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Week 10--The Scarlet Letter as Autobiography?

Anne Dalke's picture
We ended our last class with this passage from "The Custom House," Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Introductory to The Scarlet Letter":

"we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil. To this extent and within these limits, an author, methinks, may be autobiographical, without violating either the reader's rights or his own."

So... What are the rights of the reader?
What are the rights of an author?
What happens to our understanding (and experience) of The Scarlet Letter if we read it as an example of the genre of autobiography?
What are the characteristics of an autobiography?
If this novel...
um, romance...
um, autobiography...
is one, then in whom do you think Nathaniel Hawthorne represents himself? Why?
(Feel free to substitute any other question here!)

egoodlett's picture

Notes (that I should have posted before but forgot to)

I think that to call the Scarlet Letter an autobiography would necessitate a look at all literary fiction, because most authors whom I have heard speak or discuss their work admit that much of their "fiction" contains examples or stories or characters taken from real life experiences. If the Scarlet Letter is an autobiography, then is Uncle Tom's Cabin nonfiction? Because Stowe states at the end that her characters are made up of people she knew in reality, and whose stories and personalities she used in the novel.

Hawthorne may have placed some of his own ideas and beliefs (probably, in fact, since why do writers write, if not for the love of expressing themselves?) into the storyline, and may even have envisioned himself as one or more of the characters as he wrote. But does that really make a novel an autobiography?

Many modern nonfiction writers have undergone investigations to see if their "nonfiction" really did happen. Should we do away with such investigations, then, and just call anything that claims to be nonfiction true, even if none of the literal events in the novel occured?

After having tried my hand at writing both fiction and nonfiction, I have to disagree. In fiction writing, yes, many times characters or plot ideas are drawn from real experiences the author or people the author knows have had. But those plot ideas are fluid, they can be embellished or changed to suit the author's scheme easily. Nonfiction, on the other hand, cannot be altered very much. A few words here or there, no one would grudge (unless you are claiming it to be a video-taped or recorded interview), but entire events cannot be added, new plot-twists cannot be invented out of thin air. To construct a nonfiction plot, one must look at every event in one's life, carefully weed the relevent from the non-relevent ones, and structure them in a way that reads as though it were a novel, though really it is a series of scenes taken from reality and placed into a novel-like context.

So no, I cannot say I would consider the Scarlet Letter autobiographical. It is a brilliant work of fiction, and one of my favorite novels, but it is an altogether different beast than that of the nonfiction book, in my opinion.

AF's picture

Pearl = Hawthorne sort of

I really like Hannah's post about the autobiographical elements being found in Dimmesdale rather than Hester. As everyone already knows I have a almost completely unfounded bias against the idea that Hawthorne was using Hester as a means to represent himself. 

In class on Thursday I didn't have a real reason for bringing up the comparison between St. Clare and Hawthorne, but I can't get it out of my mind. It seems more relevant to me now after reading Hannah's post. The relationship between Hawthorne and his mother was apparently very strong and he even had a fantasy that his mother and his sisters and he would live apart from the rest of the world in Maine. (like Hester and Pearl)

I see a comparison between Hawthorne and Pearl. His biography says that he grew up virtually without a father just as she did. And that his family did not have a large acquaintance in Salem so he had few playmates. Both Pearl and he also seemed to lean towards solitude and fantasy. So I guess for me Hawthorne was trying to draw a distinction between himself and Pearl through their similarities earlier in life. Pearl's fate is what he would have wished for himself, escaping from Salem and being free from the scarlet letter. She represents the ideal that he wasn't ever able to achieve. 

Hannah Mueller's picture

Hawthorne and Dimmesdale

I was interested in the idea that Hawthorne wrote to "exorcise demons," that is, to get a troubling thought out of his head. Hawthorne says at the end of The Scarlet Letter that he "would gladly, now that it has done its office, erase its deep print out of our own brain; where long meditation has fixed it in very undesireable distinctness." "It" refers to "the portent" on Dimmesdale's chest, aka the Scarlet Letter.

This to me is the most convincing argument that The Scarlet Letter is autobiographical (I agree that "autobiographical" is more accurate than "autobiography"). Hawthorne is drawing an obvious connection between himself and Dimmesdale here: like Dimmesdale, he has "meditated" on The Scarlet Letter even though he wants to forget it. If you choose to believe that Dimmesdale self-inflicted the A on his body, then Hawthorne did much the same kind of penance by writing the book, if he just wants not to think about it, as he says. But they both had to do it in order for the scarlet letter (The Scarlet Letter) to be revealed to the world and their "sin" to be absolved. I don't know what Hawthorne considered his sin (Prof Dalke mentioned some relationship with his sister?), but it seems clear that he struggled with guilt. He must have to have written a novel completely structured around it.

