This week I would like to take a look at the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and discuss whether it is a romantic or a realistic piece of literature. Based on the the setting, language, symbolism, characters, and purpose of the novel, it is my conclusion that the Scarlet Letter is a romantic piece.
Before we begin, I would first like to clarify what separates a romantic piece from a realistic piece in the areas of setting, language, symbolism, characters, and purpose. The setting of a romantic work is considered to be "exotic locale". The location is set in a place that most people would find exotic or mysterious in some way. Some examples would be the wilderness, the high seas, a jungle, or an island. There is also a supernatural element to the setting. Strange things happen that no one can explain. A realistic setting is pretty much what it sounds like; day to day places where nothing out of the ordinary really happens. The language is also different between the two. A romantic work's language is very archaic sounding and alludes back to old English literature. However, a realistic work's language is most often dialect or things that people of the time would say from day to day. The symbolism of a realistic work is very static, meaning that the symbol's meanings do not really change as the plot progresses. There is also nothing that unusual about the symbols. In a romantic work, however, the symbols tend to change or shift their meaning as the plot unfolds. Like the setting, some of the symbols in a romantic work have a distinct supernatural air about them. The characters of a romantic work are pretty straight forward. There is a clear distinction between who represents good and who represents evil. They also have a supernatural air to them. In a realistic work, the characters are not so straight forward. The lines between good and evil are blurred and the hero of the story is almost always flawed in some way. Finally, the purpose of a romantic piece is almost always didactic. There is a moral to be learned from the characters or symbols of the story and the author's morals are blatant. In a realistic work, the lines of morality are very blurry. Right and wrong are often portrayed as subjective and so it is very difficult to decipher the author's morals. Now that we have defined, be it loosely, what we are looking for, let's look at the Scarlet Letter.
First, let's look at the setting. The setting is a small, Puritan community on the edge of a vast wilderness that is considered to be evil. The wilderness is the place that Hester, the heroine, is banished too when she commits the sin of adultery. The wilderness is also a symbol for freedom, fantasy, and the imagination (Hawthorne, Chap. 16), all of which were considered evil by the Puritan community. All of these things are characteristics of a romantic work.
Secondly, the language of the story is very archaic. "'Mercy on us, goodwife,' exclaimed a man in the crowd, 'is there no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows? That is the hardest word yet! Hush, now, gossips, for the lock is turning in the prison door, and here comes Mistress Prynne herself (Hawthorne, Chap. 1).'" This feels very much like a throw back to old English and therefore puts it under romantic literature.
Third, the symbol of the letter "A" changes very often in the story. The "A" is first used to represent Hester's sin of adultery. It is a mark of shame that she must bare for the rest of her life. However, as the story moves forward, people begin to see the letter change to mean "Able" instead of "Adultery"
Fourth, the characters of the novel are easy to distinguish and there is a supernatural air to some of them. Hester and her lover Dimmsdale are the obvious heroes of the story, they struggle against all odds to get through the sin they have committed. Hester's estranged husband Chillingsworth is the obvious evil. He tries to make Dimmsdale's life miserable and all through the book the reader gets a sense that there is something not quite right about him.
Finally, the purpose of the novel. Hawthorne shows many different moral dilemmas in the story that his characters must endure, but the right path is easy to see. There are no grey ares between what is right and what is wrong.
Based on all this evidence, it is my conclusion that the Scarlet Letter is a very good example of early American romanticism.