Date of Award

1972

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts in English

Department

English

First Advisor

Sydney Howard White

Abstract

Nathaniel Hawthorne's treatment of man’s relationship to nature and society in The Scarlet Letter will be examined in this work. It will be necessary to examine Hawthorne's treatment of the beneficial and detrimental aspects of nature in his famous romance. In addition, a thorough study of Hawthorne's attitude toward the Puritan society will be made. Although Hawthorne deals exclusively with a community of Puritans in The Scarlet Letter, he appears to draw conclusions which would apply to any society at any time. A close analysis of each major character and his relationship to the community in which he lives and the physical universe around him will be essential to this study. Hawthorne's personal journals and letters add additional valuable information concerning his attitudes toward these subjects.

Hawthorne clearly shows in The Scarlet Letter that nature and society can affect an individual in a beneficial manner. On the other hand, both can be equally harmful to a person. Hawthorne appears to suggest in this work that the answer lies in developing an association with both nature and society. Because man is dependent on both, he must establish a relationship with society and nature which would allow him to enjoy the benefits to be gained from each while avoiding their inherent dangers.

A major problem in The Scarlet Letter results from the fact that all the major characters become isolated from their society or from the natural universe. All these characters experience an alienation from their society. Hester is isolated as a result of her sin. Dimmesdale's sin and hypocrisy divorce him from his townspeople. Chillingworth lack human sympathy which would link him to mankind, and Pearl allies herself exclusively with the forces of nature rather than society. All the characters suffer as a result of this alienation, and they all come to realize that they need to be a part of their society. Hester returns to her community to spend the last years of her life. Chillingworth proclaims that his alienation from mankind has made him into a friend. Pearl reconciles herself to the society after Dimmesdale's confession restores his honest relationship to the community.

In the same manner, an isolation from the physical universe has tragic effects on Hawthorne's characters. When Hester and Dimmesdale attempt to deny their natural passion to isolate themselves from the physical universe, they find their efforts are futile. Dimmesdale grows weak and sick, and Hester's natural beauty is transformed to ugliness. Chillingworth's inability to associate himself with the strength and vitality of nature seems to cause his physical body, already old and deformed, to become shriveled and parasitic.

Hawthorne seems to suggest in The Scarlet Letter that an individual must find a harmonious balance between nature and society. He points out the benefits to be gained through a close alliance with both, but he clearly illustrates that an exclusive association with either nature or society will be very detrimental.

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