Sin and salvation: Nathaniel Hawthorne's typology of evil

Date of Completion

January 2006


Religion, General|Literature, American




Nathaniel Hawthorne was profoundly influenced by Puritan thought and Puritan typology. He was also deeply influenced by his family history, especially the persecutorial actions of his ancestors William and John Hawthorne, who hanged witches, massacred Indians, and whipped religious dissidents. The combination of these influences led to a preoccupation with sin and the story of the Fall. ^ American Puritan theologians developed an unorthodox version of Biblical typology that by the nineteenth century allowed for a secularization of typology. Hawthorne did not share the millennialism of his Puritan ancestors, but he often created characters and situations that fulfilled Biblically prefigured types derived from the story of the Fall. Hawthorne used this approach in his romances to explore the innate presence of sin in various particular instances in history. ^ The formula involves two sets of characters, one patterned on Adam, Eve, and Satan, and another that Hawthorne referred to as the New Adam and Eve. The plots initiate these characters into evil. The settings combine Biblical and Gothic elements that are reinforced by Gothic symbols. Typological allusions and typological layering, in which fictional characters are portrayed as representatives of recurrent types found throughout the Bible, myth, and history, require readers to perform a hermeneutical exercise of interpretation in order to gain insight into the nature of sin.^ The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance, all published within a three year period, explore the nature of sin within a narrow Puritan tradition and among Puritanism's nineteenth-century descendants. The Scarlet Letter explores and affirms many of the basic tenets of Puritan belief. The House of the Seven Gables offers a sentimental and domestic answer to the challenges of these beliefs. The Blithedale Romance critiques nineteenth-century reform movements and their failure to successfully fulfill the ideals of the Puritan tradition. Published eight years later than these three works, The Marble Faun offers a comprehensive history of sin from the Classical era onward to the nineteenth century. Taken together, these romances can be understood as experiments in Hawthorne's evolving typological formula. ^