The Scarlet Letter, Part 3: Confused Thoughts on Transcendentalism + “The Transcendentalist” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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At the risk of sounding ridiculously naive, I now turn to the transcendental context for Hawthorne’s novel, since I read it as a part of Jillian’s Transcendental Month. As I read The Scarlet Letter, I struggled to place the novel within the transcendental framework, and I’ve come to the conclusion that The Scarlet Letter is rather anti-transcendental.

As Hawthorne reveals in his novel, people are often consumed with guilt, sin, or desire for revenge. I talked yesterday about the different ways that Chillingworth, Dimmesdale, and Hester Prynne succumbed to the pressure to conform to society. And although Hester later tried to abandon the moral structures of Puritan society, her prideful ways of doing so were not positive.

Jillian commented the other day that she didn’t see it as anti-transcendental, because Hester celebrated her individuality. I disagree with that, but I struggle to explain myself. Maybe I am wrong. This post is just my ramblings trying to put the novel in context with the transcendentalists. Jillian posted on the essay “The Transcendentalist” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that prompted me to read the essay myself to try to better explain myself. Although I can’t guarantee that this post will explain anything, I’m certainly trying.

Human nature is a bit more complicated than Thoreau’s “love yourself in nature” mantra, which is how I interpreted Walden (which was published four years after The Scarlet Letter). In Emerson’s thoughtful discussion of what it means to transcend society, I found myself a bit wary of his claims that one needs to shun the “bad influence” of society and find “self-existent” truths in oneself.

In Hawthorne’s much more complicated fictional work, finding yourself is a rather scary process, and his fictional account in a Puritan settlement provides plenty of food for thought. Having now read Emerson’s essay, I’m all the more decided that Hawthorne was responding to the movement with anti-transcendental characters and concepts. (Once again, though, I’m not certain this post of thoughts can convince anyone.)

The post contains spoilers of The Scarlet Letter.

The Transcendentalist

Emerson’s lecture on transcendentalism (delivered 1842, found online here) was his attempt to explain the new philosophical way of life. Jillian does a wonderful job breaking down aspects of the essay, so I won’t attempt to reinvent the wheel here: go read her post.

Reading this essay (and Jillian’s thoughts) reminded me of the memorable illustration that was in my American literature textbook in eleventh grade. I had to find it again. Apparently, it’s a classic illustration by Christopher Cranch capturing a phrase from Emerson’s essay “Nature” (found via).

“I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

Emerson explains in his essay “The Transcendentalist” that no one can really see the world: we see the world through our own perspectives.

“Mind is the only reality, of which men and all other natures are better or worse reflectors.”

Can I just say that I love that concept, much as I love the transparent eyeball illustration? It’s just so right. We all perceive the world in our own way.

That said, Emerson then discusses the need to be self-dependent, since we can’t really see how the world is.

“It is simpler to be self-dependent. The height, the deity of man is, to be self-sustained, to need no gift, no foreign force. Society is good when it does not violate me; but best when it is likest to solitude. Everything real is self-existent. Everything divine shares the self-existence of Deity.”

Then this is where I’m a bit wary. I get that Emerson believes that there is no “perfect” transcendentalist. Anyone so closely examining him- or herself will recognize personal flaws that bring them short. But what if pride overcomes him so he is blinded to his faults? Transcendentalism then becomes a problem. I think of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who believes himself god-like and above the laws of the world.

But then, Raskolnikov is crazy. Maybe transcendentalism is only for the perfectly sane. Although, how does one know if he or she is insane before adopting a new way of life?

Here’s what Emerson said about society:

“They say to themselves, It is better to be alone than in bad company. And it is really a wish to be met, — the wish to find society for their hope and religion, — which prompts them to shun what is called society. … These persons are of unequal strength, and do not all prosper. They complain that everything around them must be denied; and if feeble, it takes all their strength to deny, before they can begin to lead their own life.”

And then this last quote doesn’t necessarily relate, but I really like it.

“You think me the child of my circumstances: I make my circumstance.”

The Scarlet Letter as Anti-Transcendentalist

As I mention above, I don’t think that Hester was a transcendental figure. When looking at Emerson’s comments on what it means to approach the world from a transcendental perspective, I don’t see Hester doing so. As I discussed a little bit yesterday, she was unhappy and unsatisfied in her life. She wanted her sin to be forgotten so she could better function in society.

Although she found freedom by casting off the scarlet letter in a late scene in the wood, her daughter forces her to put it on again, and Hester does so. And then, in the Conclusion to the novel, when she returned to the Puritan village, Hester once again donned the scarlet letter. She was prideful throughout the novel, holding her head high even when she was shunned by society. But is that denying society? Did Hester shun the society or did she merely seek to flee?

(Jillian pointed out that Hester is making the letter a beautiful adornment, that she is wearing the letter for herself and not for the society. Now I want to reread and see again what her comments on society were … I’m not sure what I think here. I had the impression from her scene in the wood that she wanted to flee the society and cast of the letter. But maybe that is because she was then with Dimmesdale, ready to let him take some of the burden as he runs off with her.)

The Preface

And then, although the Preface was first in the novel, I come to it last.

