Romanticism: “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne


The development of the forms of artistic expression by the end of the eighteenth century led to the emergence of such a movement as Romanticism. Its main peculiarity was connected to the change from the classical and neoclassical hopes and optimistic perceptions of the age of reason to the focus on metaphysical problems of human existence (“The Romantic Era”). Thus, at the beginning of the period, people became concerned with such themes as death and eternity, which subsequently led to the reflections on the place of a person in society. As a result, the attention was directed to the role of individualism in contrast to societal norms, human emotions instead of logic, and the unity between man and nature (Branagh-Miscampbell et al. 680). This paper aims to analyze the use of the specified themes in one of the works of the period, “The Scarlet Letter,” written by Nathaniel Hawthorne.


The concept of individualism is one of the principal subjects of “The Scarlet Letter” since it narrates the conflict between individuality and conformity. On the one hand, the reader sees a woman who broke the strict rules of the Puritan society by giving birth to a child out of wedlock (Hawthorne 42). On the other hand, this character is contrasted by the people who perceive the violation of the common principles of their community as a threat to security and religion (Hawthorne 45). In this way, the author reflects on the punishment waiting for everyone who is unwilling to conform, and this idea allows attributing the novel to Romanticism.

Nevertheless, individualism was included not only in the description of the main character’s struggles and the opposition of society but also in the conduct of the woman’s husband, Roger Chillingworth. At the beginning of the novel, he sent his wife, Hester Prynne, to Puritan Boston with other settlers (Hawthorne 41). Being delayed by some problems, he arrived later to know about the scandal. Since Hester refused to divulge the name of her child’s father, he decided to take action on his own (Hawthorne 61). In this way, his approach can be viewed as purely individualistic, which adds to the development of the theme.


The second characteristic of Romanticism incorporated in the novel is the focus on the emotional aspect of decisions made by the characters. Thus, Hawthorne uses it to describe the relationships between the people and reflect on their feelings. The first example of emotions was the recognition of sin by Hester accompanied by the pain of being excluded from the life of the village and the company of truthful settlers (Hawthorne 52). In this way, the author used this technique to demonstrate the gruesome consequences of her adultery. The second case of emotional reaction to the events was her husband’s desire to find the man who came between them and take revenge (Hawthorne 62). These feelings are complemented by the guilt of Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and resentment of society (Hawthorne 150). His sufferings, however, are more severe than the ones of Hester as he said that she could wear the scarlet letter openly while he had to keep it a secret (Hawthorne 150). In this way, the emotions were ascribed to all of the novel’s characters, and this element is typical for Romantic works of the time.


The third theme, which is common for literary works of Romanticism, is the depiction of nature. Its importance is defined by the fact that it contrasts the Puritan society. In this way, people’s mercilessness and the strict rules they abide by are opposed to forgiveness. One of the most significant scenes in the novel, giving a sense of peacefulness and sincerity, is also connected to nature. Thus, when Hester Prynne, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and their little daughter Pearl meet for the first time, it happens in the woods (Hawthorne 159). This event is affected by “the sympathy of Nature – the wild heathen Nature of the forest,” which is more truthful than societal norms and perceptions (Hawthorne 159). From this perspective, the contrast between people and the law of nature is added to the latter’s acceptance of love and “the bliss of the two spirits” (Hawthorne 159). Therefore, this component also plays an important role in the novel and allows the reader to see the varying views on the narrative’s development.


To summarize, the novel of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter,” incorporates the essential elements of Romanticism, and it allows attributing it to this movement. First, the author’s primary focus on individualism defines the behavior and attitudes of the main characters. They are contrasted by society and its norms as a reflection of the absurdity of the need to confirm. Second, he addresses the emotions of people involved in the tragedy, Hester Prynne, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and Hester’s husband Roger, thereby emphasizing their role in the narrative. Third, Hawthorne describes the most truthful scenes in the novel by putting them in natural scenery, and this technique allows comparing the laws of humans and nature. Thus, the literary work of Nathaniel Hawthorne is known for the inclusion of the principal characteristics of the Romantic Period.

Works Cited

Branagh-Miscampbell, Maxine, et al. “XIII Literature 1780–1830: The Romantic Period.” The Year’s Work in English Studies, vol. 95, no. 1, 2016, pp. 678-745. Web.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Edited by Brian Harding, Oxford University Press, 2007.

“The Romantic Era.” Mount Holyoke College, n.d. Web.

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