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The literature of the American colonies was influenced by diverse aspects including religious, moral, and cultural. The religion was one of the most important and widespread matter that had influence not only on the belief of people and faith in God, but also on the literary tendencies. As the number and variety of authors of different religions and beliefs was enormous, the expression of their thoughts and opinions was enormous as well. Like Csabir (2001) describes the religious matter of Puritanism expressed in the American literature:
“Although in literary criticism the Puritans’ social, cultural and political concerns have always been associated with the way they thought of their relation to the world, it has not been pointed out as such that it is precisely the conceptual framework of the Puritan mind that forms the social, cultural and political contexts of the Puritan world” (p.195).
Thus the most brilliant way of influence on people minds and their perception of the world was expressed by religious aspects inserted into works of literature. The work of Csabir (2001) represents the way with the help of which we can make a conclusion concerning the way Puritans expressed their opinion about America in order to understand their world in a larger context (p.196).
The works of American literature of the 19th century are closely connected with the religious aspects of Christianity, and the expression of Christian beliefs is a widespread aspect of the literature on the whole. All actions of people were justified by the biblical sources and tried to parallel their own actions with deeds of people mentioned in Bible and other religious sources; “Puritans justified their movement to America predominantly on the basis of their religion” (Csabir, 2001, p.197). The sings of the similarity are obvious even for people who have little interest in religion and Bible:
“The shared abstract structure is basically the frame of a journey. There is a departure point; path, destination and movement, there are travelers, impediments and adversaries hindering the journey…” (Csabir, 2001, p.204).
Thereby not only theological aspect is present in the works of American literature of the 19th century; the literary sources reveal biblical connections of the present and past actions of different people.
After having a short excursus into the aspects of Puritanism in literature, I find it necessary to analyze two certain works from the point of view of religion, theological influence and use, reference to biblical and Christian teachings. The novels influenced by theological concepts are “The Scarlet Letter” written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.
The novel “Scarlet Letter” represents a purely religious look on the problem of sin, moral values, social relations, and personal judgements. It tells the story of Hester Prynne; her sin; her suffering; her struggle for life, daughter and absolution of her mistakes; justification by faith and good works. This story does not only possess nature of Puritanism, it “presents a Puritan view of morality, practised in a constructive New England community which Hawthorne compares to the one where he dwelt and developed” (Taylor, 2005, p.135). The themes revealed in the novel are not only concern of the author’s contemporaries; they also touch upon the problems of modern people.
One of the most vividly described problems of the novel is the representation of a woman. From the point of view of religion, any religious belief, women are believed to be not only mothers of children, sisters of charity, wives to noble men. Women from religious point of view are the embodiment of sin, something vicious and wanton. Thereby the main character of the novel Hester Prynne appears to be the vehicle of sin, as she did not only commit a sin, but also involved a priest in her filthy and depraved action. She became the embodiment of sin for inhabitants of the Puritan community.
The novel reveals the problem of guilt and innocence, as it tells the readers about all hardships that have fallen to the lot of such fragile woman as Hester Prynne. I believe that she is not guilty towards society that accuses her; she is not guilty towards God, because God forgives us all our transgressions. Hester is guilty towards herself, because she has to bring up her daughter without father. She is a single woman, but she tries to resist all those accusations as if she was a brave man, a courageous soldier in the struggle with destiny. She is very feminine and fragile, but she tries to withstand all unfair judgments made by people of the community in the name of love that used to burn in her heart and the heart of priest Dimmesdale, and in the name of her little daughter.
The main character of the novel is accused of committing adultery; it is considered to be a sin from the point of view of the Puritan church, society and moral principles. But this action cannot be considered criminal from the point of view of the common sense, as she was a young girl when she was forced to marry Chillingworth, an old scientist who could neither make her happy, nor could become a father of her child. She is to be justified from the point of view of the precious gift of motherhood. She expresses her own will when choosing not to betray her child’s father, her accomplice in the committing of the sin.
