SCARLET LETTER, the first and by general consent the greatest of Nathaniel Hawthorne's four chief romances, was originally planned as a short tale, and was expanded to its present proportions on the urgent advice of the author's friend and publisher, James T. Fields. When, with the change of administration in 1849, Hawthorne was removed from the surveyorship of customs at Salem, he undertook a collection of short pieces that might have borne to the custom-house, where he had worked, the same relation that his preceding collection had borne to the Old Manse, where he had lived. An introductory sketch, ‘The Custom-House,’ written for this collection, is always prefixed to ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ though it has no real connection with the romance, and though it contains some unfortunate personalities which show the writer's ill-temper over the loss of his position.
The account in this sketch of the finding of a moth-eaten embroidered “A” and a manuscript in the upper rooms of the custom-house is of course fanciful. Years before, in the tale of ‘Endicott and the Red Cross,’ Hawthorne had made incidental mention of a woman who was forced to wear a scarlet “A” in token of her guilt, and the thought of this punishment, or rather of its effect on the wearer, seems to have remained with him until it resulted in the creation of Hester Prynne. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was published in the spring of 1850, and instantly won for the author a recognition that had been denied to the delicate and finished shorter tales of his earlier collections. Its reputation in America has increased rather than diminished with time, and it has been warmly praised in England. In other countries it is less known, perhaps partly because many of its effects are too subtle for translation, partly because the peculiar New England quality is not readily appreciated by those of another race. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is in every way typical of Hawthorne.
The background is colonial New England, and the theme is the effect of a great sin on the four persons most concerned — Hester Prynne, who wears the scarlet letter, her paramour, the wronged husband, and the child who is the offspring of illicit love. When the tale opens, the sin is a thing of the past, and the judgment of the law has been imposed. The author passed by the story of love, temptation, yielding, and discovery, and beginning where another novelist might have ended he traced the moral and spiritual tragedy which followed. Even in the handling of this material he made no use of the ordinary devices of the story-teller. Thus, the identity of the guilty man, which might have been so treated as to arouse curiosity and then revealed with startling effect, is allowed to transpire quietly. The chief contrast is between Hester, who suffers openly, and her partner in guilt, who maintains his honorable position in the community unsuspected; and the lesson which is most likely to be drawn is that of the virtue of open expiation, and the evil of concealment, even where there seem to exist the strongest arguments against confession.
In the author's own words, “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” A secondary moral, the deadening effect of a secret and long-continued plotting for revenge, as seen in the husband, Chillingworth, is almost too obvious. Yet ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ while it is sure to stimulate thought, is not in any sense a preachy book. The reference in the conclusion to Hester's belief in “a new truth” which should “establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness,” is somewhat perplexing, but has probably been taken by radical social reformers more seriously than the author intended. Throughout the book the thought of the scarlet letter, both as a material object and as a symbol, is everywhere present, and is woven into the tale with even too great ingenuity.
It is personified in the child, Pearl; it seems to imaginative observers to be flashed in the heavens by the track of meteors; and as we are led to believe, it was burned in penance on the breast of the guilty man. The background, the characters, like the demented witch-sister of the governor, the incidents, and the motive unite to sustain throughout the romance a uniform tone — sombre, tragic, unbroken from first to last by a trace of humor, and still neither morbid nor repellant. It would have been a great achievement to tell such a story for the select few who are fond of subtle psychological analysis; it is marvelous that Hawthorne made a tale, in which nothing outward happens, appeal to the mass of readers who are accustomed to demand constant action.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920