Why I read Hawthorne

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, putting it off because I couldn’t remember my professor’s name, and it made me sad. The things that are so important to us at certain times in our lives can be difficult to hold onto. It’s like another world, another Sam that existed, and I don’t always share her memories.

Which is, ironically, a fantastic segue into what I’ve been thinking about – American Romanticism. Or, more specifically, American Dark Romanticism (or American Gothic) of the early to late 1800s. Mmmmhmm. I can feel your excitement right now.

I fell in love with this particular literary movement in high school, when I first read The Scarlet Letter. And don’t come to me with “ugh, that book is so boring,” because then I’m convinced you didn’t read it.

My adoration grew in college, when I was pleased to take two classes with a professor (the aforementioned one whose name has escaped me, and I feel like I’ve betrayed my degree) who shared my excitement over this time period. He taught a class in Crime, Morality, and Punishment in 19th and 20th Century Literature, and if that doesn’t sound like a whirlwind of a time, then I don’t really know what is. And he taught early American Lit. AKA all of the quietly, sneakily depraved writing of the 1800s.

When most people think of gothic literature, they think of Poe and his Raven. I love Poe, too. One of my favorite assignments in college was my feminist critique of The Fall of the House of Usher. I had a grand time with that. Not to mention “A Descent Into the Maelstrom,” a view into that human nature to hang a foot off the edge of a cliff, to see what might happen.

But the dark romanticism of the age, for me, is settled snugly in the hands of Hawthorne. I find myself thinking about his writing a lot lately. As the world has shifted underneath me, and I feel unsteady, I think about the Minister’s Black Veil or Ethan Brand. I imagine him sitting and writing the words, his cautionary tales about the world, about Us vs. Them, about false piety.

He wrote extensively about Puritans. His grandfather had been a judge during the Salem witch trials, after all. He did not cast them in a favorable light. They are instead depicted harshly, like deep, rough lines against an otherwise normal backdrop. They are hypocritical, placing their chosen heroes on pedestals and denouncing their preferred outcasts. And inevitably the heroes are flawed, and the outcasts are noble (though also flawed because they are human).

It strikes a little close to home these days.

Think about what you may (or may not) remember about The Scarlet Letter. Spoilers, I guess? But then again, this story is over a hundred years old. You’ve had ample time.

Hester Prynne has been put in jail, unwed (or, more specifically, widowed) and now with child. They cannot put her to death, so they instead require her to wear a scarlet letter A upon her clothes, forever marking her sin and displaying it for the world to see. They demand to know the identity of the father, but she refused. She lives outside of the village, raising her daughter.

Hester otherwise lives by all of the puritanical rules of society. She wears somber colors, is gentile and respectful. She also sews the most elaborate and beautiful dresses. Her daughter wears fanciful and colorful outfits, and the wealthier matrons in the village hire her for all manner of seamstress work. She tends to the sick, staying by their beds to comfort them. But still she is treated as an outsider, an untouchable.

The local minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, is meanwhile looked on as a paragon of society. His increasingly poor health is attributed to his piety, with many members of his church believing that he is fasting, or that he is simply so overwhelmed with goodness that he is being called to Heaven.

It is, instead, his own guilt eating away at him.

At the end of the novel, before a crowd of people, Dimmesdale rips away his shirt, confessing that he is Pearl’s father and that his sin is all the greater for having allowed Hester to bear the burden for those 7 years. The crowd is stunned to see a bright scarlet A branded on his chest.

(Yeah, see, boring my ass.)

The village immediately turns on him, some shouting that he should be hanged for his sin.

Until Pearl, the child of Hester and Arthur’s union, speaks out, reminding all in the crowd that they, too, have sinned. That in the wake of seven years of her mother’s continued service to the town, she has heard some say kind words. That her father has been seen as holy and admirable. She reminds them that forgiveness is more important than judgment.

I could talk about (or write about) this story for hours, for days. Hawthorne so brilliantly captures the hypocrisy of those shouting about propriety. And in this modern era of loud voices and pulpit-pounding, I find peace in these tales.

Dimmesdale dies after his confession. He and Hester do not run off the Europe to start a fresh life together and they had hoped a mere chapter earlier. But Chillingworth (just read the story, seriously) finds forgiveness, and he leaves his fortune to Pearl a few years later. When Hester dies, she is buried by Arthur. Though he feared they would be damned together, Hester believed they would be forgiven and spend an eternity by each other’s sides.

And I guess that’s why I love Hawthorne. Though dark and at times depressing, the background characters of his tales often learned a lesson via the suffering of his protagonists. He did not sugar coat his stories; he shed light on the harsh truths of society but still maintained hope that people could learn and grow and change.

I need that reminder.

Of course, there’s always Poe, too. When it’s time to simply scream into the void. That might work just as well.