Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is critically acclaimed for the portrayal of New England Puritans in his fiction. The grim picture of the rigid and forbidding Puritan community in his works reflects the widespread attitude towards Puritans, yet Professor Deborah L. Madsen, in her paper, “Hawthorne’s Puritans: From Fact to Fiction” claims that this monolithic portrayal of Puritanism results in a ‘powerful misrepresentation of the actual puritans [and] of the dynamics of Puritan theology’ (Madsen 1999, p 510) . The present response is a critical review of Madsen’s paper.
The title of the paper is appropriate. While ‘Hawthorne’s Puritans’ implies a difference between actual Puritans and those conceptualized by Hawthorne, ‘From Fact to Fiction’ extends this idea by suggesting the disparity between history/fact and Hawthorne’s fiction.
Madsen’s study argues that Hawthorne attempts to defend his puritan ancestors by creating a monolithic Puritanism, in which the conduct of all authoritarian puritans resembles that of his own ancestors such as John and William Hathorne. The ultimate goal of Hawthorne, according to Madsen, is to excuse ‘the sins of his fathers by showing that they were incapable of acting otherwise’ (Madsen, 1999, p. 510).
What Madsen means by ‘a monolithic Puritanism’ is one that here allows ‘only one interpretation of itself and its significance’ (Madsen, 1999, p.516). In other words, it is an essentialist and stereotypical representation that does not take into account the complexities and the changeability of puritan behavior in an attempt to portray its underlying and unchanging essence. The outcome is a fixed and commonly-held image of puritans as a ‘grim and gloomy race, impatient with human weakness and merciless towards transgressors’ (Madsen 1999, p. 509) which ignores the complexity of actual Puritan culture and theology. However, it may also be argued that a degree of essentialism and stereotyping is inevitable in inevitable in any literary representation that seeks to represent socio-political or cultural issues.
According to Madsen, The Scarlet Letter (1850) is Hawthorne’s best-known representation of the Puritans. The so called widespread attitude towards the Puritans is established at the very beginning of the novel. The opening chapter links images of darkness, gloom and oppression with the Puritan community and in Chapter 2, a group of women complains that the punishment given could have been more severe to set an example for other women in the town: “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die; Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book…” (TSL, p. 47). Their detestation of Hester brings about the quintessence of the Puritan consciousness, the strong moral foundation of its law and justice is resistance to difference or change. Their views illustrate their moral superiority over Hester, and interestingly, they are presented to be even harsher than...