Historical Context in The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter is set in colonial Boston, and begins in June of 1642, with references to other Massachusetts Bay Colony towns such as Salem. It highlights the meaning and legacy of Puritan culture during that period, and questions the repressive nature of the culture.

The Custom-House 24
"making an investment in ink, paper, and steel-pens, had opened his long-disused writing-desk, and was again a literary man..."   (The Custom-House)

Here Hawthorne explains that although he got fired, and it was an embarrassing problem at the time, it was a actually good because it made him pursue his dream of being a writer. Ending this introductory essay with the sentiment of this dream is serendipitous because Hawthorne became an iconic American literary figure almost instantly after the release of The Scarlet Letter.

"My own head was the first that fell..."   (The Custom-House)

This is not meant to be taken literally. Hawthorne was fired when the Whig party came to power because he was a Democrat holding a job in a government office. It was the death of his job at the Custom-House, that enabled him to seriously pursue his desired career of being a writer.

"Chaucer..."   (The Custom-House)

The famous English poet Geoffrey Chaucer is best known for writing The Canterbury Tales. Hawthorne mentions Chaucer and Burns to make the point that the people he comes in contact with on a daily basis would not care, if they knew, if he was a good writer, not only because he wasn’t yet successful, but because they do not have refined literary taste.

"General Taylor to the Presidency..."   (The Custom-House)

Zachary Taylor was the 12th President of the United States and a member of the Whig Party. Hawthorne was a Democrat and would have been strongly opposed to Taylor being elected president.

"I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties..."   (The Custom-House)

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a descendant of John Hathorne, the only judge who sentenced people to death during the Salem witch trials that did not repent for the wrongful executions. Hawthorn was so distraught by this relation that he added the “w” to his last name to try and remove the association between him and his ancestor. Hawthorne alludes to this ancestor during this section of the essay.

"Burns..."   (The Custom-House)

Hawthorne had a deep admiration for the work of Scottish poet and songwriter Robert Burns. It is thought that his short story “Young Goodman Brown” was inspired by Burns’s poem “Tam O’Shanter.” Burns’s mention here can be read as a tribute from Hawthorne acknowledging Burns as one of his inspirations.

"Hillard's culture..."   (The Custom-House)

The American author and lawyer George Stillman Hillard rented rooms to Hawthorne, who had recently taken a job at the Custom-House. He was a Democrat who opposed slavery and founded the Five of Clubs, an informal social group. His political beliefs were influential in Hawthorne’s own decision to be a Democrat.

"it would be quite as reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged checkerboard..."   (The Custom-House)

Here the narrator explains why he has spent so much time away from Salem. Although this text is meant to be a fictional story/essay, there are many characteristics of the narrator that parallel the actual life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For example, they were both born in Salem and they both spent time working in the Custom-House. This essay can be read as a fictionalized account of Hawthorne’s three-year stint working as a Custom-House Officer.

"Salem..."   (The Custom-House)

Salem is a coastal town in Massachusetts, historically famous for the Salem witch trials. The witch trials began when a group of young girls claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. Between February 1692 and May 1693 more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft while 20 of them were executed, before the hysteria calmed down.

"Longfellow's..."   (The Custom-House)

The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was among the first to write about American history, landscape, and Native American themes in a changing land. Longfellow met Hawthorne when the they were young and they became lifelong friends. When Hawthorne died, Longfellow wrote him a tribute poem called “The Bells of Lynn.”

"Alcott..."   (The Custom-House)

The Transcendentalist educator Amos Bronson Alcott was influential in developing educational programs. He introduced fine arts, nature study, field trips, and physical education into his schools, and he abandoned traditional forms of physical punishment. He was a neighbor and longtime friend of Hawthorne’s, and served as pallbearer at his funeral.

"Thoreau..."   (The Custom-House)

The American poet Henry David Thoreau was a Transcendentalist who wrote a number of essays and other publications. He is most famous for Walden, an essayed account of the two years he spent living by Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Hawthorne criticized Thoreau for desiring to live a simple life in the face of civilization.

"Ellery Channing..."   (The Custom-House)

Ellery Channing was an American Unitarian leader during the first half of the 19th century. Unitarianism is a Christian denomination that accepts the moral teachings of Jesus but rejects the concept of the Holy Trinity, suggesting that God exists in one form. Channing was neighbors with Hawthorne at the Old Manse and they became good friends who discussed philosophy, nature, and religion.

"Emerson's..."   (The Custom-House)

The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was considered one of the founders of the American Transcendental movement. Transcendentalism is a philosophy that seeks to discover the nature of reality through spiritual intuition. Emerson left his career as a Unitarian minister to become a writer and public speaker. Hawthorne and Emerson were extremely close, so much so that Emerson was a pallbearer at Hawthorne’s funeral.

