Nathaniel Hawthorne was a prolific writer, weaving some of the best-known stories in American literature. While Hawthorne’s works tend to focus around the Puritan themes of sin, he was usually critical of Puritan ideals. Some of Hawthorne’s works (“Young Goodman Brown”, “The Minister’s Black Veil”, and The Scarlet Letter) have characters living life outside of their Puritan communities and can be classified as outsider narratives. Young Goodman Brown, Reverend Hooper, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Hester Prynne are all outsiders in their communities, but what makes the characters unique is that they chose to be outsiders.
The Scarlet Letter, perhaps Hawthorne’s most famous work, is also an excellent example of an outsider narrative: most major characters introduced in the book can be labeled as outsiders. The most obvious examples of outsiders in the book are Hester and Dimmesdale, though Dimmesdale’s isolation is subtler in the eyes of his community. Stromberg argues that Hawthorne uses these outsider figures as stand-ins for the Devil (275). While Hester and Dimmesdale are quite obviously outsiders, it seems odd to say that they are representative of the Devil since Chillingworth seems to transform into an unsavory character throughout the book. However, Stromberg does express the core reason why Hester and Dimmesdale can be considered outsiders in the eyes of the Puritan community:
The mark of the [Devil], which both Hester and Dimmesdale war in their different ways, is the sign of disassociation from community, the sin which they committed in violating the laws of their society, and which they commit again in the desire to make themselves happy at the expense of everyone around them. (275)
Happiness, a force that usually brings people together, drives Dimmesdale and Hester to the edge of the community figuratively and, for Hester, literally (Letter 95). However, as the quote above points out, this is a choice; Hester and Dimmesdale could have lived life according to their community’s ideals but they opted for a different life.
Thomas believes that it is important to analyze the relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale as a love story (186). Thomas states that Hawthorne works with the myth “…that America offers the hope for a radical break with the past and the promise of a new start” (186). But Hester, though she could have gallivanted off into a young American, decides that she wants to stay in Boston and Dimmesdale hides himself in a gloomy apartment overlooking the cemetery (Letter 93, 145). Thomas thinks that the love story is part of Hawthorne’s vision on the possibilities of life: while the two could have started a new life elsewhere, they instead clearly chose their outsider lifestyle to be close to each other (186). The community of Boston does not force Hester and Dimmesdale’s isolation upon them, they impose it upon themselves.
Chillingworth is another character in The Scarlet Letter that can illustrate self-imposed outsider...