Christianity has always divided scholars and practitioners on one common point; the innate nature of a human being. There is a clear, black-and-white dichotomy between sin and goodness, yet the very fact that a propensity to sin, however meagre, exists in humans is enough to validate the ongoing debate about people’s natural tendencies.
Transcendentalism was a philosophical and religious movement that came to the fore in Boston in America during the late 1820s and 1830s. The movement iterated the belief in inherent goodness of a human being. Initiated largely in response to the propagation of intellectualism and Unitarianism in Harvard University at the time, the philosophy of the Transcendentalists stated that the imposition of institutions in the society was responsible for corrupting its members and not human nature in general, which was upheld to be pure and free of vices.
It was this movement that Nathaniel Hawthorne responded to through his writings. Most of his stories, including The Scarlet Letter and The House of The Seven Gables, explored the themes of sin, guilt, fraud and evil, because of which they are popularly categorized as “Gothic” or “Dark Romantic”. It was no surprise then that most of his work, especially The Scarlet Letter, managed to evoke the ire of many religious leaders despite being favourably received by critics and literary scholars.
The Scarlet Letter is widely claimed to be Hawthorne’s masterpiece. It chronicles the life of Hester Prynne, who gets involved in an adulterous relationship with a man she refuses to name, and consequently gives birth to a daughter named Pearl. The story focuses on her struggles to lead a dignified life despite facing public chagrin and humiliation. As a constant reminder of her shameful act, she was sentenced to wearing a red letter “A”, which is what the title alludes to. The book was conceptualised on the basis of Hawthorne’s Puritan ancestry. Although most religious leaders did not agree with Hawthorne’s depiction of Christianity, remorse and punishment, the subject matter is backed by historical evidence. It is claimed that before he began writing the novel, Hawthorne read countless historical and court documents in Salem and Boston, wherein he also read about a woman found guilty of adultery subjected to wear a scarlet letter “A” throughout her life. The incident affected him highly and provoked him to write about the times when a verdict like this was acceded to by most people and the sufferings of those who had to bow to such harsh judgements.
Although Hawthorne couldn’t benefit financially from the novel (The Scarlet Letter sold only eight thousand copies during his lifetime), it was deemed as a “classic” right after its publication. Even a century-and-half later, the book has never gone out of print. It is due to his insightful treatment of the human soul (religious critics had disapproved of his sympathetic treatment of the story’s “immoral” protagonist) and the universal themes of human defects that he writes about so astutely, that the man behind the book has today been elevated to the position of “America’s foremost man of letters”.