There are reasons to call The Scarlet Letter the first modern novel. Certainly it has ancestors in the classic English gothic novel, in the popular sentimental novel, and in the divergent realism of Defoe and Fielding. Even more, it is a descendant of the historical romance of Walter Scott. But the heritage of these British models is transformed in the American offspring of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter is a modern novel in 1) its unity of plot, characterization, space, time, tone, and imagery; 2) its conscious use of symbolism; and 3) its serious moral-psychological theme.
The unity of The Scarlet Letter derives from the fact that Hawthorne was a short story writer and that he found an editor who realized that he had material for a self-sustaining book. Before 1850, Hawthorne had achieved a respectable reputation as a writer of short fiction. In fact, he made the short story an art form. The Scarlet Letter began as an extended short story, further expanded by editor James T. Fields's encouragement to a little over 250 uncrowded pages, not counting the 54-page introduction on the Salem, Massachusetts, Custom House (where Hawthorne worked as surveyor from 1846 to 1849). It was far shorter than the two- or three-volume English novels of the time. There was none of their rambling loquaciousness, designed to pass the hours of the bored upper-middle-class women and men who read novels both in England and America.
But Hawthorne's brevity is loaded. Though he could be chatty and timely in his essayistic style—as in the introductory "The Custom-House"—he exhibits the height of concentration in The Scarlet Letter. While Hawthorne followed Scott in style and in the romantic use of history, there are, in The Scarlet Letter, no subplots and no intrigues that require complicated explanations at the end. In fact, the physical action in the novel is minimal, most of it taking place before the novel begins. The opening and closing scenes at the scaffold are the only outwardly dramatic ones. Otherwise, the action proceeds in the minds and the words of the characters—with sufficient authorial narration and comment to direct the reader.
There are only four significant characters: Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, and little Pearl. They are simplified types—indeed, archetypes—of American character. But they develop morally and psychologically through the novel, and are not, as they would be in a short story, transformed by a single event.
Each episode of The Scarlet Letter is set concretely and dramatically. The scenes move almost imperceptibly from chapter to chapter, and they are all within walking distance of the prison, the scaffold, the market-place, and the meeting-house in the early town of Boston between 1645 and 1653. References to the wide world, before and after the main action of the plot, are enough to suggest that Hester—and Hawthorne—transcend the place and time.
The whole drama is done in black and red, but with the quite important green and partly sunny Chapters XIV to XIX, where Hester confronts each of the other characters in the natural settings of the seaside and the forest. Except for that pivotal interlude, the final tone of the novel is tragically bleak: "so somber is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:—`ON A FIELD SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES.'"
Hawthorne's use of symbolism is simplistic on the one hand, yet infinitely complex. The letter A stands for adultery, the violation of the Seventh Commandment in the code of Puritan New England. But the letter A had more significance for Hawthorne and for subsequent readers. The letter A is the first letter of the alphabet. In the New England Primer, familiar to Hawthorne and to every schoolboy in New England since the 17th century, the letter was represented by the words: "In Adam's Fall/We sinned all"—with a woodcut of Adam and Eve on either side of a fruitful tree (of knowledge). We are all guilty, not of adultery, but of Adam's sin.
And the letter A can stand for more than adultery or Adam's fall. Hawthorne was not unaware of its implications, however much modern imagination may carry them to extremes. For example, A represents amour, art, ambiguity, allegory, America, and as far-fetched as these attributions appear, Hawthorne's open imagination would welcome them.
It is true that the letter A is overworked in the book, and the moral symbolism becomes wearisome. By the time the letter appears in the sky (or doesn't appear) in Chapter XII, we have had enough of it, and its appearance (or non-appearance) on Dimmesdale's naked breast in the penultimate chapter is more than enough. Hawthorne was working with something that had not been fully exploited, and he felt compelled to make it clear to his readers—whether Puritan prudes or devourers of sentimental love stories—that he was concerned with more than surface.
By the time the letter appears in the sky, Hawthorne has evolved what has been called his "ambiguity device." Did the letter appear in the sky or was it an apparition of those who chose to believe? Was Hester guilty of anything beyond the transgression of the parochial beliefs of her immediate environment? Was her "sin" Christian and human love? Was she the noble heroine of a love story ordained in Heaven? Such ideas would be shocking—and were shocking—to many 19th-century readers. Hawthorne left them as questions.
The first chapter of The Scarlet Letter, entitled "The Prison Door," portends the whole. In the three short paragraphs of this chapter Hawthorne establishes the place and time of his narrative, fixing it in historical fact as well as in folklore. He sets the social-psychological mood of the people, the men in "sad-colored garments" assembled before the prison. He makes it visually real with concrete detail: "the wooden jail ... already marked with weather-stains" and with "rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door." The prevailing color imagery of the novel is forecast in reference to the prison as "the black flower of civilized society," one of the "earliest practical necessities" in the settlement of a new colony. The black is in contrast with the implied, but unstated, red of the wild rose bush next to the prison door.
This rose bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed it,—or whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door,—we shall not take upon us to determine. Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than to pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.
That concluding paragraph of Chapter I states the symbolic intent of the author. Yet it is carefully ambiguous. The "sweet moral blossom" of The Scarlet Letter is that good grows out of evil. Hester's sin was a violation of contemporary social values. Recognizing this, she rose to a humble heroism.
Hawthorne did not say that she ascended to heavenly bliss, nor did he say that she was condemned to the fiery hell of Puritan damnation. He was too aware of his own human frailty to arrogate final judgment. He left it to his readers to recognize their own sinful humanity and their redeeming brotherhood—and sisterhood—with their fellow humans.