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date The Scarlet letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne & when takes place


story takes place in the 17th century.


Dates Nathaniel Hawthorne


= début du 19è siècle
// transcendantalisme & Romance

invente une def de la romance. La romance fait echo au romantisme qui est importé d’Europe, d’Allemagne, prospérer aux USA pour s’américaniser d’un pdv intellectuel en devenant le transcendantalisme.


→ American Transcendentalism

When ? Where ? Who ?


Mid 1830s to the 1850s
Born in Eastern Massachusetts & mainly developed in New England

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Henry David Thoreau.
Walt Whitman : Father of free verse poetry.
Emily Dickinson : Poet
Margaret Fuller : Journalist


Ralph Waldo Emerson & Henry David Thoreau.


Father of Transcendentalism, author of Nature and Self reliance
→ Il va voir le divin un peu partout. Il souhaite une philosophie proprement américaine plutot que de tout importer (religion etc).

Transcendentalism invented by Ralph Aldo Emerson.

Henry David Thoreau. Emerson’s student, author of Walden
→ invente désobéissance civile etc.


What values in Transcendentalism


The Transcendentalist movement, derived from European Romanticism,

→ promoted the oneness between Man, God and Nature (which together formed the Oversoul),
rejected the doxa and religious dogmas

→ promoted “self-reliance” and the belief that man should obey his own inner laws rather than those imposed on him by society

⇒ in The Scarlet Letter, Hester obeys her own laws and behaves according to what she thinks is right, engaging in a conflict between the individual and the community.

Au 17è, la communauté est au dessus de tout. Dieu chapote tout. Ici transgression, elle a enfant avec qqun qui n’est pas censé être le père etc.


Brook Farm


Pas encore de grands romans.
Most of those writers lived together. They established themselves in communities : one was Brook Farm.

A utopian experiment in communal living founded by former Unitarian minister George Ripley and his wife Sophia Ripley in Massachusetts. It was inspired in part by the ideals of Transcendentalism. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of its founders though took his distance afterwards. Brook Farm inspired him for his novel The Blithedale Romance which satirizes the “impracticable” projects of his “dreamy brethren” at Brook Farm. Famous transcendentalists lived on Brook Farm, like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Margaret Fuller.


The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1834-1872, Vol. I.
about Brook Farm


“We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reforms. Not a reading man has but a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket. I am gently mad myself, and am resolved to live cleanly. George Ripley is talking up a colony of agriculturists and scholars, with whom he threatens to take the field and the book. One man renounces the use of animal food; and another of coin; and another of domestic hired service; and another of the State; and on the whole we have a commendable share of reason and hope.” R.W. Emerson


→ The “American Renaissance”

When ? Who ?


(1830-1865) : Period of American Renaissance lasts from the 1830s until the end of the American Civil War.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)


The “American Renaissance” values


The expression American Renaissance was coined by Francis Otto Matthiessen in a famous essay called American Renaissance: Art and Expression In the Age of Emerson and Whitman, 1941.

Matthiessen more specifically isolated a group of writers who represented the common people and was explicitly tackling the democratic ideal. He writes : “the one common denominator of my five writers, including Hawthorne and Whitman, was their devotion to the possibilities of democracy”.

This period is often identified with American romanticism and transcendentalism.


Who are puritans ?


→ British Protestant non-conformists or dissenters who:
dissented with the Church of England,
had fled persecutions in the late 16th, early 17th centuries
had found refuge in Holland,
then migrated to America to found a ‘New Jerusalem’ – or as John Winthrop (whose death is evoked in Chapter 12) put it, as “a City upon a hill” – “where they could follow God’s words, glorify His ways and advance His designs”


For puritans : what was around them =


For puritans : what was around them = devil & American territory = witches..


The earliest Puritan settlers


→ The earliest Puritan settlers, the Pilgrim Fathers, arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, and founded Plymouth Plantation.

→ They were followed by a larger wave in the late 1620s, who created the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Salem and Boston). That second migration was led by John Winthrop, who was the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for over 20 years.


Massachusetts Bay colony


→ The Massachusetts Bay colony was partly a theocracy headed by elder Puritan ministers (like Reverend John Wilson in The Scarlet Letter) and representatives of the state (like Governor Bellingham).


The name “Puritans” derives from


The name “Puritans” derives from ‘purifying’ Christianity and the superstitious, corruptive legacy of Catholicism – that ‘whore of Babylon’ as many Puritans called the Roman Church.


Martin Luther


Disciples of Martin Luther (1483-1546), the German father of the Protestant Reformation, and of the French reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), the Puritans favoured simpler services and an intense spiritual relationship between believers and God.


‘innate depravity


Puritans believed in the ‘innate depravity’ of human nature (associated to the curse of original sin, attributed to Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden) and they perceived the world as a place of perpetual conflict between God and Satan.




