Nathaniel Hawthorne lived during an extraordinarily turbulent time in American history. Our young nation was barely into its second generation of independence from England. Emotionally volatile issues revolving around religion, slavery, and liberty abounded. During American’s antebellum period, citizens struggled to define themselves in a rapidly changing world. Questions concerning religious doctrines, the morality of slavery, and the definition of liberty abounded. The Revolutionary War had provided America with her independence, but she still was a young child struggling to find her own identity.
America was also heading rapidly into an explosive conflict with herself–the issue of slavery was soon to be solved only through civil war. Judeo-Christian doctrines were being hotly debated and many sects were growing stronger. One of the most prominent was transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and several others were at the core of the transcendentalism movement, which held intuition or knowledge from within over Divine intervention. But even its creators argued over the exact nature and practical application of transcendentalism.
Hawthorne, on the fringes of the Transcendental club, wrestled with deep ethical problems that transcendentalism did not adequately address for him. It is not surprising that, in a nation struggling to find balance, he would question the authority of religious doctrine. In his novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne endeavors to explore, among other themes, the type of individual who can truly live as a model for Christian Charity. As a scholar, Hawthorne was not only familiar with Winthrop’s work, but also had many strict Puritan ancestors. By setting The Scarlet Letter 200 years in his past in a Puritan community, he sets up an environment uniquely ideal to question fundamental Christian doctrines without overtly antagonizing his readers.
In 1630, John Winthrop, a Puritan minister, preached a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity” wherein he expounded on the definition of Christian charity or love from a puritan perspective. In essence, Winthrop claims a true Christian will display the following actions and attitudes:
To do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection; we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions out own, rejoice together, morn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body (Winthrop, 216).
This was an ideal model based on the biblical example of the actions and attitudes of Christ. Winthrop was also exhorting his congregation to live this ideal existence in order to be an example to England of how a truly committed Christian community could live and thrive. He also believes, as did many Puritans of his day, that the outward symbol of God’s blessings on a person was shown through his or her prosperity. “God…hath disposed of the condition of mankind…some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection” (Winthrop, 206). Those that were high and eminent in power were being blessed by God for their inward piety and adherence to Christian virtues, but those that were poor were in subjection to those who were not in order for them to learn how to become pious. It was the duty of the eminent to give and/or lend their surplus to the mean in order for them to see charity (unconditional love) in action and therefore learn to be more charitable themselves. It is this underlining idea that the wealthy so are generous are more worthy than the poor that Hawthorne questions in The Scarlet Letter.
There are two principle characters involved in this concept of who is an appropriate vessel of Christian charity–Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne. Arthur is a prominent minister, a biblical scholar much admired by his community and congregation. He is described in exalted terms such as:
young clergyman, who had come from one of the great English universities, bringing all the learning of the age into our wild forest land. His eloquence and religious fervour had already given the earnest of high eminence in his profession. He was a person of very striking aspect,…expressing…a vast power of self restraint…so far as his duties would permit, he trod in the shadowy by-paths, and thus kept himself simple and childlike, coming forth…with purity of thought, which, as many people said, affected them like tile speech of an angel (Hawthorne, 48).
Hester Prynne is a young, married woman who has not seen her husband in more than two years. She has just had a baby, obviously by a man who is not her husband and is being publicly punished for her crime. Winthrop would have considered adultery a civil crime since the “government [of a Puritan community] was both civil and ecclesiastical…for it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public” (Winthrop, 215). It would have been wholly reasonable to punish anyone both male or female for the crime of adultery, but in this case only Hester is being punished since in order to determine who the father is she much name him and she refuses to do so. It is interesting to note the way Hawthorne describes Hester:
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterised by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace which is now recognised as its indication (Hawthorne, 39).
Where Arthur is described in exalted terms of spiritual symbology, Hester is described in terms that emphasis her physical beauty and strong character. Her attitude is stately and dignified rather than humbled as the public display is supposed to instill. Hawthorne has created two polar opposites in these two characters. As a respected minister, Arthur Dimmesdale is the ideal person of “high and eminent power and dignity” that Winthrop suggests are receiving the favor of God due to their inward piety, whereas Hester Prynne is the ultimate “poor…mean and in subjection” person as a woman essentially shunned from her community for committing adultery. She is the dark lady of classical literature who committees unspeakable acts against God’s order. Yet, as the reader soon finds out, Arthur Dimmesdale is her lover and father of her child. Which one is more a true model of Christian Charity?
This is the question Hawthorne expects his readers to ask and answer. By looking at the actions both characters display throughout the story, it is easy to see that Hawthorne shows Hester to be a better model than Arthur regardless of her low status. Winthrop claims that the true Christian will “be knit together [and show] brotherly affection…[and] be wiling to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities” (Winthrop, 216). Arthur is shown throughout the story to be more concerned over his own status within the community than with the status of Hester or anyone else for that matter. On the one occasion that he has the opportunity to help Hester when the elders are considering remover her child, Pearl, from her custody, he does not immediately come to her aid. Instead Hester has to demand his support and protection before he will champion her (Hawthorne, 78).
Hester, on the other hand, “bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself, and who…insulted the hand that fed them” (Hawthorne, 58-59). Winthrop clearly expects the wealthy to give to the poor, and only rarely expects there to be an “occasion of [a poor man] showing mercy to a rich man” and than only when the rich man is “in some sudden danger of distress” (Winthrop, 207). Hawthorne reverses this concept with Hester by showing a disenfranchised woman living below substance level acting more in the model of Christian charity than those who are purported to be righteous leaders blessed by God. Hawthorne wants his readers to look beyond the surface and judge people on their virtues and merits rather than their appearance. This rather subtle commentary is aptly applied in Hawthorne’s day with the controversy over slavery reaching volatile proportions.
As far as actions are concerned, Winthrop believes that the true Christian will seek to do help those in their community. Although the community believes that Arthur Dimmesdale is giving them the more valuable gifts of spiritual insight, he is in reality only living a lie that is consuming him from the inside out. A man who is supposed to be extraordinarily blessed by God for his deep inward piety is blacker than Hester with all her sin displayed on her outward appearance in the form of the Scarlet Letter. In the end, Hester turns the scarlet A for adultery to angle. She is constantly helping those in need by sitting death vigil, bestowing needed items on the poor, etc. She is only marginally recognized for these good works, whereas Arthur is praised and worshipped for his supposedly highly spiritual attributes. In reality, Hester, regardless of her sin of adultery, is more pious than the minister. In many ways, this is contrary to some Christian doctrines of Hawthorne’s era. It was very much a work that was intended to get reader to reevaluate their preconceptions. Even the 21st century finds value in the questions Hawthorne subtly encourages his readers to ask.
Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” 1630. Norton Anthology of American Literature. 6th ed. Vol A. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. 206-217.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Norton Critical 3rd Editon. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988. 4-178.