The novel represents the importance and value of the patriarchal power in the society of Puritan people whose actions are under control of the Puritan church, clergymen and the basic principles of life stated in Bible. Thus Hester Prynne appears to be not only the victim of religion, but the victim of the patriarchal power. Finally there comes Hester’s re-adoption of the letter as the signal of conformity to puritanical values. The novel is influenced by the religion and uses it to accuse, punish and in the end to justify the woman.
The next piece of American literature of the 19th century influenced by theological concepts is the novel “Huckleberry Finn” written by a great author Mark Twain. From the first sight the novel does not seem to be influenced by any religious belief or tendency, but during further examination it becomes apparent that there is a great number of things that are of certain value from the point of view of religious representation of the text.
The novel tells the readers a story of a young boy who is abandoned by his cruel father. After that Huck lives with Widow Douglas who tries to teach him all the things a boy of his age has to know. The widow’s sister helps him to learn some manner and norms of behavior, and religion. Huckleberry appears to be a clever boy, whose quickness of wit and gift of invention makes neighbors beware of him and not let their children play with Huck.
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The adventures of this young traveler help him to find friends and to learn how to become a good judge of men’s character. He makes friends with Tom Sawyer and Jim, his teacher’s black slave. He tries to be on his own but at the same time does not allow himself to leave his friend in trouble. Thus there appears Huck’s concept of sin. He believes in story told by Jim, that Miss Watson wants to separate him from his family by selling him. After that Huck and Jim travel together enjoying the river adventures.
Huckleberry Finn seems to be a naïve boy as he believes everything he is told, but then he reveals a certain gift of sagacity when he pretends to believe two frauds, meanwhile, he is aware of their plans and filthy nature. He seems to believe in fate, and that everything happens as it supposes to happen. He expresses his free will when trying to punish those small-time filchers. He is not forced to act as he does, he makes his decisions to speak or act in this or that way, that is why he does not seem to commit any sin.
The novel “Huckleberry Finn” is influenced by theological concept of moral values and norms of behavior. From this very point of view the main character can be considered a sinner, as he expresses no ardor in learning religion; he makes worry people who care about him and his future. He is ignorant of Jim’s real reasons for joining him in the adventure and of the fact that Miss Watson released Jim in her free will. The boy does not commit sin by setting a slave free, he just confuses social norms with religious aspects of freedom for all people.
The novels are very similar from the point of view of expression Puritan moral values and norms. Thus Hester, the main character of the novel “The Scarlet Letter” is a very devout person, though she commits the sin of adultery with the priest, she expresses her real penance in order to earn God’s forgiveness. In the case with Huckleberry Finn, the main character of the novel with the same name, he seems not likely to repent his sins or immoral action.
Thus the novels represent the period of American literature of the 19th century influenced by theological concepts. This period is characterized by involving the experience of different Christian and biblical teachings into the literary works. Puritanism was very important for religious people of that time and made the characters of novels very adherent to theological principles of their communities. The novels describe the problems of representation of a woman; Hester’s becoming conform to the Puritan norms of femininity and true womanhood; the problem of guilt and innocence; patriarchal power; belief in fate and free will; reference to Christian and biblical teachings.
The American literature of the 19th century gives the readers a certain representation of customs, traditions, lifestyle and norms of Puritan society. Thus religion was one of the basic themes of that period, experienced the use and influence of theological concepts. This period of American literature can be considered one of the most religious.
The American literature of the 19th century is likely to be influenced by the religious aspects, suchlike Puritanism. Thus the main characters of the novels, I have analyzed, are the representatives of the same period and the images give the full representation of the literature influenced by theological aspects.
Hester lets people accuse her and oppress her. She is very passive in the struggle against people’s oppression; while Huck does not let anyone abuse or oppress him; and when his father tries to beat him, he escapes in search for better living conditions; whereas Hester obediently suffers all possible oppressions and humiliation.
In both novels there are expressions of different social and religious norms. And the characters of novels are to pass the test of life, a certain challenge on the way to better life and understanding.
Csabi, S. (2001) The concept of America in the Puritan mind. Language and Literature, 10; 195-14.
Hawthorne, N. (2009) The Scarlet Letter. USA, Sam Torode.
Taylor, O. G. (2005) Cultural Confessions: Penance and Penitence in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, 58, 135-18.
Twain, M. (2002) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York, Signet Classic.