The Scarlet Letter as a Historical Novel

The Scarlet Letter as a Historical Novel

The Scarlet Letter as a Historical Novel

While the question whether The Scarlet Letter is a romance or a novel has not been settled with any conclusive arbitration yet, it is not really possible to call the book “a historical novel” in the Lukacsian-Marxist framework, within which, a novel qualifies to be a historical novel only if it offers us a profound criticism of the social and personal relations, portrayed through characters in the novel, in terms of the underlying economic, social and political realities of its times. As we already know, The Scarlet Letter Is a “romance” rather than a “novel in that it offers us a symbolic fable of many resonances, but it is without the closest and minutest fidelity to the observation of everyday life and character that we expect to find in the European” novel. Hawthorne’s book, as he himself put it in “The Custom House“, the introductory to The Scarlet letter, is “a meeting-place of the actual and the imaginary”. Therefore, if Hawthorne’s torrid tale qualities to be called “historical novel“, it deserves that label, not on the grounds of actual, sociological observation of the minutest fidelity to the times portrayed, but because it contains the psychological veracity that we expect in great literature.

Thus, notwithstanding Hawthorne’s razzle-dazzle about the “authenticity of the tale, which is ascribed to Surveyor Pue’s authorship in the introductory to The Scarlet Letter, “The Custom House’, we may describe the book as a historical romance, which is psychologically approximate to the temper of the times it purports to describe, without necessarily being sociologically approximate in the recreations of the minutest details that Hawthorne is avowedly portraying in the book. In short, the book makes us feel like what it was to be a member of the Puritan community of Boston in the 17th century without giving us the smallest specific details about that life- except in his observation of historical continuity” in terms of Hawthorne’s citation of actual dates, and in the most generic descriptions of the “three cornered hats and “iron stares of the Puritans. We, however, do know that Hawthorne must have known about the trial of an adulteress, one Hester Crawford in Salem in 1688, whose chastisement was supervised by Hawthorne’s first American ancestor, William Hawthorne.

As Frank O’Brien, in his study guide to The Scarlet Letter puts it, “Although he infers specific dates and places in the action, Hawthorne did not wish to strongly suggest an exact and constant span of years in the novel with respect to the progress of actual events in Salem history. Nonetheless, realize that a factional span of history gives dimension to the novel.” Although Hawthorne hints that the action of the book takes place “some fifteen or twenty years” after 1630, its action (exclusive of the reported Chillingworth’s death, the departure of Hester and Pearl from the Settlement, Pearl’s subsequently reported marriage in Europe, and Hester’s return to the Settlement) begins in 1642 and ends in 1649. Governor Richard Bellingham ended his first term in office in 1642 the year the action of the novel purportedly begins, and therefore he is in a position to publicly address Hester as the Governor of the State on the day of Hester’s public shame in the early summer of 1642. We conjecture the date at the beginning of the story as 1642 not only because that was Governor Bellingham’s last year in office during his first term, but also because when the time of Governor Winthrop’s death (which historically occurred in 1649) is mentioned in chanter XII of the book, we are told that seven years have passed since the day of Hester’s public shame in the first two chapters of the book. Pearl, too, is seven years old at this later time.

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On the other hand, when Hawthorne pretends that Governor Winthrop died in May, 1649 (he does this in order to establish a relationship between the three pillory scenes in terms of season), an antiquarian and a scholar like him must have known that Governor Winthrop had actually died in March, 1649. The historical distortion that Hawthorne causes here is ‘insinuated into the action in the interest of the psychological mood of the story, which assures precedence over the literal and historical veracity. In other words, Hawthorne’s practice in this case is indicative of his general procedure, which is 10 operate within a generally recognizable period of the colonial history of the 17th century Massachusetts, but to deviate from the historical verisimilitude as and when it suits the artistic and psychological framework of his tale.

Similarly, if the action of chapters VII and VIII takes place when Pearl was three years old, historically, the time described in these two chapters must be 1645. At this time, Richard Bellingham could not have been the Governor of the State, as Hawthorne suggests in the chapters, but only a Magistrate or the Deputy Governor of the State. Hawthorne’s strategy in this book is to create an illusion of a particular time and place through repeated references to the active historical personages of the period – people like Roger Bellingham, Roger Williams, Governor Winthrop, the martyr Anne Hutchinson, the Reverend Wilson, and so on. While the action reported in chapter XXIV of the book falls outside the purview of the main action of the tale, it gives us the requisite information on the lives of some characters in the story.

Thus, Roger Chillingworth dies within a year of his quarry Arthur Dimmesdale’s death, Hester and Pearl leave the Settlement for many years, then there are reports that Pearl has married (presumably in the Restoration England of 1660), and Hester’s return to the Settlement and her subsequent career as a Sister of Mercy. The Scarlet Letter, thus, while recording the time and temper of a particular phase of the Puritan ethos of the 17th century America, gives us a psychologically convincing portrait of the Puritan temper, with its emphasis on psychological veracity rather than on historical verisimilitude. To quote Austin Warren in his Rage for Order, it is a historical novel more deeply conceived as an evocation of the spirit and the philosophy, rather than the speech and the costumes of the past”.

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