Atoning for the Past, Writing for the Future: An analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

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Haverford College. Department of English
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This project explores the ways in which Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter enacts a sort of generational trauma, as defined by Marianne Hirsch, as Hawthorne attempts to separate himself from his Puritan ancestors and atone for their cold-hearted actions, specifically in reference to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. His own experiences under the "rigidities of the Puritan faith," coupled with the shame he felt on behalf of his ancestors who were active in the persecution of the Quakers and in the testimonies and judgments against those accused of witchcraft, led Hawthorne to create a world in which a sympathetic, and ultimately benevolent, heroine, Hester Prynne, suffers at the hands of a closed-minded and judgmental Puritanical community that deems themselves worthy of assuming the power of God's judgment. Although Hawthorne was compelled to write as an act of repentance on his ancestors' behalf, the generational trauma he was experiencing was not the sole factor that urged him to write The Scarlet Letter. There were other forces at work in the middle of the 19th century that encouraged Hawthorne to take up this sense of responsibility nearly two centuries after the Salem witch trials of 1692: namely abolitionism. He viewed slavery as something in which earthly beings did not have a right to intervene. These themes are reverberated throughout The Scarlet Letter, as Hawthorne delivers a critique of the Puritan community that persecutes Hester that is strikingly similar to his view of the violently revolutionary abolitionists with whom he disagreed. Hawthorne does not believe that Hester has not sinned by committing adultery, but he does not deem the Puritan community capable of discerning the ways in which Hester should be punished for it. Hawthorne drew upon his experiences with crazed abolitionists and accounts of the cruel judgments and vicious actions of his Puritan ancestors as he created the ruthless, bloodthirsty community, strengthened by a mob-mentality, that would surround his protagonists in The Scarlet Letter Finally, Hawthorne enacts generational trauma through Pearl, displaying the hardships that one incurs when forced to deal with the lasting effects of an ancestor’s actions, while also providing an optimistic future for her, and for all women, that reflects his belief that separating oneself from one's turbulent familial past is attainable. She begins life as an outcast along with her mother, considered wild and untamable, almost other worldly, but is eventually able to overcome the early judgments that were thrust against her and develop into a successful, independent woman. In Pearl there lies the hope that succeeding generations can branch away from their ancestors and escape the sins they committed, eventually learning to develop a life of their own despite any early influences that may have existed, or family stigmas that may once have branded them. Hawthorne's writing allows him to transcend his own earthly identity and assume that of another, of many others, in hopes of gaining a new understanding of those with experiences much different than his own. He thus offers a new perspective, not only to himself, but to his readers, as they suffer alongside Hester and Dimmesdale, empathizing with their suffering under ruthless scrutiny and realizing the evils of hypocrisy and faulty judgment, inspired with a desire for the reformation of humanity.