Did writing help him put his guilt to rest? I doubt it, since the autobiographical elements are not really obvious, and as a whole I think it was received more like Dimmesdale's self-condemning sermons in church than his final stand with Hester on the scaffold.  And, as the book argues, the only way to be (relatively) at peace with yourself is to make your sin explicitly known to the world.

Marina Gallo's picture

Part Two

Course Keeping: Two paper due dates were changed. The last 4 pg paper is now due on April 28th. The final paper is due on May 16th along with the portfolio. 


-We talked about religion on campus week and why "I believe" is a statement under attack for being weak.

-Blogs and the public response to them..ex: the blog titled, "What White People Like". Is it snarky? It was called that.

- SL is not an autobiography, it is a novel with autobiographical elements. 

-Where did Dimmesdale get his letter A? Was it self inflicted, caused by Chillingworth, or his remorse gnawing out of his body?

-Some spectators saw nothing on Dimmesdale.

-We (21st century people/readers) believe in the power of physical action as opposed to spiritual action.  

-Masks as blank slates and characters. They allow you to explore a part of yourself that doesn't necessarily go along with how you normally identify yourself.

- Hester wears her mask for so long that she takes on its qualities.

-We could read this novel as a mask.

-You can't unread anything, but you can interpret it differently. Would Hawthorne we happy if we were satisfied with the ending of the story or the ending we chose?

-He would have wanted us to be unsettled and he went out of his way to have an unsettling ending to the novel.

-What does it mean to have reverence in someone's soul? Dimmesdale put Hesters soul at risk by committing adultery with her.  

-Does this book want us to be puritans and pass judgement?

-What does Pearl's inherited wealth mean? She was a demon child who represented a broken law, but was then rewarded. Does this show the lawless become lawful?

-Hester came back and continued to wear the A. Why? Her life is defined by her love for Dimmesdale and her life is more "real" here than in Europe. By going to Europe she would have been putting on more of a mask.

-This novel could be a cry for women's equality and about oppressed women (Hester).

Lastly: what does the A stand for?

Apple, Adultery, Actor, Artist, Awe, Absolute, America, Atheist, Angel, Apostle, Ambiguity, Aberration...etc


Marina Gallo's picture

Class notes for the week of April the 3rd. (Part One)

-On Tues we talked about what drives the SL. Is it an autobiography or a romance?

-Does the reader have a right to be told the truth or does the author have a right to keep certain things private?

-Does the real ever totally exist in autobiographies?

-Hawthorne thinks he can write autobiographically without violating author rights or reader rights.

-Blogs are contemporary autobiographies.

-We discussed the question of what is real and what is a reflection in the novel. Dimmesdale felt like he was a shadow and his life was false until he saw the A in the sky. The A felt like a representation of himself.

-We talked about the Id, Ego, and Superego and applied these to characters. Hester could be the ego, Dimmesdale the superego, and Chillingworth and Pearl the Id. (Pearl has not been affected bye the outside world while Chillingworth has. 

-Hawthorne is playing out himself through characters in his autobiography .

-A critic (Frederic Carpenter) said: Hester's passions are good and society is evil for condemning her. 

-We can look a the minor characters and see who Hawthorne is trying to be, but struggling.

-Another critic (Jonathan Arac) argued that the novel is neither puritanical or psychological, but rather political. It represented the 1850 political thoughts. The book was about slavery. He thinks people should do nothing about slavery and in the course of time providence will cause it to vanish.

-SL was read in a feminist and symbolic light in high school.  

Notes will be continued on the post titled part two.  


Christina Harview's picture

My Thoughts on this have Officially Been Documented

akeefe's picture

Take it off!

If I have not brought it up enough in class enough already, I am currently in Love of Three Oranges being directed by Aaron Cromie, here at Bryn Mawr. The piece is Commedia Del Art, which means it is masked. When teaching the class mask technique, Aaron said something that I think might be useful to our reading of The Scarlet Letter as an autobiography. "Masks reveal more than they conceal." At first, I wasn't sure about this concept. However, having now worked in mask for several months, I can call it a story that I accept. When in mask, I feel that I can allow portions of myself to reveal themselves that are often concealed by the social mask I carry around daily. Before you imbue a mask with the characteristics of any certain character, a mask is a clean slate. You are not limited by the constraints of "your own" personality, and are then able to explore the possibilities of yourself; the one's that were always there, but that perhaps break the cohesive bonds of your person, and to then, be able to return.

