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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ Review


Transcendentalism, as an introspective philosophical movement, arose during the Romantic era in literature and held that each person could arrive at extreme certainties through sound reasoning, sensory experience, and the expression of oneself outside the conformity of society. The Romantic period elicited highly contrasting intellectual as well as literary philosophies in an American life that was in its infancy. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau founded the transcendental movement, and Hawthorne was their contemporary and a spouse to a transcendental painter, Sophia Peabody (Mahini and Barth, p. 475). However, many people perceived Hawthorne as a dark romantic novelist and an anti-transcendentalist.

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In The Scarlet Letter, there are both transcendental and anti-transcendental aspects that the author depicts. However, the lead protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – Hester Prynne – is a transcendent figure who elucidates independent thinking and a free spirit disregarding the harsh conformity that society imposes.

Mahini and Barth contend that, the basic premises of transcendentalism depicted in the novel include beliefs in self-confidence and self-reliance, in transforming or changing for the better, in individual worth and dignity of manual labor, in the innate goodness of people, in the benefits of living close to nature, and in the fact that truth is acquired through intuition, not reason nor logic (p. 475).

Hester Prynne embodies several of these premises of transcendentalism, as Hawthorne portrays her. According to Hawthorne (p. 60), the local government had reduced the death penalty for Hester for the reason that her husband was dead, and she was, therefore, a widow. In place of the death sentence, Hester had to stand on the scaffold for three hours every day at noon to be publicly humiliated while wearing the scarlet letter A on her breast for as long as she lived. In the beginning, feelings of grief and shame overcome her due to the ridicule and harsh treatment she received from the town folk. However, she progressively became and chose to be self-confident and self-reliant. At the instant when the town beadle tried to compel Hester to proceed on from the prison door, Hester with dignity and pride defied his force. Hester had resolved; there was no way she would allow the town’s authorities to dominate her and push her about making her feel inadequate, prone, and weak.

Other than manifesting self-confidence and self-reliance through her decision to defy the town authorities and their quest to make her vulnerable, Hester had strong self-will to turn her life around. “…was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by itself” (Hawthorne, p. 52). The embroidered scarlet letter A on her chest was great adversity that brought with it feelings of shame, guilt, ridicule, and torment. Nonetheless, Hester did not allow the scarlet letter to symbolize shame, guilt, and ridicule. Hester accepted her new life; it was not going to change no matter the amount of guilt or remorse she felt. Hester, therefore, selected the most beautiful red cloth to embroider the letter A and then used gold thread to illuminate it. The New England society in Hester’s time was a puritan one; and anybody in Hester’s position would have taken measures to make themselves less conspicuous. Conversely, Hester chose to make the embroidery more visible. Probably, rather than wearing the typical letter A to represent the shame in the act of Adultery, Hester conceitedly wore her letter A as a token of love for Arthur Dimmesdale and goes on living a life not affected by the harsh judgment of society.

Hester dignifies manual labor, and instead of associating it with punishment or as work done by the lowly in society, she makes it a wellspring of anything positive in her life. Out of her act of adultery, Hester begot a child – Pearl.

Despite the shame and ridicule, she suffers in the hands of the town folk Hester chooses not to leave town. She settled on the periphery of town and abode in a deserted cottage adjacent to the seashore and neighbored by the forest to the west. Hester focuses her efforts and skills in knitting to earn a living and raise her infant Pearl. Very few people would choose such a life of solitude and the reliance on manual work to earn a living; it is not a wonder that the cottage had been abandoned. Owing to her condemnation, that very few people would have wanted to do business with her. However, Hester was unmoved in her resolve; and perhaps she hoped to get reunited with her lover someday.

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Credit to human nature, Hester goes through an inner transformation in herself at the commencement of her life in solitude. In his work, Hawthorne contends that:

… human nature […] loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change is impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility (p. 156).

The transformation of Hester’s anger and resentment into love elicits transcendentalism. Innately, Hester is a good-natured human being. Her kind nature, coupled with the inner change in her, made her not stop helping the destitute and the sick around her that required her help. Hawthorne paints a picture of a benevolent woman who uses all the proceeds of her hard work to charity and fending for her child. Sometimes she even fended people who were less miserable than she was despite these people frequently insulting her, and made clothes for the poor. All these acts of Hester were not a requirement by law or punishment for her transgression. Society shuns her, and the beneficiaries of her kindness are contemptuous of her.

Hester bore a feature of transcendentalism that transformed the people’s opinion and judgment of her. The human tenderness in Hester made the people appreciate her charitable acts eventually. The meaning of the fiery letter A on her breast changes “from Adultery to Able” (Hawthorne, p. 158), and the people recognize that. The town folk talked to visitors and newcomers with pride about Hester, and the leadership of the town even proposed the removal of the sign of punishment on her merely seven years after condemning her to it. Hester openly appreciates her iniquity, and this acknowledgment enables her to avoid internal destruction by this sin. She gets over the guilt and shame and moves on with life, atoning for her sin, and doing well as an able and caring individual in society (Mahini and Barth, p. 476). For these reasons, Hester raises her self-worth and her standing in society.


Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, depicts transcendentalism as it does anti-transcendentalism. However, Hester Prynne – the story’s protagonist – elicits the fundamental premises of transcendentalism in the novel. Hester portrays self-confidence and self-reliance. She also has strong self-will to turn her life around. Hester also showcases a belief in individual worth and dignity of manual labor, and in a run-down, Hester has innate goodness of people; she is good-natured and bears vast human tenderness. Hester is an independent thinker with a free spirit who defies the harsh conformity that society imposes.


  1. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Perma-Bound International, 1850.
  2. Mahini, Ramtin Noor-Tehrani (Noor), and Erin Barth. “The Scarlet Letter: Embroidering Transcendentalism and Anti-Transcendentalism Thread for an Early American World.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research, vol. 9, no. 3, 2018, pp. 474-479. Academy Publication, doi:10.17507/jltr.0903.04.

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