When we place Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) in the context of the literary debates of the 1840s and 1850s, it becomes apparent that the novel inhabits a conventional moral position that affiliates it with, rather than distinguishes it from, the best-selling domestic novels of the era. The Scarlet Letter shares a common moral framework and pattern of imagery with many works by nineteenth-century female novelists. Like these writers, Hawthorne uses his characters to emphasize the destructive consequences of allowing personal desire to overrule community law. The portrayals of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne critique the traits of the eighteenth-century seduced heroine and privilege the qualities of the nineteenth-century protagonist of domestic fiction. Hawthorne's hapless minister is depicted in the physically drooping, ethically weak image of the eighteenth-century heroine; while his "fallen woman" possesses the strength, selflessness, and positive influence attributed to the nineteenth-century protagonist. This powerful iconography allows Hawthorne to reinforce the social values most often advocated in the public discourse about fiction, while still avoiding the explicit didactic remarks that critics condemned. The Scarlet Letter's "moral" closely links it to the conservative worldview of antebellum middle-class culture and popular fiction.
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