The Scarlet Letter Essay Research Paper Zapata

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The Scarlet Letter Essay, Research Paper Zapata 1 History and Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne envisioned The Scarlet Letter as a short story to be published in a collection, but it outgrew that purpose. Most critics accept Hawthorne’s definition of it as a romance rather than as a novel. It usually appears with an introductory autobiographical essay, “The Custom House”, in which Hawthorne describes working in his ancestral village, Salem, Massachusetts, as a customs officer. Hawthorne describes coming across certain documents in the customs house that provide him with the basis for The Scarlet Letter. But this essay fictionalizes the origins of the story in that it offers proofs of he authenticity of a narrative therein contained. Following other

literary examples in early American literature, like Washington Irving’s History of New York, Hawthorne masks his literary invention by making it seem historical (Cassil 490). He calls his motivation for writing the essay “a desire to put himself in his true position as editor, or very little more.” This editorial positioning indicates his interest in creating an aura of authenticity and historical importance for his narrative (Abott 137). Not surprisingly, therefore, much criticism of The Scarlet Letter focuses on its relation to history. Many critics have investigated the Puritan laws governing adultery and searched for an historical Hester Prynne. Other critics have used clues within the tale to specify its context. For example, when Dimmesdale climbs on the scaffold at

midnight, Hester and Pearl have been watching at the governor’s deathbed. Robert Corrigan associates this with the death of Governor Winthrop on March 26, 1649, and notices that “celestial disturbances were actually recorded after his death” (78). Similarly, Election Day, on which Dimmesdale’s sermon commemorates the inauguration of a new Governor, Zapata 2 can be located historically on May 2, 1649. To notice these dates, however, is to notice that Hawthorne takes liberties with them. (The Minister’s Vigil chapter takes place in early May, not March, and so on.) His role in composing The Scarlet Letter far exceeds that of a mere editor. The tale is an invention, and Hawthorne’s use of disparate historical details should be understood not only as significant, but also

as symbolic. Hawthorne’s interest in the history of the colonies and his Puritan ancestors was deep and genuine, but complicated. He was interested in not just documenting, but creating an authentic past (Chorley 324). In “The Custom House” and elsewhere in his writing, Hawthorne imagines an ancestral guilt that he inherits; he takes shame upon himself for their sakes. (One of his ancestors, John Hathorne, ruled for executions during the Salem witch trials.) At still another level, Hawthorne invites the reader to relate The Scarlet Letter to contemporary politics of the 1840s. The past is not dead, it lives on in the custom house, and other contemporary political institutions. He writes The Scarlet Letter after having lost his administrative position, as a self-proclaimed

politically dead man. Hawthorne insists that the nation both enables and impedes the lives of its constituents and the telling of its histories. In the novel’s opening pages, the reader waits with the crowd for Hester to emerge from the prison. He overhears snatches of conversation among the women of the crowd, who express little sympathy for Hester and even wish for a harsher sentence. The narrator interrupts these bitter sentiments, which match the prison’s gloomy front, and contrasts them with a wild rosebush that blooms by the prison door. He hopes this rosebush may serve to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found by the reader of this tale of human frailty and sorrow (Kingsley 55). Explicitly, then, Hawthorne identifies The Zapata 3 Scarlet Letter as a