One central doctrine was the belief in predestination: only a few are chosen for salvation – the Elect (who searched the signs in nature that they had been chosen), while the “unregenerate,” are damned eternally.




They disdained earthly pleasures (including art), had austere rules in all aspects of life (including their attire), and enforced strict punishments on criminals and sinners, including the penalty of death, amputation or stigma. Those who deviated from the rules like the witches were ultimately executed.
// The custom House : ++ moment when Hawthorne says he is an aidler ?

Moral restraint, self-discipline, hard work, submission to God were key values.
// in this book characters who obey the law of their heart. Ici , gens sont vu comme une communauté, pas d’individu.
// Hester = obeying the law of your heart = 19e opposé dans ce livre au 17e et la loi de dieu.


So, puritans main ideas ?


→ favoured simpler services and an intense spiritual relationship between believers and God.
→ believed in the ‘innate depravity’ of human nature, world as a place of perpetual conflict between God and Satan.
→ belief in predestination
→ They disdained earthly pleasures (including art), had austere rules & strict punishments on criminals and sinners
→ Moral restraint, self-discipline, hard work, submission to God


Hawthorn biography


Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1804.

→ He descended from prominent a Puritan family that settled in New England in 1630.

→ First ancestor is William Hathorne (1606-1681) described in “The Custom House” as arriving in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 “with his Bible and his sword” (12) : he was a farmer, a prosperous merchant, a local politician, a military leader and a dreaded prosecutor who asked :
♦ a Quaker woman to be whipped through the streets of Salem
♦ an adulteress to be whipped and stand in the market place of Boston wearing a paper with the words “THUS I STAND FOR MY ADULTEROUS AND WHORISH CARRIAGE”…
♦ a man caught in burglary to have an ear lopped off and the letter B branded on his forehead;
♦ a man convicted of manslaughter to have the offending hand burnt;
♦ man who insulted the judges to have his ear nailed to a pillory and then amputated…


John Hathorne
& consequence on Nathaniel


1692 = procès ♥

John Hathorne (1641-1717), was an even more successful merchant and magistrate, who was one of the chief prosecutors in the Salem Witch Trials and the only judge involved who never repented his actions.

“Judge Hathorne took on the role of a prosecutor rather than an impartial judge during the trials. Judge Hathorne’s questioning always began with a presumption of guilt rather than innocence, and he appeared to be on the side of the accusers.”

→ Nathaniel Hawthorne decided to change the spelling of his last name, by adding a w, not just to poeticize it, but also to symbolically separate himself from his cruel ancestors.


Lauric Henneton, « William Bradford et la fondation des lettres américaines. Entre écriture de l’Histoire et architecture de la mémoire », Revue française d’études américaines, 2007


« Les premiers colons de Nouvelle-Angleterre se savaient donc fondateurs, même s’ils ne savaient pas exactement de quoi. Dès le début existait le projet d’une société à mettre en place, des conditions à respecter, des comportements et des intrus à éviter, le tout assorti d’une conscience historique aiguë, dont les ressorts principaux étaient évidemment bibliques, que ce soit le volet typologique (la réactualisation d’un statut de peuple élu) ou formel, ce statut de peuple élu qui impliquait une forme de devoir de mémoire, qui à son tour dictait le devoir d’écrire, de consigner, donc de fonder une littérature, en même temps qu’une idée complexe – « l’héritage puritain » – qui devait s’imposer, avec le temps, comme une des pierres angulaires de l’identité américaine ».

// Hemerson qui cherche à rompre avec l’Europe. Les puritains ne cherchent pas à rompre avec l’europe mais réutilisent le canon biblique pour créer une communauté.


Hawthorne’s relation to Puritanism


■ By the mid-19th century, the United States was trying to glorify its past, to give mythical grandeur to the genesis of the nation.

■ Hawthorne’s stories do not exactly celebrate the nation’s past and offer a deconstructive picture of that history : emphasis is laid on the cruel values that prevailed, the mistreatment of women, the destruction of native tribes, the impossibility to have intimacy & to have a self.

■ Hawthorne published the Scarlet Letter in 1850, a period which believed in progress, democracy, manifest destiny. Yet, his work also displays a distinctly Puritan concern with sin, corruption and guilt. The Scarlet Letter is pessimistic.

→ a text that tries to make amend for the past deeds. Hawthorne was obsessed with the past & the guilt.


Hawthorne’s experience at the Custom House


In 1846, he was offered the job of surveyor at the Salem customs house:
financial opportunity
but debilitating experience and was incapable of doing any writing for three years.

→ This experiment provides the material for the semi-autobiographical preface to The Scarlet Letter, “the Custom-House” in which he draws a satiric portrait of the decaying civil servants and exposes the deadening effect that experience had on his imagination and literary inspiration.