The Scarlet Letter & A Model of Christian Charity
Beneath the Surface
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...