"Chippewa..."   (The Custom-House)

The Chippewa, or Objiwe, is an indigenous tribe in North America. The Objiwe allied with France because of a mutual trading alliance during the Seven Years’ War against the British. Then they adjusted to British colonial rule and allied with them against the United States in the War of 1812. This reference suggests the old age of General Miller, with this story being written in 1850.

"Ticonderoga..."   (The Custom-House)

Ticonderoga is a fort in northeast New York that was originally built by the French, seized by the British, and then seized again by the Americans during the Revolutionary War. This allusion suggests that the former inspector was a historical artifact, comically as old as Fort Ticonderoga.

"Boreas..."   (The Custom-House)

Boreas was a Greek god artistically depicted as strong man with winged feet who brought winter, controlled the north wind, and whose name means “North Wind” or “Devouring One.”

"Whigs..."   (The Custom-House)

The Whigs were members of the American political party in the 19th century. The party opposed the Democratic Party and promoted the protection of industry and limitation on the power of the executive branch.

"Old Manse..."   (The Custom-House)

A manse is a house meant for the minister of a presbyterian church. The Old Manse is a historic building in Concord, Massachusetts, originally built for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s father, Rev. William Emerson. It housed Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody for three years soon after their marriage.

"Quakers..."   (The Custom-House)

Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends, a sect of Christianity founded by George Fox in England during the late 17th century. Quakers strongly oppose violence and have no formal creeds, rites, or clergy.

"Puritanic..."   (The Custom-House)

The Puritans were a powerful religious and political force in the 16th century. They emerged when certain Protestants were not satisfied with Henry VIII’s Church of England. Those that segregated became known as Puritans because they wanted the church to return to its “purest” state. New England Puritans were descendants of the pilgrims who traveled to North America, seeking religious freedom. Puritans believed any deviation from biblical teachings would bring the wrath of God on the community, so governments made sins punishable offenses.

"Loco-foco..."   (The Custom-House)

The word "Loco-Foco" is an allusion to the defunct Locofoco Party that existed in the USA in the mid 19th century. It was an offshoot of the Democratic Party and was originally called the Equal Rights Party. They pushed for the rights of the common working man and passionately campaigned against monopolies.

"Custom-House..."   (The Custom-House)

In coastal New England towns, the Custom-House was the specific building that held the government offices that regulated maritime commerce. The people working in the Custom-House would be in charge of taxing imported goods as well as processing all of the various paperwork associated with all the town’s imports and exports.

"King Derby..."   (The Custom-House)

King Derby refers to a man named Elias Derby, who lived in the late eighteenth century. He was the son of the merchant who helped establish Salem as trade center, helping establish Salem as an important town in the Americas.

"Isaac Johnson's..."   (Chapter I)

Isaac Johnson was a British-born colonist who was one of the four who founded the first church in Charlestown. Although the story is fictitious, Hawthorne incorporates realism and historical facts to enhance the believability of the story. Hawthorne does this because he wants the story to be read as a sort of realistic lesson to teach people about the downfalls of an unforgiving society.

"Ann Hutchinson..."   (Chapter I)

Anne Hutchinson was born in England, but came to North America as a Puritan leader seeking religious freedom. There, she had a change of heart that saw the correspondence between church and state as a suffocating mechanism for human life. She campaigned for unpopular ideas including Native American rights, women’s rights, and the belief that human consciousness is more important in moral decision making than the word of the church. She was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and excommunicated for her unpopular beliefs.

"religion and law were almost identical..."   (Chapter II)

This is an important consideration for the context of the society where this story will take place. In the Puritan town of Boston, there are blurred lines between the town, church, and government. After facing persecution in England, many Puritans moved to North America to try and establish their own societies where they could practice their religion without the persecution of non-puritanical governments.

"Elizabethan ruff..."   (Chapter II)

Elizabethan is characteristic of the period of Queen Elizabeth's rule in England from 1558 to 1603. During her rule, Queen Elizabeth stressed the ending of religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants in England. Elizabethan ruff is the clothing fabric ruffle worn around the neck by both men and women, popular during this time in England and New England.

"farthingale..."   (Chapter II)

A “farthingale” is a hoop or circular pad of fabric worn around the hips and under skirts to give the garment a desired shape. The farthingale was a common piece of fashion until the second half of the 17th century and was worn mostly for court events and high society functions.

"gossips..."   (Chapter II)

In New England, “gossips” was actually the term for "female friends." By Hawthorne's time, the word "gossip" had grown to receive the negative connotation that remains today. The differences in meaning between the terms gossips and goodwives is a good representation of the difference between how they believe they act and what kind of people they actually are.

