes that it will deter others from sinning.  She is then put in jail with her young child for a few months and is forever made to wear a scarlet letter "A," which stands for "Adultery."  Hester's husband, Roger Chillingworth, who had been captured by native American Indians on his way to New England and held in captivity for two years, escapes and enters the town of Boston.  After learning of what Hester had done, Chillingworth poses as a doctor and vows to discover the identity of Hester's partner in sin.  Hester agrees to keep his true identity a secret, too. 


Each character in the novel represents one or more philosophies including Romanticism, Reason, and Puritanism that one could adhere to in life. Romanticism focuses on the individual and preaches finding truth, Reason, involves the belief that one can use logic to solve anything and a perfect society will create perfect men, and Puritanism, where all that matters to anyone is God. In the novel, The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne uses Hester Prynne's untethered adherence to several philosophies, Roger Chillingworth's strict adherence to logic and reason, and Arthur Dimmesdale's unwavering devotion to Puritanism to prove that true, and complete happiness can never be attained by strictly following one philosophy. 


Hester Prynne represents a number of philosophies: Reason, Puritanism, and Romanticism.  Early on in the novel, after Hester's term of imprisonment was completed, she was free to go anywhere in the world, but she chose to stay in Boston.  Her decision to take the time to examine her state of affairs and produce what is a logical rationale for remaining in Boston is proof of Hester's use of logic and reason.  While Hester's decision to stay is largely a product of her using Reason, society's Puritan influence also plays into her decision process.  Puritanism has taught her that the most important part of life is her personal relationship with God.  Hester deeply believes that because she has sinned, she must remain in Boston and undergo penance for her sin.  Hester has always had some Romantic qualities, but her sin alienates her from society such that she decides to live in a small thatched cottage on the outskirts of town.  Hester followed her instincts, fell in love with Dimmesdale, and had Pearl.  Now, her alienation forces her to follow her instincts much more.  On the outskirts of town, virtually alone, she is free from the influences of the townspeople and is able to make her own decisions without any biased opinions.  These qualities act together to make Hester a good and happy person.  She never fully makes her way back into society, though, she gradually becomes accepted more and more by the townspeople, and as time goes on, she finds happiness.  Ultimately, the happiness Hester finds is achieved only by following more than one philosophy; even though it may not be her planned choosing.  Roger Chillingworth, on the other hand, is used by Hawthorne to show the negative consequences that come by following only one philosophy.


Roger Chillingworth represents Reason.  His entire life has been based on gaining knowledge and using logic and reason to solve any problem.  Chillingworth follows this philosophy in hopes that it will eventually lead him to Dimmesdale.  In chapter four of the novel, Chillingworth meets with Hester while she is still in jail.  The two sit and talk intimately as Chillingworth tries to discover the name of Pearl's father.  Chillingworth begins by saying that he places no blame on Hester.  He just wants to know the man who has offended him, and he vows not to reveal her lover's identity to the public, nor cause him any bodily harm.  Hester refuses and Chillingworth becomes much more forceful.  Again, Hester refuses.  Chillingworth then unfurls his plan for discovering Dimmesdale and getting his revenge.  He will use his knowledge of medicine and simple remedies to pose as a doctor and live in the town until he discovers the man whom he seeks.  "'He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garment, as thou dost; but I shall read it on his heart.'"  Once Chillingworth finds him, he will watch as the man is crushed beneath the burden of guilt he has laid upon himself.  This passage reveals what Chillingworth has been and what he will become.