My initial frustration with my reread of this novel, both in August when I attempted a reading and this month, was the lengthy Preface in which Hawthorne provides context for the story. Supposedly, as he worked as a customs clerk, he found a bit of fabric shaped as an “A” as well as a lengthy historical account of the woman who wore the letter. Although this historical discovery was a fiction (I believe Hawthorne had heard of a story, but did not really find a manuscript about it nor a letter), Hawthorne’s seemingly tangential discussion of the other workers in the custom house, his work in the custom house, and so forth was based on his experience. As I tried to place the “why” behind his inclusion of this preface, I determined that Hawthorne was trying to show the differences between different societies and consider what is truly important in life and society.

In speaking of his co-workers, Hawthorne suggested.

“They spoke with far more interest and unction of their morning’s breakfast, or yesterday’s, to-day’s, or to-morrow’s dinner, than of the shipwreck of forty or fifty years ago, and all the world’s wonders which they had witnessed with their youthful eyes.” (page 45)

And then he explained his role in this context: “it lay at my own option to recall whatever was valuable in the past” (page 53).

Conveniently, it is at this point, after Hawthorne’s realization that as a writer he must capture the important stories of the past, that he discovers the scarlet letter and the historical manuscript about it.

I found myself pondering the transcendentalist aspects of this lengthy and (I admit) boring preface. Hawthorne thinks little of the self-centered old men he works with; society seems superficial and his day job is blah. But by writing the important events of the past, such as the story of the adulterous woman, he can better explore the internal characteristics of human nature, particularly in a transcendental way.

I think transcendentalism prompted him to explore the “self” in this novel, but in the end, he’s not too impressed with the results. His co-workers are superficial, Hester Prynne is proud, and society remains the dominating influence for Dimmesdale, Hester, and Chillingworth. They never shun society or find peace in trying to do so.

I know I’ve barely touched the surface here in trying to understand transcendentalism. There is so much more I’m missing, and I really should read more Emerson for better context (ack! The thought makes my stomach churn). I now leave this novel of Hawthorne’s still feeling just a little confused about the “philosophy.” But that’s okay. I suspect my next reread will give me more to think about, and just as much substance to sink into.

Reviewed on December 9, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Hi Rebecca – thanks for the links!

    I’m having trouble capturing what I mean in words. I didn’t mean in my comments earlier this week to suggest I don’t think The Scarlet Letter is anti-Transcendentalist. I DO think it’s anti-Transcendentalist but have trouble saying why or even understanding why, off a single read. I only meant (by my comments on Hester Prynne) to suggest that I believe there are elements that were inspired by the Transcendentalist movement and perhaps reflect (in Hester Prynne) a bit of the Transcendentalist spirit in which Hawthorne was immersed when he wrote the book, and against which I do think he argues, through Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, in The Scarlet Letter. Through Chillingworth in particular, he is clearly refuting the suggestion that humanity is inherently good, something that I believe the Transcendentalists strongly espoused. I think through Chillingworth, Hawthorne is suggesting the like possibility that humanity is inherently dark — though it contains a few strong sparks, like the determined and self-possessed Hester Prynne. Through Prynne, he may also be displaying the way a unique and determined spirit, though admirable, can still lead to unhappiness. (Something that would also have been anti-Transcendentalist.) Through Dimmesdale, he is showing what happens when a person is not self-possessed – something that (I think) might be an argument for Transcendentalism.

    The character of Hester Prynne was apparently inspired by Margaret Fuller, author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century. She was admired and for a while as a Transcendentalist and author of The Dial – and was (apparently) loved by Hawthorne, who may have been inspired to depict a love trial between Hester Prynne, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale by his own triangle with Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Again, only according to the book I’m currently reading.) Fuller died in a boating accident the same year Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter. She had borne a child illegitimately to an Italian while in Italy, having recently left Concord to travel abroad. Again, you can see how Hester Prynne compares. She died in tragedy, though her independence and adherence to individuality was admirable (I believe) to Hawthorne.

    I 100% agree with you on this:

    “I think transcendentalism prompted him to explore the “self” in this novel, but in the end, he’s not too impressed with the results. His co-workers are superficial, Hester Prynne is proud, and society remains the dominating influence for Dimmesdale, Hester, and Chillingworth. They never shun society or find peace in trying to do so.”

    Only my (quite uneducated) thoughts. 🙂 An enjoyable series of posts, Rebecca! I too look forward to a reread of Hawthorne and will be contemplating your thoughts on Hester Prynne, when I do it. There’s no way my conceptions are solid on it or Transcendentalism at this point. It’s far too huge a topic.


    • Oh Jillian, you sound very educated as you talk about these things. I think I’m almost starting to confuse myself by thinking too much about this! But you make fair points about Hester and Dimmesdale in the Transcendentalist context.

      I’m very curious about Margaret Fuller now too. I want to see what she said about Women. I read a biography recently about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and I wonder how Margaret Fuller’s thoughts on women relate to that.

      And I’m glad you enjoyed the series of posts on the book. I just felt like I had SO MUCH to say. I wish others would join in and share what they think too…although I’m certain I’m beating a dead horse by now and really simply need to reread the book to get better understanding of things…

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