"forgetting that God sees him..."   (Chapter III)

Hester is publicly shamed in front of the townspeople as a punishment for breaking religious law, but here the “townsman” says the man who fathered Hester’s baby also receives punishment, even if unrevealed, because he can’t hide from God. This is a double standard indicative of the inequality that exists between man and women in this Boston community.

"sagamores..."   (Chapter IV)

This term refers to the man who was second in power to the chief of the Algonquian Native American tribe. This seems to be the “whiteman,” who caught Hester’s eye, and stood next to the “Indian” in the previous chapter.

"Black Man..."   (Chapter IV)

This euphemism for the devil was common amongst Puritans in the 17th century. Many believed the Black Man, or Satan, lived in the surrounding forests and held secret meetings with witches at night.

"and so would the next..."   (Chapter V)

Puritans believed that even though God can forgive anything, people are only permitted to forgive if they have witnessed a change in behavior. For Hester, this will mean living a quiet life and taking all the animosity against her with a degree of patience until she has shown that she lives a life of God.

"Luther..."   (Chapter VI)

Martin Luther was a German priest and an important figure in the Protestant Reformation. He was excommunicated for his differing views with the heads of the church, arguing that eternal salvation was granted by god and could not be purchased by indulgences, among other things. Historically, he is a symbol of a religious man who followed what he believed to be morally right, rather than listening blindly to the word of the church.

"the rod..."   (Chapter VI)

"The rod" was a wooden stick used to whip small children or inflict corporal punishment in some way. It was a Puritan norm to get young people to follow the rules, and seems like an ironic punishment to be used by strong believers in God.

"Reverend Mr. Blackstone..."   (Chapter VII)

This is a historical reference to William Blackstone (1595-1675), who is known as the first Christian to arrive in Boston. He was originally from England and came to North America on the Gorges expedition in 1623. He lived not far from where the Puritans landed in Charlestown in 1629, and invited them to settle on his land in Boston.

"Lord of Misrule..."   (Chapter VIII)

The “Lord of Misrule” was an officer appointed to oversee Christmas festivities in England approximately between the 14th and 17th centuries.

"apothecary..."   (Chapter IX)

An “apothecary” is someone who sells drugs and medicine to doctors and patients. In this context, the apothecary would distribute medicine to the “aged deacon,” who likely would not be knowledgeable enough in the medical field to order the correct supplies. Even though deacons were not educated medical practitioners, they were trusted with patients because of their perceived connection with God and his will.

"Was existence worth accepting, even to the happiest among them?..."   (Chapter XIII)

Hawthorne uses this part of the story to draw attention to the inequality between men and women. He appears to be exploring whether or not life is worth living in the face of this inequality, even for the happiest of women. Hester increasingly believes that it is not, so we understand that Hawthorne most likely believes a change should be made to encourage gender equality in society.

"scrofula..."   (Chapter XVI)

Scrofula is a disease (and form of tuberculosis) that is defined by swelling of one’s neck glands. It was a common disease among children during this time period.

"Spanish Main..."   (Chapter XX)

The Spanish Main was the coastline that outlines the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Under the control of the Spanish Empire, this was a major port of departure for ships going back and forth between the Americas and Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries.

"the blackest shade of Puritanism..."   (Chapter XXI)

Hawthorne uses this paragraph to explain why the Puritans had become so strict. We learn that Puritans were not always as severe as they are presented in this story. The generation after the earliest emigrants molded Puritan society into what has been expressed in this story. The strict nature of Puritan society gives the story a gloomy and unhopeful atmosphere.

"But, much to the disappointment of the crowd, this latter business was broken off by the interposition of the town beadle..."   (Chapter XXI)

Even though the townspeople had staged a fake sword match for the sake of enjoyment, the town-beadle cuts them off because he wouldn’t allow the seriousness of the space to be ruined. This illustrates again how constricting and gloomy it must have been to live under such strictly religious rule.

"Nathaniel Hawthorne..."   (Notes)

Hawthorne is often said to be "haunted" by the lack of tolerance, intensity, and even cruelty of his Puritan ancestors. The big irony is that the Puritans left England in order to flee religious oppression, and then they proceeded to become the most religiously oppressive people in American History. Hawthorne's works are often called "Anti-Transcendentalist" because they project a gloomy image of a world where evil is the dominant force.  Although Hawthorne was good friends with both Emerson and Thoreau, Hawthorne certainly believed in a different world view due to his inherited, Puritan guilt. In my opinion, no introduction to Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlet Letter, is complete without this note.