I'm thinking of The Scarlet Letter like a theatrical mask, or veil in Hawthorne's own terms. The theatrical mask, which is found varying cultures, styles, and ages, does not violate the audience members right to see a performance, get a story. However, it does also not violate the actor's right to use parts of their personality that would be limited by their more permanent physical mask, and then return to their "in most Me," once the performance is over. So, is Hawthorne putting on masks?

"As if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide world, were certain to find out the divided segments of the writer's own nature and complete his circle of existence by bringing him in communion with it... But, as thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed unless the speaker stand in some true relation with his audience it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend ... is listening to our talk." (The Custom House page 1)

That's what I hear him saying. He is dealing with the divided segments of his own nature, but it's no good without an audience. The novel is a performance, and without it's performitive qualities, he would be unable to protect the segment which he and society most cherishes.


Calderon's picture

Authors are mammoths!!



I think of authors as mammoths that posses a great amount  of power. I think I give  some trust to them to tell me stories  whether they are fictional, political, cultural or autobiographical to illustrate the time I was not part or will choose to be part of. I think that the stories they tell reflect what I am today in a way. So what are the rights? To tell me what they think or don’t think that’s all. They do not have power over any of my interpretations, because my understanding and interpretation are mine to own unless I choose to publicly write about any subject I am disagreeing with or agreeing with.  What are my rights as a reader? I have none. As a reader I can only hope that I can understand what this mammoths of communication might try to tell me so I can make their stories open my mind to new meanings, times, and things I am not aware of yet ir to enhance my mind more in a subject I am interested in.


The Scarlet Letter I think this novel could be a romance, but not typical boring romance no!!! I think that the narrator feels betrayed that he is writing, because itgoes against what his ancestors might consider honorable. His love to them is betrayed because he has a stronger love affair with words he wishes to write.  Hester also has a battle between sin and kindness. She sleeps with men (which is not a sin, but this time was crazy) and at the same time she is a kind, intelligent women who could have been a leader for women in her town. But her desire and passion are stronger and lead her to her unjust destiny. Romance is in this novel, but not the typical love I think!!!


Claire Ceriani's picture

Should readers expect

Should readers expect rights?  I don't think so, at least not in literature.  A person reading a scientific article or textbook has a right to truth.  The author should make it clear what is a proven fact, what is a theory, what is opinion, etc.  This type of writing is read for the sole purpose of gaining knowledge and understanding, and a whole system of peer-reviewing exists to make sure that the reader gets the most accurate information possible.


But literature is different, because we read it for very different reasons.  If an author claims a work to be non-fiction or entirely fiction or part auto-biographical, we tend to believe them (at least, at the start), but we don't sign a contract.  And we don't have to read it.  I think part of choosing to read a novel is choosing to accept the perception given by the author while you're reading it.  You can disagree with it and apply your own interpretations to it, which I think is part of the process of reading, but I don't think it's fair to the author to feel like you have a "right" to something, because you can always close the book.

M. Gallagher's picture

Meanderings Part Deux (or more?)

My innate response to the rights of an author include creative freedom and privacy.

However, the reader also has a right to truth-- even if it's a truth within a work of fiction. It doesn't seem like an author should lie just because they want to, but rather only to improve the story-- or if it's already fiction, it shouldn't really deviate jarringly from the universe created nor should the characters act too much out of character.

Ah, but then we get to the concept of autobiography-- and if The Scarlet Letter is going to be looked at that way, then I'd have to say a good deal of ol' Hester Prynne aligns with Hawthorne. His inability to either fully leave his puritan society, yet his guilt associated with it. Despite writing well in the rest of the world's opinion (if they care) just like Hester helped the poor etc. Agh, but I feel like a tool saying that because OF COURSE it's Hester. But I do not think he's nearly Dimmesdale in regretting nor Pearl in flaunting the difference- nor the doctor. I sort of wanted him to be the old witch-lady (whose name I forget), but he doesn't seem *quite* apropos in her sentiments.

Also, apparently whaling is at least 3000 years old. Which I know interests everyone because Melville made us truly curious about whaling practices. Still, how many Ahabs have chased their own white whales in that time? Oh dear, I sound like a motivational speaker.

Letter Writing's picture


it's more a story than an autobiograpy, i love how it explores the issues of grace, legalism, sin, and guilt.