Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Representation of the Puritan Society

by Bahar Ilk (Author)

Term Paper 2016 17 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

A. Introduction: Hawthorne’s Representation of the Puritan Society
I. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Biography
II. History and Development of Puritanism

B. The Depiction of the Puritan Society
I. The Illustration of the Puritan Society in The Scarlet Letter
1. “The Custom-House”
2. An Investigation into Selected Chapters of The Scarlet Letter
II. The Portrayal of the Puritan Society in “Young Goodman Brown”
1. Historical Reference to Puritanism in “Young Goodman Brown”
2. The Depiction of Puritanism in “Young Goodman Brown”

C. Conclusion: Hawthorne’s Ambiguity towards the Puritan Society

A. Introduction: Hawthorne’s Representation of the Puritan Society

“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind."

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Marble Faun”, 1861.

In a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s collection of writings, Henry James (1997) argues that Hawthorne’s personal past can be considered as a source of inspiration for his own writings centered on New England. James asserts that Hawthorne refers to his Puritan ancestors within several of said works. In this regard, James (1997) continues, that Hawthorne “had ample cognizance of the Puritan conscience; it was his natural heritage; it was reproduced in him; looking into his soul, he found it there.” However, his relation to Puritanism was only “intellectual”, therefore he used it as a pigment and treated it objectively (see James 1997: 57). Consequently, James holds the view that Hawthorne utilizes his expertise of Puritanism as a “toy” (James 1997: 58) and the Puritan belief as his “play-ground” (ibid.) by writing novels and short stories.

While literary criticism insists that Hawthorne was extremely censorious of Puritanism in his works of fiction, my analysis of The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown” aims to demonstrate that the narrator displays very ambivalent views on Puritanism, shifting between harsh criticism, compassion and even tenderness.

The first section of this paper will examine Hawthorne’s biography and historical background from which his Puritan inheritance arose in order to understand his works. After the historical background has been depicted, the focus will be set on the ambiguous illustration of the Puritan community in the two works mentioned before. Being a direct descendant of Massachusetts Bay colonists, the Puritan era of New England served as a lifelong preoccupation for Hawthorne and inspired many of his stories, especially The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown”. Therefore, these two works are particularly significant in terms of their representation of Puritanism. At the end, the results of this analysis will be summarized.

I. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Biography

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804. The town name Salem is mentioned several times in the Old Testament, which is derived from Jerusalem. For further analysis, it is significant to emphasize that he was born into a family who had been of Puritan belief for generations, since this shaped his mindset (cf. Waggoner 1962: 5). In 1636, Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather, William Hathorne, who served on the Board of Selectmen for many years and fought in King Philip’s War, settled in Salem. William Hathorne ordered a Quaker woman, Ann Coleman, to be whipped through the streets of Salem (cf. Person 2007: 17). The prosecution of Quakers portrays the cruelty of Hawthorne’s ancestors. In 1692, William Hathorne’s son and at the same time Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-grandfather John Hathorne (1641-1717) had been one of the judges at the Salem Witchcraft trials. Thus, Hawthorne’s ancestors were involved in the witch persecution; they made use of torture and sent people to death.

However, in contrast to his ancestors, Hawthorne, who was a transcendentalist (cf. Waggoner 1962: 14), had a feeling of compunction about the persecuted Salem citizens (cf. Reynolds 2001: 6). It is of high relevance to emphasize that Hawthorne felt guilty for his ancestor's part in the intolerant prosecution of Quakers, since it demonstrates that he does not share their worldview. The transcendentalists were rebelling against dogmatic religions such as Calvinism, since they believed in the relevance and efficiency of human striving. This means that Hawthorne, as a transcendentalist, disapproves the Puritan belief in predestination and human depravity. Therefore, Hawthorne holds the view that Puritanism was characterized by cruelty and intolerance. For instance, when he began signing his works, he added w to his family name in order to find distance from his Puritan ancestors (cf. Reynolds 2001: 14). Nevertheless, the Puritan past provided him with the background for many of his works such as The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown” which will be further analyzed in this paper.

II. History and Development of Puritanism

In order to understand the author and his works, it is crucial to apprehend his historical background from which they arose. Therefore, this section attempts to show a historical review of Puritanism in order to promote a greater understanding of the Puritan society illustrated in Hawthorne’s writings.

