11.07.2019 in Review

Nathaniel Hawthorne as a Dark Romantic Writer

There was significant tension between the two main movements of writers during the 19th century. These were Enlightenment and Romanticism, each of which proposed a contrasting understanding of human essence. The Enlightenment thinkers considered that the most important part of a human being is reason. Therefore, everyone can become morally and intellectually equal to the best representatives of society through proper education and discipline. Moreover, the Enlightenment completely neglected nature and created a reduced model of a human being, whose only quality was rationality opposed to irrationality. In contrast, the opposing movement of Romanticism emerged. The main intention of the Romantics was to portray the inevitable unity between human beings and the natural world. In this literature, there was always an internal tension between the natural and moral aspects of a character; however, in contrast to the Enlightenment, Romanticism considered both aspects integral to a person. The latter existed in the sphere of art and literature; in this aspect, it was an alternative opposed to the Enlightenment, which was concentrated in the sphere of science and philosophy. The attention of the Romanticists to the emotional, natural sphere of human life attracted many thinkers and writers. Thus, despite both movements appearing in Europe, some American authors shared their ideals. Therefore, Nathaniel Hawthorne may be considered one of the most famous American Romantic writers, whose Gothic literature was a subgenre of Romanticism in general. In his prose, Hawthorne depicts his characters’ inability to entirely overcome their sinful nature through specific Gothic symbolism; and in this way, Hawthorne’s fiction serves as a vivid example of an American interpretation of Romanticism.

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The Dark Romanticism or American Gothicism

The movement of European Romanticism was very influential in Western Europe during the 19th century, when the French Revolution demonstrated the full scope of the Enlighteners’ mistakes based on their beliefs in human reason. The main cause for the need of criticism of the Enlighteners’ ideas was terror that followed the French Revolution, as well as tremendous events that resulted in many murders and was treated as necessary for the further development (Bristow). Bristow claims, “the scientific apprehension of nature in the period does not support, and in fact opposes, the claim that the alleged moral qualities and relations (or, indeed, that any moral qualities and relations) are natural.” From that perspective, nature was declared as immoral part of humans. Some authors saw such a reasonable interpretation of human essence as just too plain, as well as a point of view limited by rational thinking only. Thus, the French Revolution caused the appearance of both the Romanticism (Forward) and the English Gothic novel (Gregory 93). In summary, both phenomena may be treated as the sources for the appearance of American Gothic Romanticism. Romanticism as the movement opposed to the Enlightenment appeared in the realms of art due to the dominance of the latter in the spheres of academic philosophy and naturalist science. That caused the specific features of the Romanticism. The movement appeared as the one of art, and it primarily demonstrated the poetic worldview and the same description of the reality (Forward). It means that Romanticism appealed to individual feelings to a higher degree than to external objects (Forward). The individualistic specifics of this movement determined its focus on the emotionally colored representation of the world. Since one of the most powerful emotions is fear, the horror stories begin from the Romanticism. Another detail is the opposing character of the Romanticism, which was the reason this movement was not conceptually independent. In fact, the Romanticism existed in the realms of the Enlightenment’s moral theories though accepted it negatively. Such a negation practically meant that the Romanticists portrayed the emotional side of people instead of the reasonable one but through the same prism of nature’s immorality. As the emotions belong to the immoral nature, one of the main features of the Romanticism is the pessimistic acceptance of the immorality’s dominance in human life due to inevitable emotional human nature. This detail serves as the ground for numerous Romantic texts that portray the issues of the contradictory human society based on the norms of reason and at the same time ruled by emotions and instincts (Forward). It is important to note that America had its Romanticism based on the European criticism of the Enlightenment interpreted through the American specifics. Thus, the general form the American Romanticism accepted was the Gothic or Dark Romanticism that was a branch of the Western European mainstream with some American specifics. There is nothing surprising because the American land was the so-called ‘New World,’ which included many terrifying phenomena in comparison with the European ‘Old World.’ Through the description of colonial America, especially the struggle between the demonized native people called ‘the Indians’ and the colonists that symbolized the opposition between nature and the European culture, the American writers provided their influential contribution to the development of the subgenre of the European Romanticism.

Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and the Gothic Romanticism

Hawthorne is one of the most significant American Gothic Romantic writers. The reason for this is that he was born and lived in New England, where the famous Salem witch trials took place in 1692. The Puritanism with its aim to purify all people from their sins through the total Church control and religious intervention into the social and private life was very close to the Enlightenment that denied nature in the same way. One of Hawthorne’s ancestors was a judge during the Salem trials. It is important to note that nothing radically changed in New England since the Salem trials to Hawthorne’s time, namely the main social and religious tendencies in people’s mentality remained the same; and in that environment, Hawthorne passed his socialization. It caused two interesting details concerning Hawthorne. On the one hand, he belonged to an ancient family of a conservative American region, which set him apart from other Romanticists who mostly appeared in highly educated societies as a reaction to the Enlightenment. On the other hand, that is the main reason Hawthorne was different from his New English contemporaries whose hypocrite and unnatural moral views he denied and criticized. This contradictory specific paradoxically makes him one of the brightest representatives of his epoch. Through his prose, Hawthorne shows the particular New English example of the Romanticism. Thus, he makes the reader’s understanding of both the epoch and the movement of Romanticism fuller and not limited by the West European context only. One of the most famous Hawthorne’s novels, “The Scarlet Letter,” portrays the conservative mentality of the New Englanders through the prism of mentioned opposition between nature and morality. The author uses the dark oppressive atmosphere and some elements of the Gothic Romanticism. Similarly to the European Romanticists, he criticizes the polarization of morality and nature provided by the Puritan Church that is the New English analogue for the European Enlighteners who do the same. Whereas, Hawthorne himself remains in the tenets of the Puritan dualism as well as his European companions do. Thus, he describes the world as morally polarized but does not provide any positive assertion concerning the final of these polarities’ struggle. Contrary to the Enlighteners’ optimism, Hawthorne states that everyone is sinful, and there is no way to escape from the perverted human nature. For example, in “The Scarlet Letter,” there are many typically gothic details. The husband of the main female character is captured by the Indians who personify the evil for the New English colonists. Moreover, during his absence, the evil sides of his wife and the priest become free from his restraining influence. After the adultery, the whole town demonstrates its evil nature and makes Hester Prynne to wear the scarlet letter ‘A’ (from ‘Adultery’) to underline her sinfulness. In fact, the entire plot demonstrates the easy ways for the social harmony to disappear. Such an ethereal essence of calm social order makes the reader feel anxiety concerning both his/her potential sinfulness and possibly unstable society. Therefore, Hawthorne criticizes weak society and culture in contrast to immoral nature that is always ready to possess an individual and make him/her do something socially unaccepted. It is obvious that the author does not provide any advocacy to nature but claims that its influence is just inevitable and irresistible. Another important Gothic detail of the novel is the ambiguity of the symbols Hawthorne uses. For example, the scarlet letter ‘A’ may have different meanings except ‘Adultery.’ It is clear through its description: “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A” (Hawthorne 573). The ambiguity is obvious, and it is deliberately emphasized to show the reader that the people of Salem punished Hester and at the same time rewarded her brave aim to freedom. For example, ‘A’ may be interpreted not only as ‘Adultery’ but also as ‘Arthur Dimmesdale,’ Hester’s lover and Pearl’s father. Through such a prism, the ambiguity of the symbol increases. The same situation concerns many elements of the novel that provides uncertain feelings of morality till the very end and does not resolve any of these uncertainties. In the context of the mentioned ambiguity, it is relevant to mention that Graham claims, “The criticism of religious hypocrisy among clergy members” was common for the Gothic writers as well as for Hawthorne (56). In fact, “The Scarlet Letter” performs this function not only for clergymen but also for the most of the people of Salem. Therefore, the novel serves as an example of the American generalizing interpretation of the European Gothic literature’s principles. The contrast between the Indians and the New Englanders is very important when considering through the prism of both ambiguity and contradiction between the aforementioned nature and morality. Hawthorne states that the Indians can be more moral than the ‘civilized’ people of Salem are. It does not concern any racial or national differences because the Indians living in Salem are as hypocrite as the European colonists are. It is obvious through Pearl’s phrase concerning those people who condemn his mother: “But see, mother, how many faces of strange people, and Indians among them, and sailors!” (Hawthorne 578). Moreover, the criticism concerns the civilized people who pretend to live in accordance with morality and at the same time oppress the individual’s self-realization with their hypocrite religious norms. The contrast between the New Englanders and the ‘natural’ Indians is portrayed through the returning of Hester’s husband. It is clear that the Indians are more ‘humanist’ than the Puritans who punish even their citizens just for contradiction to some moral norms established by the Puritan Church. The full scope of the mentioned characteristics demonstrates the novel as a bright text of the Gothic Romanticism. The main antagonist, Hester’s husband who calls himself Roger Chillingworth, leaves the Indian prison. He goes to the battle of the ‘civilization’ against the ‘natural’ people and is defeated there. When he returns home, he realizes that nature captured not only himself (in the form of the Indians) but also his wife and the pastor Arthur Dimmesdale (in the form of adultery). The metaphor is evident, namely nature is invincible as well as the human sinful nature. Moreover, the novel leaves the reader with the doubt concerning the right of weak morality to judge people for their inclination to inevitable nature. It is the most important message of the novel that follows the reader through the entire text.


Hawthorne provides a brilliant example of the American Dark Romanticism through “The Scarlet Letter.” Despite the text formally belonging to West European Romantic fiction, it includes American specifics as it criticizes the hypocrisy of the New Englanders and provides an analysis of the ambiguity of morality within the American cultural context. Hawthorne’s prose depicts the epoch through the new Dark Romantic American prism that applies the West European approach to the New English environment. Thus, Hawthorne, with the total dark atmosphere provided in the text, demonstrates the synthesis of the European and American literary tendencies of his epoch.

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