The Scarlet Letter as a Gothic Romance
Hawthorne is chiefly remembered as the creative genius who sought to define the romance. He contributed four major romances to the world's literature: The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, The Marble Faun, and The Scarlet Letter. In each of these he sought, in the prefaces, to define what romance meant to him. In the Custom House preface of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne discusses part of his concept or definition of the romance novel. He explains that life seen through moonlight is the subject of the novel. If the writer is sitting in a room in the moonlight and looks around at the familiar items on the floor — a wicker carriage or a hobby horse, for example — he can discern a quality of "strangeness and remoteness" in these familiar objects. And so he has found a territory in which the familiar becomes enchanted and "the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other." Hawthorne believes that ". . . at such an hour, and with this scene before him, if a man, sitting all lone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances."
Finally, The Scarlet Letter is a psychological romance. Hawthorne proposes to study the effects of sin on the lives of his characters. Far ahead of his time, he delves into human alienation and what it does to the soul. Doubt and self-torture provide psychological shadows in the character of Dimmesdale. Rebellion and defiance in the face of repressive laws can be seen in his heroine, Hester Prynne. She may be forced to wear the scarlet letter, but she mocks that sentence with her elaborate embroidery. The Puritan concern with man's depravity and its effect on individual characters is intertwined throughout the plot. What happens when a person has an excess of passion or intellect? When a balance of the two is not achieved in an individual, what is the end result? Within the framework of the romance, Hawthorne lays out his evidence of the psychological conflicts within and around his characters.
The Real and the Imaginary
What this means for the modern reader of The Scarlet Letter is that, even though Hawthorne's story has a historical setting — Boston in the 1640s — the story includes elements that are not realistic. While the Puritan society was real and can be researched, the tale also contains elements of that society that are colored by marvelous imagination in his novel.
Does this mean that there will be no limits to what Hawthorne can manufacture in his fancy? No, there are restraints. Hawthorne attempted to explain those conventions in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables, his next novel:
"When a writer calls his work a romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probably and ordinary course of man's experience. The former — while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart — has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer's own choosing or creation. If he think fit, also, he may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture. He will be wise, no doubt, to make very moderate use of the privileges here stated, and, especially, to mingle the Marvellous rather as a slight, delicate, and evanescent flavor, than as any portion of the actual substance of the dish offered to the public."
Thus, the romance can have the imaginary, the supernatural, and the unbelievable, but it must also have events that do not swerve from what the human heart knows to be true. The setting of Boston in the 1640s is a perfect choice for this type of writing. Seventeenth century Bostonians believed in devils, witches, and a vengeful and angry God. So not only is Hawthorne truthful to present his setting in that light, but he also leaves ample room for the imagined and the extraordinary.
Romances can concern real settings but are not limited to the probable. The fantastic can be added, and, in The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne adds the scarlet A in the sky at midnight, the same letter allegedly carved into Dimmesdale's breast, the sunlight that follows Pearl but not her mother, and Chillingworth descending into hell. But there must be a balance; the probable must outweigh the strange and improbable, which leads to another tenet of Hawthorne's romance definition.
Unity and Structure
Certain artistic laws must be faithfully executed so that the reader can follow the trail. There must be unity and structure, literary devices, and a subject kept ever in the reader's sight. In The Scarlet Letter, the scaffold scenes provide the unity and structure, and the literary devices include symbols, colors of light and darkness, irony, and the consistent subject of guilt to provide artistic wholeness. While Hawthorne can go beyond the probable and use the marvelous, he must also do so without chaos; hence, he must provide artistic balance.
These definitions of Hawthorne's romance are also joined by another tradition: Gothic elements. Gothic novels often featured supernatural events, gloomy atmospheres, castles, and the mysterious. While eighteenth century writers did not like these subjects, the Romantic authors of the nineteenth century and their successors did. Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, and Stephen King all have elements of the Gothic in their stories.
Traditionally, there are a number of these Gothic elements. One used by romantic authors is a manuscript that is purported to be the origin of the story. In The Custom House preface, Hawthorne finds such a manuscript left by Surveyor Pue and a scarlet letter that is a magical artifact intertwining the real and the imaginary.
Besides magic, often Gothic stories have castles; in The Scarlet Letter, Governor Bellingham's home serves this purpose. It is covered with cabalistic figures and diagrams and has turrets like a castle. Inside is a set of armor, also a familiar element of the Gothic. In this armor which acts as a mirror, Pearl sees the distorted scarlet letter.
A crime, often illicit love, is usually the subject of a Gothic novel. Hester's affair is the crime committed in the Puritan community. Gothic novels sometimes have a villain who is identified as the evil person by some deformity. Chillingworth has such a deformed shoulder. And, finally, nature is often used to set the atmosphere of the story and provide some of the symbols. Nature abounds in The Scarlet Letter, and darkness, shadows and moonlight are all part of the Gothic ambience. The overall atmosphere of the novel is dark and gloomy, a proper milieu for the Gothic tradition.
In writing The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne was striking out in a new direction, the psychological romance, while using some of the elements of a far older tradition, the Gothic novel. Modern readers should not be surprised to find horrifying revelations, sinister red light coming from a character's eyes, a precocious child who is a living symbol rather than a human being, and the dark recesses of the human heart and conscience. These elements have kept readers enthralled for generations.