Puritanism was a form of Protestantism, a strongly anti-Catholic version of Calvinism. The Puritan believers were dissenters who formed their own religious organization and society. Puritanism has been developed on the basis of the works of William Tyndale (1495-1536) and John Hooper (1495-1555), who claimed that the English Reformation was not complete in reforming the doctrines, therefore they aimed to remove the remnants of Roman Catholicism from the Church of England (cf. Person 2007: 17). In fact, the Puritans’ aim was a reformation of the Anglican Church (cf. Carroll 1969). However, they failed in reforming England and had to leave since they were prosecuted. Consequently, they decided to build a model Puritan community in order to practice their faith in New England, so a large group started emigrating to Massachusetts in 1629. They settled in Boston and Salem: the place where Hawthorne’s ancestors had settled and the author himself was born. According to Puritan ideology, human beings are depraved sinners but the Puritan believers are chosen people by God. They believe that it is relevant to be in a covenant with God and hope for salvation through preaching, hard work and a frugal lifestyle. In order to provide a proper historical understanding, it is worth mentioning that the form of Puritanism has changed and developed over the centuries, and the form of that time in which Hawthorne’s stories are set is in 1558.

In the pages that follow, it will be explored how these aspects of Puritanism reverberate in The Scarlet Letter and Young Goodman Brown” in order to scrutinize the narrator’s contrastive representation of the Puritan society.

B. The Depiction of the Puritan Society

This section is divided into two main sections, each of which presents the solution of The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown” relating to the research question. As a result, the purpose of this section is to substantiate that the narrator’s depiction of the Puritan society is deprecating as well as admiring. It begins by outlining the elements of Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter and goes on to “The Young Goodman Brown”. Both works will be analyzed with regard to Puritanism in order to demonstrate that the narrator’s illustration of the Puritan society is ambiguous.

I. The Illustration of the Puritan Society in The Scarlet Letter

Whereas several studies have pointed out that Hawthorne seeks distance to his Puritan ancestors, I will prove that he is also proud of their prominence by analyzing his novel The Scarlet Letter with regard to the representation of the Puritan society.

In The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne utilizes the structure and ideology of the Puritan society in order explore a problematic cultural inheritance whose issue is of primary concern to his own historical past (cf. Rowe 2009: 27). Initially, the novel deals with the life of Hester Prynne, who lives in Puritan Boston of the mid-seventeenth century. She has committed adultery and therefore, she is sentenced to wearing the scarlet letter ‘A’ on her dress as a reminder of her sin (cf. Hawthorne 53). At the end of the novel, the minister Dimmesdale, who had committed adultery with Hester but hid his flaw from the Puritan town, reveals his secret after his sermon in front of the whole congregation because of historical compunction. Thus, the minister repents his guilt and admits his fault. In this respect, the narrator constitutes that Puritans are but human beings who commit blunders.

1. “The Custom-House”

The purpose of this chapter is to review the literature on the opposing depiction of the Puritan society. So, The Scarlet Letter ’ s opening chapter “The Custom-House” is a good example to show this oppositeness, since it demonstrates both embodiments: criticizing and showing veneration towards the Puritan society at the same time.

“The Custom-House”, an independent standing section in the novel, offers plenty of insights into the narrator’s feelings towards his Puritan ancestors. The first of them, William Hathorne, is described as arriving at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 "with his Bible and his sword" (Hawthorne 9). The storyteller continues that William Hathorne’s figure, “invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur”, has “all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil” (ibid.). The narrator makes use of two opposing adjectives good and evil with regard to his relatives’ characteristics, since he wants to emphasize that there are both marvelous and malevolent Puritans. Therefore, this quote is conducive to the narrator’s appreciation of at least a few Puritan characteristics because they are not altogether sinister. Nevertheless, the narrator continues describing the negative qualities of his ancestor. The description of a “dim” and “dusky grandeur” (Hawthorne 9) of his relative portrays a wicked character (cf. Person 2005: 241). Furthermore, the storyteller mentions that his forefather is remembered as “a bitter persecutor” in the Quakers’ histories as having “hard severity towards woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many.” (Hawthorne 9). This quote evinces that William Hathorne is a ruthless man, indeed he has good qualities as well but, due to his outrage towards a Quaker woman, his positive deeds fade into obscurity, although they were numerous (see Person 2005). The assumption that William Hathorne has all the Puritanis traits, both positive and negative, is of vital concern since it indicates that Puritans possess the average blend of good and deficient character traits. It shows again the opposing representation of the Puritan society, they have both, good and cruel qualities.

Moreover, the “Custom-House” is an appropriate example for showing tenderness towards the Puritan society since the narrator identifies himself with his stern Puritan forefathers which indicates that the he has, de facto, assented to the Puritan mindset. So, he admits that “strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine” (Hawthorne 10). Yet, even the storyteller criticizes his relatives due to the witch persecution, he affirms his spiritual affinity with them.



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nathaniel hawthorne’s representation puritan society


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    Bahar Ilk (Author)


Title: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Representation of the Puritan Society