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Seminar Paper, 2017
12 Pages, Grade: 1,7
2. A brief profile of Puritanism
3. Hawthorne’s Puritanism
4. Contradictions of and around Puritanism in “The Scarlet Letter”
“... the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single holiday, they appeared scarcely more grave than most other communities at a period of general affliction.” (Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter, XXI, p. 344)
Nathaniel Hawthorne is considered as one of the most significant American novelist of romantisism of the early 19th century. The interplay between contrasting and ambigious literary motifs can be taken as typical for the era of romantisism as well as for Hawthorne’s personal style of writing. In his novels he devoted himself in exploring moral and the social issues of the American society and its roots in the Puritan heritage. Thereby, he often thematised his own deep bonds with his Puritan ancestors and created story plots that both highlighted their weaknesses and their strengths. Whereas Hawthorne himself openly showed admiration for the strengths and determination of his Puritan ancestors, he also adresses his own negative concerns for their rigid and oppressive rules of living (Mills p. 79).
“The Scarlet Letter” from 1850, as a text book expample of his great literary works, shows Hawthorne’s attitude towards Puritans from the Massachusetts Bay Colonies in his portrayal of characters, his plot, and the themes of his story. This ten-page thesis paper attempts to probe into Hawthorne’s contradictory religious thoughts reflected in “The Scarlet Letter”. In course of this, I vindicate the point of view that Hawthorne illustrates Puritanism as contradictory. Furthermore I claim that his critique on Puritanism is partly contradictory as well. This contradictoriness of his critique is also often accompanied by an ambiguity of his literary illustrations.
The 2nd and 3rd chapter of this paper will shortly expose the major characteristics of Puritanism and Hawthorne’s personal relation to it. The major focus is put on elaborating the contradictions of the depicted Puritanism and Hawthorne’s attitude to it in the 4th chapter.
The religious reform movement of Puritanism arised from the disangagement processes of Calvinist adherents from the Anglican Church in the 16th century. With the relocation of many Puritans at the beginning of the 17th century, Puritanism has been establsihed as the dominant religion in the newly founded English Crown Colonies in North America. Here they attempted to build up their fundamentalist church system following the ideals of Calvinsim (Delbanco n.p).
As strict adherents of the Calvinist doctrine, the Puritans also believed in the concept of predestination. This lead to the general perception that the human being, as decendant from Adam and Eve, was naturally born sinful. Consequently, the belief’s adherents had to submit themselves to God in order to find benediction. Simultaneously, this regard was also transfered to the awareness of the unsettled native land of the American continent (Bremer p. 26). The basic belief in the pure biblical doctrine also formed the rules for the public and private life in the Bay Colonies of later Massachusetts. Differently from their religious origin in the Anglican church, the religious observance of Puritanism prohibited all activities which did not find argumentation in the Bible. Thus, not only the practise of amusement and sociability has been highly affected but also the self-portrayal of men and the church itself (Bremer p. 28). As the church has set the example, the colonists were expected to live in abstinence of material secular goods and unchristian activities. So, the visual glorification of church interiors, architecture or fashion has also been tabooed by the “pure” religious system. In contrast to the active renouncement of secular enjoyment, the Puritan lifestyle was also characterised by a virtuous perception of conscientiousness, high working morale and desire for education (Delbanco n.p).
Even after the decrease of the Puritan impact on life in the Bay Colonies in the late 17th century, Nathaniel Hawthorne makes Puritanism an omnipresent subject of his time again. Hereby he reflects his own family history as well as his own religious beliefs.
Hawthorne’s creative work finds its appeal in the thematisation of the basic fabric of Puritanism (Schwartz p. 192). By having a closer focus on his own relation to the Puritan law code, one quickly realises an inherently complexity, making him doubly involved in his literary frameworks of former Puritan settings (White, p. 6). He was not only affected by the still strongly Puritan-derived New England conscience of his time, but also by the inherited legacy of his ancestors. The fact that his ancestor John Hathrone (original family name without “w”) took part in the persecution of the Salem witchcraft trails of 1692, makes the Puritan actions to his own concrete identity of origin (ib. p.7). As a consequence, Hawthorne’s romanticism as well the “The Scarlet Letter” can never be regarded as purely fictive. Admittedly, it seems as if Puritanism constitutes subject and personal shame for Hawthorne.
Also 150 years after the Puritan downfall, Hawthorne’s New England of the 1840s was still highly influenced by “[t]he Calvinist dogmas of Evil, Sin and even Devine Righteousness [...]” (White p.7). The as typically Puritan regarded virtues such as diligence, responsibility and humility had also been glorified once more with the arising era of enlightenment. In contrast to this, Hawthorne as a representative of dark romanticism draws attention to the dark side of the Puritan era. In the close interaction between the good and evil of Puritanism he also finds a matrix for his novels’ plots. Within this, Hawthorne directs the reader’s perception of Puritanism on an emotional level and makes his and the society’s accounting for the past to “writeable horror” (Bercovitch p. 9).
Despite all the obvious quarrels with the Puritan code, it must not be forgotten how much Hawthorne himself is part of it. Whereas he exactly knows how to illustrate the Puritan impact on his story characters, Hawthorne himself is torn between all the Puritan forces and conditions which worked on him. This lacking degree of self-analysis skills makes his illustration and critique on Puritanism to something vague and often contradictory (White p. 9). The next chapter will elaborate this for “The Scarlet Letter”.
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