10. Final Word: Did Hawthorne get his wish?
Hawthorne began writing The Scarlet Letter shortly after he lost his position as a tax inspector at Boston’s Custom House. Times were tough: Hawthorne had lost as much as $1,500 he’d invested in a transcendentalist utopian commune. The man was short on cash.
But there’s more to the story-behind-the-story of The Scarlet Letter than a struggling author in search of a hit…
Did Hawthorne write The Scarlet Letter as an exercise in literary therapy?
Think about it: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-great-great grandfather, John Hathorne, condemned innocent people to death as a judge in the 1692 Salem witch trials. More than 130 years later, Nathaniel changed his spelling of the family’s name, adding a “w” to its first syllable…as he launched his career as a writer. To distance himself from his ancestor’s guilt?
The Scarlet Letter is a study of guilt and its effects, and it’s easy to imagine Hawthorne drawing from his own experience when he wrote it. He may have hoped to rise above the stigma of family history by devoting himself to the art of writing. In Hester Prynne, he created a character who rises above the stigma of adultery by devoting herself to the art of needlework.
He may have feared the consequences of his own feelings of inescapable guilt. In Arthur Dimmesdale, he created a character forever bound by his sinful mistakes, a tragic figure whose inescapable guilt destroys him.
We’re just left with questions, like…Did Hawthorne write himself into The Scarlet Letter?…Did he identify with Hester, who found redemption through art?…Did he see himself as Reverend Dimmesdale, who tried–over and over–to exorcise his guilt…only to fail?
And…couldn’t he have lived long enough to answer these questions on Oprah?