How Transcendentalism Affect “The Scarlet Letter”?

Although at times he was critical of the highly influential American transcendentalist movement, author Nathaniel Hawthorne was nevertheless powerfully impacted by it, as evidenced by his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. Transcendentalism, centered upon the development of a personal, highly individualized relationship with God, views nature as a means of accessing a divine spirit, while rejecting all forms of social constraints, from formal education to organized religion. Transcendentalists argue, that civilization does nothing more than stunt and deform the individual’s spiritual, mental, and emotional development, taking him away from God and from himself. These transcendentalist ideas and themes play a vital role in Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter and are seen in multiple instances throughout the book.

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One of the many transcendentalist themes we see in The Scarlet Letter is the theme of individual versus society. Condemned and rejected for her sin of adultery, Hester Prynne lives both figuratively and literally on the outskirts of the Puritan community with her daughter Pearl. They are mocked by citizens of the community, exiled from the Church, and are not accepted into any respectable home unless to help its occupants. Despite her many kind acts of charity, including tending to the sick and feeding the poor, the puritan community still scorns her. This is a distinct example of exactly what the transcendentalists complained about regarding society as a whole. They believed that social institutions distorted the human soul and spirit and claimed that society’s teachings were so damaging that they made hypocrites of its citizens. This hypocrisy can be seen in the poor and sick whom Hester helps as they cannot see how ridiculous they are to accept her help in one instant and condemn her in the next. Instead of this what mattered to transcendentalists was the individual, who had the potential to be beautiful, divine, and free. Even though Hester and Pearl live as social outcasts mocked by the entire community, unable to attend Church services, and not accepted into the Puritan school they somehow seem closer to their the divine and are much more free than others in the community.

Another one of the transcendentalist themes we see in the book is the theme of the sacred within. Transcendentalists did not believe in organized religion nor did they accept the highly restrictive Christianity practiced by the Puritans. For the transcendentalists, God cannot be confined to a single name or religion. For them the deity, is much bigger, and can be understood through reading the sacred texts of all faiths and taking from their teachings that which resonates in the soul. Above all transcendentalists believed that one develops a sense of the sacred and the moral by turning inward. Hester learns to cultivate this inner sense of morality across her decades as a social outcast. Initially, Hester accepted nearly every bit of mockery placed upon her and she internalized/believed almost everything the Puritan doctrine teaches about sin. Ultimately Hester ended up believing that she was a terrible sinner, far more corrupt than the rest of her upstanding community. However due to her love for Reverend Dimmesdale she maintained a seed of doubt, as there is something in her feelings for him and for their affair that she can’t condemn entirely. For Hester, Dimmesdale is her true husband, the one given to her by God, and she does not feel any love for Roger Chillingworth, the man the Church recognizes as Hester’s husband. As a result, Hester begins to develop what in the Puritan community are considered dangerous thoughts. She developed an acute sense for the moral hypocrisies and the moral suffering of others and she could feel the secret weight of sin in the townspeople as they passed by her. She alone recognized how diabolical the widely-respected Chillingworth has become. All of these are perfect examples of how Hester housed sacredness within herself throughout the book.

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How Transcendentalism Affect "The Scarlet Letter"?. (2019, May 18). Retrieved February 3, 2023 , from

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