Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Transcendentalism

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In the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in the American colonies, a new philosophical movement known as Transcendentalism flourished. A number of famous writers of the period, including poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and, of course, Nathaniel Hawthorne, were believers in the emerging faith. They eschewed mainstream religion, perhaps as a natural reflexive motion repelling the overbearing efforts of the Calvinists and Puritans who arrived in the colonies in the two preceding centuries, and instead embraced the natural world and looked primarily to it for guidance. They viewed clergy with suspicion and preferred to think of mundane objects as being just as suited towards providing enlightenment. Transcendentalists viewed such everyday objects as microcosms of the world or even the universe and modified their behavior accordingly. How does Nathaniel Hawthorne’s belief in Transcendentalism affect the main characters in the book?

Dimmesdale is a weak man who cannot survive on his own. The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, it is revealed early in the narrative, is a kindly pastor with a knack for writing moving, vibrant speeches for every Sunday mass. He preaches about the wages of sin and the merits of penitential confessions; yet who would know better than the recalcitrant clergyman himself? Whenever he stands in the pulpit, he feels as though his continued reticence on his own guilt will kill him. He walks around town as though hanging on to very life by the thinnest of shreds, even going so far as to keep one of his hands over his chest. Ultimately, Dimmesdale’s secret is his undoing, and Hawthorne intentionally characterizes him in this manner. He agrees to confess his transgression before his congregation only when his passa...

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...novel something of a Transcendentalist allegory. Hawthorne’s rather thinly veiled assertion is that the coldly calculated world of medicine and the stoically fixed orthodoxy of organized religion ultimately pall astraddle Transcendentalism. In plainest terms, the minister (representing religion) is morally lax and spiritually too weak to confess his misdeeds. The doctor (representing the world of allegedly incontrovertible fact) is wicked and corrupt, and his medicine cannot compensate for spiritual unwholesomeness. Hester (representing the Transcendentalists) commits a youthful indiscretion, yet refuses to let the judgments of her equally imperfect peers interfere with her own interests. Let not the verisimilitude of other philosophies deceive you, Hawthorne seems to argue in The Scarlet Letter, lest the fate of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth also befall you.
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