After several years, Chillingworth's adherence to logic and reason lead him to Dimmesdale where he takes great joy in mentally tormenting him.  Chillingworth often raises discussions of sin and guilt, to both confirm and bother the reverend.  These discussions make Dimmesdale very uncomfortable.  In chapter ten, the doctor asks the reverend why people do not confess their sins openly.  He responds, "'They mostly do.'"  Chillingworth then urges harder and asks why one would not confess his sin. Dimmesdale becomes a bit uncomfortable and attempts to justify the actions of a sinner to soothe his own guilty conscience.  This burden of guilt ultimately leads to Dimmesdale's demise.  Once Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth withers away and dies within one year.  "All his strength and energy - all his vital and intellectual force - seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shriveled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun."  Chillingworth's happiness was only temporary because he had made the mistake of focusing his skills on one problem - finding and tormenting the reverend.  Eventually, this debilitates him and he can only focus on that one problem.  Then, Dimmesdale dies and Chillingworth himself becomes weaker and weaker until, finally, he dies.  Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, however, suffers more dearly tan anyone as a result of sticking to only one philosophy.


Dimmesdale is an intransigent Puritan and nothing can make him change - not even death.  Arthur Dimmesdale, the local reverend and Hester's lover, made Hester swear that she would not tell anyone that he is the father of her child.  The reverend, being the embodiment of Puritanism, follows more closely than anyone the philosophy that his relationship with God matters more than anything else, and that he must only answer to God.  Hawthorne uses Dimmesdale as a symbol of Puritanism.  He picks out and exaggerates the flaws in Puritanism and makes them Dimmesdale's characteristics. Dimmesdale feels that God will punish him for his sin and that he need only answer to God for his sin, so he keeps it a secret.  Dimmesdale tries to go about life as if nothing has changed, but his guilt weakens him and thrusts him into a downward spiral of misery, ending in death.  His guilt eats at him and he is often seen clutching at his heart, as if it pains him.  Whenever the topic of sin or Hester was brought up, Dimmesdale would clutch at his chest.  His guilt is like a knife being thrust into his heart.  In an attempt to free himself of his guilt, Dimmesdale resorts to physically harming himself.  "In Mr. Dimmesdale's secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge."  He would also starve himself, "until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance."  Dimmesdale's guilt weakens him to the point that the townspeople fear he may soon die, and as a physician, Chillingworth, agrees to stay with Dimmesdale at his house to care for him.  All the while, Chillingworth, while pretending to care for Dimmesdale, is mentally tormenting him, adding to Dimmesdale's burden of guilt.  At one point in his tormented life, while in the woods, Dimmesdale reveals his true feelings to Hester.  "'Hester, I am most miserable!' [Dimmesdale]"  Dimmesdale resents Hester for her ability to "wear the scarlet letter (a symbol of her sin) openly" while he suffers with his overwhelming guilt.  Dimmesdale is rapidly nearing the end.  Only when Dimmesdale knows he is doomed does he acknowledge and confess his sin.  He travels to the same place where Hester was put on display and reveals his sin to the public.  Immediately, Dimmesdale sinks to the ground, says "farewell," and dies.  Dimmesdale stayed true to his beliefs, and, as a result, found nothing but unhappiness.  Dimmesdale would not allow himself to stray and for nearly eight years he wallowed in misery and pain, achieving nothing.


Hester, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale struggle throughout the novel to find happiness while staying within their beliefs.  Hester ultimately finds happiness by venturing beyond the confines of pure Puritanism though it is her Puritan faith that causes her life to stay in Boston and wear the scarlet letter.  Chillingworth is unable to stray from his strict adherence to logic and reason.  He is doomed by needing to know who has committed the sinful act of adultery with his wife.  His logic and reason guide him to his answer but his drive to know eventually weakens and kills him.  Reverend Dimmesdale strayed from his Puritan beliefs when he committed adultery.  His struggle is not with Reason or Romanticism but with his steadfast adherence to the Puritan beliefs.  Dimmesdale does not find reason within himself for his relationship with Hester nor does he reveal the truth about his sinful relationship until he realizes he is dying.  Nevertheless, this last attempt to clear his conscience results in his death.


True happiness escapes all three characters except one and that is Hester.  Hester blended the philosophies of Reason, Romanticism, and Puritanism and was able to live life comfortably.  Philosophies, a person can't have just one.


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MLA Citation:
"Romanticism, Reason, and Puritanism in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter." 30 Nov 2015

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