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Nathaniel Hawthorne's timeless American masterpieces are compared and contrasted.
The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter Themes by Nathaniel Hawthorne Examined: Morality and Alienation
The uniqueness observed in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings, particularly with reference to The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, make generous use of the allegory. This is the creation of a story weaving elements of moral truths in order to take on a more symbolic meaning. (Kirkpatrick “Reference Guide to American Literature” 268). What are of interest through allegorical style are the themes that stand out most poignantly dealing with the issues of morality and alienation.
Hawthorne was acutely aware of the foundation of morality upon which Puritanism stood in New England society. (Hart “The Oxford Companion to American Literature” 320).
In The Scarlet Letter, the protagonist, Hester Prynne, is accused of committing adultery. Many contrasting elements or oxymorons stand out in this romantic story. Her lover, the young minister, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, prefers to, out of his selfish pride, to remain in the shadows while Hester, on the other hand, bears the brunt of the accusations from the townspeople by wearing the infamous red “A”, which stands obviously for adultery. The inner personalities are drawn upon to illustrate the situation of morality in the story. (O’Connor “An analytical Index To The Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne With a Sketch of His Life” 26).
Again, the issue of morality weighs heavily in the story of The House of the Seven Gables. Here, the protagonist, Clifford, is under deep scrutiny, as was viewed in the classroom video showing, due to a pressing issue of morality, in this case the murder of his father. (May “The House of the Seven Gables” video). In this story, Clifford is also surrounded by a townspeople steeped deeply in suspicion and superstition and awaiting for an opportunity to enliven the fable of the cursed, haunted mansion in which the Pyncheon family lived.
Also, at the mercy of morality on the other end of the spectrum is the female heroine protagonist, Hepzibah.
Unlike the Rev. Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, being female does suffer directly from a crime in the story. Hawthorne uses Puritanical values in describing the hypocrisy of these spiritual ideals where sin and wrongfulness is not to be tolerated much less to be committed, or else to face dire consequences as should be well deserved under pious judgment. (Hart 320). Hester Prynne’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, conceals his true identity as being the townsfolk doctor.
He deeply suspects that that Dimmesdale is the perpetrator and does everything within his power to make sure that Dimmesdale confesses publicly. Eventually Dimmesdale concedes, but Chillingworth suffers from his final years consumed in capturing a man who has been more than a criminal to him because of his wife.
Alienation is the other theme that rears its head prominently in both of these stories. “The truth was, that the little Puritans, being of the most intolerant brood that ever lived, had got a vague idea of something outlandish, unearthly . . .” (Hawthorne 102). The punishment of Puritanical ostracism was not punishment enough for Hester in Salem, Massachusetts.
Alienation or isolation was very much a reality of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life as an author and is reflected markedly in these stories. (Kirkpatrick 268).
His use of imagery in The Scarlet Letter, displays descriptions of Hester Prynne and her little daughter, Pearl, both alienated from the general society in which they lived and the daily life they subjected to live under punishment of the early Puritan settlers. “Hester )Prynne, nevertheless the lonely mother of this one child, ran little risk of erring on the side of severity.” (Hawthorne 100).
The literary motif that is weaved throughout these stories place great emphasis on the women, Hester and Hepzibah, bearing extreme guilt, but later to emerge as triumphant over the battle of good and evil. Then again, both morality and alienation are intricately interwoven, where the breakdown of moral standards results in a punishment of alienation.
The Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter experienced his own private, personal agony and defeat under the weight of not living up to the standards of a minister of God. His extreme pride and fear of public repudiation placed him in a precarious situation of living up to his name as a man of the cloth, whom even the young ladies so depended upon. His final doom of death was the total weight of the guilt he wore, getting heavier by the day, for that entire period of time after he committed his terrible act upon Hester Prynne. (O’Connor 26).
Clifford’s innocence emerged after his thirty years in prison for a murder he did not commit in contrast to Dimmesdale, who was described as “The Leech” by Hawthorne, particularly due the fact that Hester refuses to name him as the father and his cowardice in hiding his crime. Hawthorne’s women, Hester and Hepzibah, somehow uphold and forbear the dignities of Dimmesdale and Clifford. The years would reward the women in making them more serious about life. Their alienation bore its marks upon them as Hester is described in alliteration as being “gloomy and gray”. (Hawthorne 196).
With Phoebe featured in The House of the Seven Gables stands in stark similarity to little Pearl where the concept of alienation bears little effect on their personalities. Even though Pearl and Phoebe are housed and protected with loving care by Hester and Hepzibah, Pearl and Phoebe break free from the alienation and morality issues by displaying light and love as Hawthorne describes in The Scarlet Letter as being a “bright and sunny apparition”. (Hawthorne 196). The plots of these stories lend a deserved fairness to the suffering of women in a man’s world as their outcomes benefit them in the long run.
Clifford has turned out to become disoriented by prison life and tries hard to adjust to becoming a civilian again upon his release. Hepzibah in the film featured is redeemed through her harsh and lonely in accepting Clifford’s hand in marriage. Hester is finally redeemed by regaining the respect of her townspeople and look well to the welfare of Pearl who was to become the sole heir of her Roger Chillingworth’s fortune.
Even in the face of difficult lives lived the women emerge as the heroines finally defeating the issues of morality and alienation. With Hawthorne’s skillful use of figurative language and symbolism Hester rises above the beauty of the red rosebush outside of the Custom House where she was imprisoned bearing her illegitimate child, Pearl. The red of the rose was to be worn on Hester’s breast as a token of her infidelity, but also reflecting her inner beauty.
On the other Hepzibah’s bitter concealment of herself. Her faded favorite dress, she could not longer wear, and her shutting up her house windows away from the malignant stares of the citizens protected her. Her opening of the “cent shop” and renting out a room to the infamous Matthew displayed her need for finances.
These plots expertly created unparalleled works with a minimum use of the economy of words in the English language, unlike writers of his time, like Charles Dickens or T.S. Eliot. Hawthorne’s interpretation of the romantic era, was layered with sadness, loneliness and a huge dislike for moral hypocrisy, which he long lived in a new nation of America, which in his mind defeated the image of the ideal society in which a man or a woman could live.
Fitzgerald, Sheila, ed. Short Story Criticism. vol.4.
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Characters. New York: Bruccoli Clark Layman and Facts on
Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature.
Fifth Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bedford
and St. Martin’s Press, 2007.
Kirby, David K. American Fiction to 1900 - A Guide to
Information Sources, Detroit: Gale Research Company, Book
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Second Edition, Chicago: St. James Press, 1987.
O'Connor, Evangeline M. An analytical Index To The Works of
Nathaniel Hawthorne With a Sketch of His Life.
Detroit: Gale Research Company, Book Tower, 1967.
The House of the Seven Gables. Dir. Joe May. Universal, 1940.
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|Reviewed by Althea March
|For those of us as college who find Nathaniel Hawthorne's writings challenging, hope this essay can help you in your search.|