Nathaniel Hawthorne published his first novel in 1850, when he was 46 and believed he never could earn his living by writing. However, The Scarlet Letter made him a rich man and turned into a classic of American literature. The story is set in the Puritan New England of the seventeenth century. It is the tragic story of a woman´s shame and the cruel treatment she suffers at the hands of the Puritan society. But it is, mainly, a criticism of intolerance and ignorance when based on dogmatism and cruelty.
The major conflict of the novel may be summarized: a settler in New England, Hester Prynne, has waited two years for her aging husband to join her; when he arrives from Europe, finds her in a pillory (a wooden frame, with holes for the head and hands, which people were locked into in the past as a punishment) with a baby in her arms; she is wearing a scarlet letter “A” (for “Adulterer”) embroidered on her breast; anyway, sworn to keep secret the identity of both –her husband and her lover– Hester slowly wins the respect of society by her charitable acts and her moral strength.
This book depicts, as well, one of the main features that Renaissance writers like Hawthorne poured on their works: the tendency to look for a close communion between man and nature, and the belief that God could be found in it, or perhaps that God is actually it. In fact, it is clear in the book the opposition civilization versus wilderness, as a metaphor of repression and hypocrisy versus freedom and honesty. A rosebush next to a prison door, as well as the appearance of a meteor are also symbols of the ability of nature to overshadow man’s activities.
Although many years have passed since the time in which this story is set in, we can learn through it to what extent dogmatism and fanaticism may turn human’s souls into evil and against the principles that, paradoxically, most religions have established as their moral codes. Within a different context, we could fit it in our times: the Vatican blesses missiles, and the outbreaks of many conflicts and wars were by religious causes; “holy wars” they are called, what is an oxymoron. Hawthorne shows us, yet today, that individuals themselves can oppose it, and can win the battle.