Escaping the historical context?

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Escaping the historical context?

Catherine Wimberley

The world has never been anything but uncertain; there are no constants and change is inevitable. Every generation must feel as if they are on the edge of a precipice, witnessing unparalleled transformations. There is the realization that the actions of the individual have the potential to fundamentally alter the course of history. The group will determine whether or not they fall over that cliff. The mid-nineteenth century marks perhaps one of the most crucial crossroads the United States has ever faced. The period witnessed a rapid increase in political tensions between the Democrats and the Whigs, unprecedented hostilities across the geographical divide of North and South, and the questioning of understood social norms and institutions. Literature published at this time clearly reflects some of the social turmoil and uncertainty occurring. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, is no exception. It illustrates that a writer can never be free of his historical context, and that he or she can often use their piece as a way of subtly influencing public opinion.

The novel is a Romance telling the tale of a doomed love affair in the Puritan community of Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, a married woman who, believing her husband to be lost at sea, has an affair with the colony's reverend, Arthur Dimmesdale. Hester gives birth to an illegitimate child but refuses to name the father. As punishment, she is isolated from the community and is forced to wear the scarlet letter A to signify her sinful act. Hester's husband reappears, but under the assumed name of Roger Chillingworth, only Hester knows his true identity. Chillingworth is able to discover who Hester's lover was and proceeds to seek his subtle revenge in secret. Hawthorne uses themes of love, passion, sin, guilt, judgment, revenge and redemption to explore aspects of human nature. Hawthorne uses the problems he highlights in his description of Puritan society as a means of critiquing the events he sees occurring around him in 1850. The tale of the Scarlet Letter forces the nineteenth century reader to consider the problems still inherent in life. Hawthorne gives the reader the tools he or she needs to introspect life around them, and to evaluate the ways in which the reader interacts with the political and social events occurring around them. The United States was at a crossroads and the unlikely heroine, Hester Prynne, shines a light on both possible paths to follow.

Before Hester Prynne's tale begins the Hawthorne uses the narrator as a stand in for himself in the introductory chapter, The Custom-House. Unlike the rest of the book the narrator is writing from the perspective of 1850. He frames the story for us by relating how he came to work in the Custom-House, how he came to find a package containing the scarlet letter worn by Hester as well as documents explaining the events. The chapter is significant for various reasons, but perhaps a large part of its importance lies in the fact that it is the one passage of the book where Hawthorne's opinions and perspectives are clearly made known to the reader.

As stated previously 1850, was a period of growth and tension. The previous decade alone had witnessed major events like the boarder disputes between Great Britain and the United States over the Oregon Territory, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, the discovery of gold in California, shifts in political parties, and religious revivals. The greatest source of conflict, however, stemmed from the issue of slavery. Questions over whether or not slavery was morally wrong, did the South have a right to expand the institution of slavery into the newly acquired Western territories, and whether the North had the right to meddle in the economic affairs of the South were all issues the public was trying to grapple with. Compromises like the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850 did little to limit the antagonism and hostility that was growing exponentially between the North and the South.

Hawthorne never overtly states that any of the above mentioned issues are weighing on his mind, yet the reader can gather from certain passages in The Scarlet Letter are indeed influencing his writing. The tensions of 1850 are perhaps most overt in the Custom House chapter. In this introductory chapter the narrator highlights problems within politics in his description of his job at the Custom House. The moral and social tensions are addressed in his conversation about his ancestors, co-workers and future generations. Hawthorne then uses these unconcealed themes to create the feeling of similarity between seventeenth and nineteenth century America.

While the idea of slavery was not a current issue in the Puritan era when this novel was set, it is a current issue when the book was written. Although it was never directly addressed by Hawthorne the implications of it might have been readily visible to the nineteenth century reader. In the Custom-House Hawthorne, through the voice of the narrator, discusses his feelings of guilt for the crimes his ancestors have committed in the past. The narrator informs the reader that he is the decedent of one of the very judges who persecuted innocent individuals during the Salem witch trials. The ancestor, "made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of witches, that their blood may be fairly said to have left a stain upon him." The narrator tells the reader that his ancestor's crimes weigh heavily on his conscience; in order to absolve some of the guilt he must tell the story of Hester Prynne, who is another example of a wrongful persecution. But how do the ideas of guilt, responsibility and redemption play into the idea of slavery? Is there a relationship between the actions of the puritans and the actions of Hawthorne's current generation?

Although far removed the narrator views himself just as culpable in the persecution of innocents accused of being a witch. The Salem witch trials are his cross to be bear, but he hopes his decedents will not have that cross to bear, "My children have other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots in unaccustomed soil." Hawthorne must realize, however, that his children and all of his subsequent decedents will bear the cross of slavery. From literature written at, or very close to, the same time it is apparent Hawthorne thought of slavery as a wretched institution. In his piece, The Life of Franklin Pierce, Hawthorne examines the issue of slavery and states, "there is still another view, and probably as wise a one. It looks upon slavery as one of those evils, which Divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivances." That being said it is still his hope that the institution of slavery will at some point reach an end, "the progress of the world, at every step, leaves some evil or wrong doing behind it." It can be argued that Hawthorne wanted to remove himself from the guilt of his past and hoped that his children and grandchildren would not be stained with the guilt of slavery.

The theme of slavery emerges throughout the rest of the book. Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, they are all held captive and are in some form or another slaves. Hester can never leave the community she is part of. The final chapter of the novel states that for a time Hester did leave but came back because she could never fully get away from her past actions. Just as surely as George in Uncle Tom's Cabin is branded so that all will know he is a slave, Hester and Arthur are each branded with the letter A. From the moment Hester pins the A to her chest she is marked with a visible difference from the rest of the community. She is then made to carry the burden of not only her sins, but those of her neighbors as well. As the years go on Hester recognizes in the glances she receives from individuals she meets in the Market Place that they are guilty of the same crimes she is. She is forced to labor under the weight of this knowledge.

Roger Chillingworth becomes a slave to his revenge. His sole purpose is to slowly destroy Arthur Dimmesdale for seducing his wife. When Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth is left with nothing and succumbs to death himself. Before this occurs, however, Hester confronts her husband and pleads with him to stop his evil actions. Chillingworth replys that, "By thy first step awry, thou didst plant the germ of evil; but since that moment, it has been a dark necessity." This quote can also be seen as reflecting the very idea of slavery. One of the deciding factors for all thirteen of American colonies to revolt against Great Britain was the issue of slavery. The South demanded it be allowed to keep the institution of slavery. Despite protest from Northerners it was a necessary evil to achieve the goal of revolution. Afterwards it became a necessity, essential for preserving the Union. Again, Hawthorne states in The Life of Franklin Pierce, that it has become recognized that, "merely human wisdom and human efforts cannot subvert it [slavery] except by tearing to pieces the Constitution, breaking the pledges which it sanctions, and severing into distracted fragments that common country that Providence brought into one nation through a continued miracle of almost two hundred years." It is clear from Hawthorne's writing that he does not necessarily have a clear solution to deal with slavery. In many ways the captivity of the protagonists in The Scarlet Letter, their inability to go backwards, their inability to move forwards without creating destruction around them, symbolize the attitudes of Northerners and Southerners in the United States during 1850.

Hawthorne never explicitly states that he is writing about the events and tension happening in 1850 but an examination of the narrator and the characters of his novel reveal that the problems could not have been far from his mind. He has no solution to offer because he does not know what will happen in the future. It is only 1850; he has no means of knowing that in decade the country will be thrown into a bloody war. It is only 1850; all we know is that the United States is on the brink of some extraordinary event.

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