Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1957


Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is a pivotal figure in American literary history in more than one respect. His works are known for their ambiguity, which makes them an aesthetic delight and allows for a multitude of readings and interpretations. At the same time, they address moments and aspects of the history of American settlement, which is why Hawthorne is hailed as one of the founders of a new, genuinely American literature already during his lifetime. Thirdly, the author is unusually successful for his time so that he can support a family with the money he makes from his writing, even if only intermittently.


But before he succeeds in this endeavour, he takes several little stimulating administrative jobs, at the post or at customs. This time of his life is reflected in the book’s introductory frame narrative, whose narrator comments on the dull, everyday work life at a Boston custom house in a slightly ironic undertone. The embedded narrative begins with the discovery of a historical document in said custom house. Unlike the frame narrative, which takes place in the early 19th century, the main story is set two centuries earlier in the 17th century, at the time of the Puritan settlement.


In such a fictional Puritan village community, the allegedly widowed Hester Prynne gives birth to an illegitimate child. Neither in prison, nor on the scaffold does she betray its father’s name. Consequently, she is sentenced to wear the scarlet red letter “A” well visible on her chest, as a sign of her sinful state. Hester accepts her punishment with great dignity, and her considerable talent as a seamstress wins her the respect of the villagers. But when her husband, previously lost without a trace, reappears, things get out of control...


The exact meaning of the scarlet letter has always been the subject of much speculation. It is most commonly read as an abbreviation of “adultery”. In the story itself, however, the meaning of the letter is not mentioned, which is why a number of other words, from “art” to “America” have been suggested as possible meanings. An allegorical interpretation, which explores basic conflicts of the American settlement project, is not that far-fetched. After all, that’s what the story is all about: society against individual, personal freedom against common moral laws, civilization against wilderness.


The novel can be read as a critique of the strictly religious founders of the New England colonies, who, despite fighting for their right to live in freedom and according to their own design, drastically curtailed the liberty of others. Just think of the famous Salem witch trials, also referenced in Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown”. The author’s interest in the nation’s Puritan origins is no coincidence: His great-grandfather was a judge in the trials. Hawthorne even changes his name to obscure the relation.


The publication of the novel heralds the commercially most successful period in Hawthorne’s life. It is one of the first mass-produced, i.e. printed with a mechanical printing press, books in American literary history. In less than two weeks, 2,500 copies are sold. Thus, “The Scarlet Letter” brings about the transition from custom house to the art of writing – in the fictional and in the real world.


by Teresa Teklić


Signet Sunflower Foundation