Nathaniel Hawthorne: Contribution to American Novel

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      Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), a fifth-generation American of the English descent, was born in Salem, Massachusetts which in a wealthy seaport north of Boston specialized mainly in the East India trade. In an earlier century, one of his pcestors had been a judge during trials in Salem of some women accused of being witches. Hawthorne used the same curse on the family of an evil judge in his novel, The House of the Seven Gables. Many of his powerful stories are there in Puritan New England, and his greatest novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), has become the classic portrayal of Puritan America. The novel tells of the passionate, forbidden love affair linking a sensitive, religious young man, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and the sensuous beautiful town-lady, Hester Prynne. Set in Boston around 1650 during early Puritan colonization, the novel highlights the Calvinistic obsession with morality, sexual repression, Huilt and confession, and spiritual salvation.

      Hawthorne developed this great novel from a small incident described by him in his story ‘Endicott and the Red Cross’ (1837). The introductory section describes the novelist’s work in the Custom House at Salem. The novel itself is set in the 17th century Boston and opens as a young woman named Hester Prynne emerges from the prison with her illegitimate baby in her arms. Charged with adultery, she must stand exposed on the public scaffold for three hours. She must thereafter wear a scarlet letter on her breast as a lifelong sign of her sin. Her husband is an elderly English scholar. Two years earlier, he sent her to Boston to prepare a home for them but he failed to follow her at the appointed time. Unknown to Hester, he had been captured by Indians, and in fact arrives, just in time to see his wile puhlically condemned. Hester does not reveal her identity of her lover, as the community does to draw on the secret. Ironically, the guilty is one of that community’s most respectable figures - the young minister Arthur Dimmesdale. Being a highly conscientious man he escapes outward condemnation but is inwardly tormented by his sin.

      Years pass and Hester settles into her new life. She proves to be a strong - minded and capable woman and in spite of her humiliation, finds a place in Boston society by helping other unfortunate and outcastes. Her daughter Pearl, has developed into a mischievous ‘elfin’ child who reminds Hester of her guilt by asking rather acute questions about the minister and the letter. Meanwhile, Hester’s husband has taken the name of Roger Chillingworth and has settled in Boston as a doctor. He makes Hester swear to keep his identity secret and indulges his private obsession with finding the identity of her lover.

      Being Hester, Pearl and the minister Dimmesdale together at one midnight, he guesses correctly at Dimmesdale’s guilt. Being aware of minister’s failing health he is ready to help him medically, while torturing him spiritually with veiled allusions to his crime. One day on a walk Hester secretly meets Arthur through the forest and begs him to escape with her to Europe. He would like to do so and Hester even removes the letter from her breast but he sees flight as yielding to further temptation. He returns to lawn, his mind filled with evil thoughts, to finish writing his Election Day Sermon. Hester learns that Chillingworth (i.e, her disguised husband) has blocked her plan of escape by hooking a passage on the same ship. Having delivered a powerful sermon, Dimmesdale leaves the church and bids in ester and Pearl to join him on the pillory, where at last he publicly confesses his sin. As Dimmesdale dies in his lover’s arms, Chillingworth cries out in agony at having lost the sole object of his perverse life. Hester and Pearl, now free from the restraints of the mortified community, leave Boston. The novel ends with Hester’s return to Boston and her voluntary decision to resume wearing the scarlet letter. While Pearl settles in Europe. Hester continues her life of penance, a model of endurance, goodness and a victory over in.

      For its time, The Scarlet Letter was a daring and even subversive book. Hawthorne’s gentle style, remote historical setting, and ambiguity softened his grim themes and contented the general public but sophisticated writers such as Emerson and Melville recognized its “hellish” power. It treated issues that were usually suppressed in 19th century America such as the inapt of new, liberating democratic experience on individual behavior, especially on sexual and religious freedom. The novel is superbly organized and beautifully written. Appropriately, the novelist uses allegory - a technique the early Puritan colonists themselves practiced.

      Hawthorne’s reputation mainly rests also on his other novels and tales as well. In The House of the Seven Gables (1851), he again returns to New England’s history. The crumbling of the “house” refers to a family in Salem as well as to the actual structure. The theme concerns an inherited curse and its resolution through love. As one critic remarks, the idealistic protagonist Halgrove voices Hawthorne’s own democratic distrust of old aristocratic families: “The truth is, that once in every half-century, at least, a family should be merged into the great, obscure mass of humanity, and forget about its ancestors.” His last two novels are less successful. Both use modem settings, which hamper the magic of romance. The Blithedale Romance (1852) is very interesting for its portrait of the socialist, Utopian Brook Farm community. In the prose romance, Hawthorne criticizes egotistical, power-hungry social reformers whose deepest instincts are not genuinely democratic. The Marble Faun (1860), though set in Rome, dwells on the Puritan themes of sin, isolation, expiation, and salvation.

      These themes, and his characteristic settings in Puritan colonial New England, are trademarks of many of Hawthorne’s best-known shorter stories: “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineus.” In the last of these, a naive young man from the country comes to the city - a common route in urbanizing 19th-century America to seek help from his powerful relative, whom he has never met. Robin has great difficulty finding the major, and finally joins in a strange night riot in which a man who seems to be a disgraced criminal, comically and cruelly driven out of town. Robin laughs loudest of all until he realizes that this “criminal” is none other than the man he sought - a representative of the British who has just been over overthrown by a revolutionary American mob. The story conforms the bond of sin and suffering shared, by all humanity. Robin must learn, like every democratic American, to prosper from his own hard work, not from special favors from wealthy relatives.: “My Kinsman, Major Molineu” casts light on one of the most striking elements in Hawthorne’s fiction: the lack of functioning families in his works. Although Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales manages to introduce families into the least likely wilderness places. Hawthorne’s stories and novels repeatedly show broken, cursed, or artificial families and the sufferings of the isolated individuals.

      The ideology of revolution, too, may have played a purl in glorifying a sense of proud yet alienated freedom. In American Revolution, from a psycho-historical viewpoint, parallels an adolescent rebellion away from the parent-figure of England and the larger family of the British empire. Americans won their independence and were then diced with the bewildering dilemma of discovering their Identity apart from old authorities. This scenario was played out countless times on the frontier, to the extent that, in fiction, isolation often seems the basic American condition of life. Puritanism and its Protestant offshoots may have further weakened the family by preaching that the individual’s first responsibility was to save his or her own soul.

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