•He was born in Salem, Massachusetts, from a family of Puritans, who had settled there and had been involved in the Salem witch trials. The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft between February 1692 and May 1693. Nineteen persons were hanged, one tortured to death, eight condemned to prison. At least five more of the accused died in prison. The episode is one of the nation's most notorious cases of mass hysteria. Hawthorne suffered of poor health, so he spent his childhood in domestic seclusion. Anyway he recovered, and was able to attend College
•Among his first works, a collection of short stories, which focused on the moral conflicts that could arise if a stric Puritan code was followed.
•He found a job in Salem, at the Boston Customs House.
•Then he spent a short time in Concord, where intellectual life was especially lively, thanks to the presence of the Trascendendentalists. Financial difficulties forced him to go back to Salem and resume his job. In 1850 his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, was published; thanks to the success of this and then of other novels, he became famous.
•He spent some years in Liverpool, as U.S. consul, and then traveled to Italy and France.
•He died in Concord, where he retired after his journeys. His creativity declined at the end of his life, his last threee novels were left unfinished.
The scarlet letter
•The novel starts with the author who, at the Salem Customs House, finds a piece of gold embroidered scarlet cloth in the shape of the letter A and a manuscript. The manuscript tells the story of Hester Prynne and the author decides to report it; Hester is sent to Boston by her husband, an English scholar who should then join her. In Boston she has a love affair with the young Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and gets pregnant. According to the Puritan law, she is consequently punished for adultery and kept in prison, where her daughter Pearl is delivered.
•Then she is exposed to public shame and condemned to wear a scarlet letter (A for Adulteress). Anyway she doesn’t reveal the name of Pearl’s father. Her husband, Roger Chillingworth, arrives and forces her not to reveal his identity, pretends to be a doctor and starts tormenting Dimmesdale, as he suspects him.
•Hester goes to live on the outskirts of the town with her daughter; there she becomes a needlewoman and wins the respect of the community and some people say the A she wears stands for Able.
•Dimmesdale is tormented by his guilt, but unable to confess, so he gets seriously ill. Having learnt it, Hester arranges an encounter with Dimmesdale in the forest. They decide to flee to Europe, where they can live with Pearl as a family. They will take a ship sailing from Boston in four days. Both feel a sense of release, and Hester removes her scarlet letter. Hester learns that Chillingworth knows of their plan and has booked passage on the same ship, but decides to leave anyway.
•The day before the ship is to sail, the townspeople gather for a holiday and Dimmesdale preaches his most eloquent sermon ever. Dimmesdale, sees Hester and Pearl standing before the town scaffold. He mounts the scaffold with his lover and his daughter, and confesses publicly, exposing a scarlet letter seared into the flesh of his chest. He falls dead, as Pearl kisses him. Chillingworth, frustrated in his revenge, dies a year later, leaving his fortune to Pearl.
•The girl goes to Europe with her mother and marries an aristocrat while Hester goes back to Salem and spends the rest of her life doing charitable work. When she dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale and the two share a single tombstone, which bears a scarlet “A.”
•Hester Prynne is passionate but also strong, as she endures years of shame and scorn. She has as much intelligence as both her husband and her lover. Her alienation puts her in the position to make acute observations about her community, particularly about its treatment of women. In the course of the novel she acquires new strenght and maturity.
•Reverend Dimmesdale deals with his guilt by tormenting himself physically and psychologically, developing a heart condition as a result, thus revealing he’s passive and weak. He is an intelligent and emotional man, in fact his sermons are masterpieces of eloquence and persuasiveness. His commitments to his congregation are in constant conflict with his feelings of sinfulness and need to confess.
•Roger Chillingworth is a scholar and uses his knowledge to disguise himself as a doctor, intent on discovering and tormenting Hester’s anonymous lover. He is self-absorbed and single-minded: his ruthless pursuit of retribution reveals him to be the villain of the novel.
•Pearl is a strange young girl with an ability to perceive things that others do not. For example, she quickly discerns the truth about her mother and Dimmesdale. The townspeople say that she barely seems human and spread rumors that her unknown father is actually the Devil. She is wise far beyond her years.
Time and setting:
Boston XVII century
•The narrator pretends to report a story found in a manuscript. In this way he seems to distance himself from the story itself. He mentions his unease about attempting to make a career out of writing as he believes that his Puritan ancestors would find it frivolous and “degenerate”.
•Anyway he turns out to be a true Third Person Omniscient Narrator
•He follows the activities of all the characters, revealing their internal thoughts and secret actions. He reveals much about each character that they do not know about each other or even about themselves. He is also inclined to give his own opinion.
Sin, Knowledge, and the Human Condition
•The experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin results in expulsion and suffering.
•Anyway it also results in knowledge, specifically, in knowledge of what it means to be human.
•Hester and Dimmesdale’s experience shows that a state of sinfulness can lead to personal growth, sympathy, and understanding of others.
• Paradoxically, these qualities are shown to be incompatible with a state of purity.
The Nature of Evil
-Being Puritans, the characters are all more or less obsessed with sin and actually try to root out the causes of evil.
-At the end the narrator makes clear that Evil is not found in Hester and Dimmesdale’s lovemaking, nor even in the cruel ignorance of the Puritan fathers.
-Evil, in its most poisonous form, is found in the carefully plotted and precisely aimed revenge of Chillingworth, whose love has been perverted.
Although Pearl is a complex character, her primary function within the novel is symbolic. She is the physical consequence of sexual sin and the indicator of a transgression. Yet, even as a reminder of Hester’s “sin,” Pearl is more than a mere punishment to her mother: she is also a blessing. She represents not only “sin” but also the vital spirit and passion that engendered that sin. Thus, Pearl’s existence gives her mother reason to live, reviving her spirits when she is tempted to give up. The scarlet letter is meant to be a symbol of shame, but instead it becomes a powerful symbol of identity to Hester. The letter’s meaning shifts as time passes. Originally intended to mark Hester as an adulterer, the “A” eventually comes to stand for “Able.” As a consequence, it is a symbol of Hester’s personal growth.
A romance novel
In the Preface to The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne defined the difference between a novel and a romance novel. A novel, although being imaginary, is based on facts and events that have to look as if they were real. The subject of a romance novel is “life seen through moonlight”. If the writer is sitting in a room in the moonlight and looks around at the familiar items on the floor he can discern a quality of "strangeness and remoteness" in these familiar objects.