Romanticism and realism are two very encompassing classifications of literature. Romanticism deals with idealistic views of the world, seen through symbolism and is often set in exotic locales. On the other hand realism has a very strict emphasis on morality and it’s place in society. Realism emphasizes the idea of character development being the most important factor while romanticism emphasizes the plot and the story. That being said, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter uses ideas from both romanticism and realism.
The Scarlet Letter can be classified as Romanticism in several different aspects. First off the locale of The Scarlett Letter could very well be considered exotic. The small town is a speck of what seems to be idyllic land, in the midst of what the reader learns is an immoral forest and a world beyond that is even worse. While the setting itself seems benign the effects the surrounding area have on the town and it’s people make the location of the story very important. Romanticism also has a very heavy emphasis on symbolism, the letter itself being the most obvious. The letter, “A”, is a symbol of several things throughout the novel, the most apparent being that of adultery, since the letter is fond on both Hester’s clothes and Dimmsdale’s chest. However, the letter can also be interpreted as having several other meanings such as “alone” or “apostle” or as the townspeople decipher it when it appears in the sky “angel.”
A major aspect of realism is the idea of morality and how it’s interpreted. The issue of morals is at the forefront throughout the entire story. For example, Hester is accused, and admits to, adultery. This is how the reader is introduced to Hester and when Chillingworth, her husband who has been cheated on, is introduced it becomes evident that Hester is the one who evokes sympathy and emotions in the reader while Chillingworth is the one who is interpreted as the villain. It seems that the reader should be compassionate towards Chillingworth and have disdain for Hester, it is reversed and that is a very good example of how the issues of morality in realism are totally subjective.
However, the classification of romanticism is most heavily determined by the elements of the supernatural in the novel. While realism emphasizes elements based in reality romanticism has a strong emphasis in magic and supernatural occurrences. This can be seen throughout the novel, from the subtle to the very obvious. For example, it is hinted at several times in the start of the novel that Pearl may hold some sort of supernatural ability. For example, the text says that Pearl “seemed rather an airy sprite” (Hawthrone pg. 63).Also, the letter itself appears in supernatural contexts throughout the story. From its first appearance as an embroidery it is hinted that the letter itself is special. As the story progresses we see the supernaturalism of the letter grow, first appearing in the sky above the town and finally on Dimmsdale chest.
Nathaniel Hawthrone’s the Scarlet Letter has element s of both romanticism and realism. However, it becomes quite evident that the supernatural occurrences in the story are a contributing factor to the story’s classification as a romantic piece of literature.