About the Book

Book Protagonist: Hester Prynne
Publication Date: 1850
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance

Historical Context

The Scarlet Letter

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ has its storyline built based on the era of the Puritanism movement which took place around the mid-1600s across several Massachusetts towns.

Hawthorne’s ancestors were among the English Puritans who traveled along with British lawyer, John Winthrop, across the Atlantic into the Massachusetts Bay area. Following successful resettlement,  Winthrop took up leadership in the capacity of a governor and used his political influence to popularize his Puritanism legacy and culture to the towns under his leadership. This article will examine key reasons why Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote ‘The Scarlet Letter.’

The Mass Influx of English Puritans into Boston

The historical context of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ can’t be complete without tracking back to 1630, the year that John Winthrop led one of the biggest English puritans crossing from The Uk to the United States – and then settling across Massachusetts.

Born in a family which enjoyed a fair share of the scarce privilege of feudal wealth, Winthrop left his happy, comfortable life to pursue his puritan dreams and ideas – leading a legion of faithful followers across The Atlantic Ocean, settling in the Massachusetts Bay Area.

Winthrop had earlier entered Massachusetts and had started giving voice to his Puritan ideals among the people – with his major antagonist being King Charles I. By the end of the year 1629, his influence had bought the mind of the people that they elected him the governor of the colony. 

As the governor, Winthrop ruled with great authority by consolidating the government laws with religious precepts and enforcing them across the several towns he governed. 

The Height of the Puritan Revolution in New England

Winthrop’s reign – which would go on almost consequently for the next twenty-something years – marked the height of the puritan revolution in Boston, Massachusetts.

 Based on the core tenets of the Christian tradition, Winthrop’s Puritanism centered on the ten commandments of God – and other moral rules which going against would constitute ‘sin’ and moral crime. 

At this point, the church had the responsibility of catering to spiritual guidance for the people but also had a great influence on governance – especially in terms of dictating the dos and don’ts for the people and organizing their social needs and activities among other things. 

This 1630s reality in New England, particularly across several Massachusetts colonies, becomes the basis for the zeitgeist portrayed in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Salem, one of the colonies, is at its puritan heights when Hester Prynne falls short of the sin of adultery, one of the most deplorable moral crimes of the time.

And even though such action doesn’t exactly violate government laws for the people, it infringes on the moral laws of the puritan tradition, and because the church has a great influence on the government and its judiciary, she gets her punishment for such actions.

The impact of Governor Winthrop’s legacy in Massachusetts was far-reaching and aside from stealing the spirit of the times in which Winthrop ruled, there’s also speculation that the idiosyncrasies of some of the foundational characters in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ are also culled by Nathaniel Hawthorne from the people in this historical period.

Hawthorne’s Ancestral Legacy

Another important backstory responsible for the creation of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was the tremendous involvement of the author’s ancestor in the Salem witch trial and execution, which took place toward the end of the 1600s. 

Hawthorne had several ancestral relatives on this, but in the thick of the affair was his great grandfather, John Hathorne – who was a prominent judge in the witches’ trial and execution, an incident which is arguably one of the lowest points in human rights violation. 

This part of puritan history was also very important and vaguely represented in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ as is seen with government Bellingham; his trial and execution of convicted witches – with his sister being one of them.

The Salem Custom House

In ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ the Salem Custom House is mentioned, and it goes to mean much more than just a fictional creation because it’s a place and building that existed. 

The author had worked for the Salem Custom House – an establishment with was responsible for the people’s tax needs. He was later dismissed for his contradictory if not slightly controversial social, political, and religious beliefs. 

Hawthorne included this narrative as a pre-story involving an unnamed narrator who gets fired from the tax company but falls back on the pieces of manuscripts he had found in the attic of the company’s building before he was fired.

A ‘Decline’ of America’s Literary Industry?

From the mid-1800s, the literary industry had been saturated by female authors – with the majority of the popular and best-selling books of this time all having been written by women. 

Hawthorne wasn’t a big fan of these works, not because they were written by women, but because he thought they lacked real substance and, as a result, were merely written for their commercial viability. 

For this reason, Hawthorne sought to create a better book with substance to compete with the industry’s best – even though he was fully aware he might have to sacrifice the book’s market success. 

The Scarlet Letter’ became the product of such an endeavor for the author, and even though the book instantly became a banger among readers, Hawthorne believed it could have sold even more if the book was devoid of substance and written to appease the market. 

Influence of Transcendentalism

Although Hawthorne was more concerned with writing about dark romanticism ( – as he was one of its 19th-century pioneers) than he was about transcendentalism – dominated by the writings of  Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his book ‘The Scarlet Letter’ carries some of the ideas of transcendentalists. 

For example, readers can notice from the tone of the narrative, the unnamed narrator (which very likely portrays Hawthorne himself) is always quick to support the protagonist Hester Prynne’s actions geared towards expressing her independent beliefs and opinions as opposed to those of the authorities – which the narrator condemns and weighs heavily down on.


What historical importance does ‘The Scarlet Letter’ have?

The Scarlet Letter’ is a book that retells an important part of American history – which is based on New England Puritanism and its height in the Massachusetts Bay Area. 

How does Hawthorne represent John Winthrop in his book, ‘The Scarlet Letter’?

Hawthorne indirectly uses his character Arthur Dimmesdale to represent the personality of John Winthrop – with both idiosyncratic sharing similarities of some sort. 

Is the tone in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ pro or anti-Puritanism? 

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tone in his book, ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is very clearly anti-Puritanism. The author takes the transcendentalist mindset towards the book, and readers could feel how characters with independent, individualistic mentality are praised while the government and its overly imposing laws are criticized. 

Was ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne banned? 

Following its publication, ‘The Scarlet Letter’ received a series of criticism leading to its censorship- with many stakeholders claiming the book promoted obscenity and carried sexually unacceptable themes.

Victor Onuorah
About Victor Onuorah
Victor is as much a prolific writer as he is an avid reader. With a degree in Journalism, he goes around scouring literary storehouses and archives; picking up, dusting the dirt off, and leaving clean even the most crooked pieces of literature all with the skill of analysis.
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