In combining realistic and imaginative elements to tell a moving and dreamlike story, The Scarlet Letter is an example of the romance genre. In fact, the novel’s original title was The Scarlet Letter: A Romance. While today we think of romances as love stories, and The Scarlet Letter does contain love scenes between its two protagonists, the term romance as Hawthorne uses it refers to a work of fiction that does not adhere strictly to reality. In the preface of the book, Hawthorne defines romance as taking place “somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.” The Scarlet Letter mixes the actual in the form of a historically accurate setting, believable characters, and realistic dialogue with elements of the imaginary, such as the giant “A” that lights up the night sky and the strange mark burned into Dimmesdale's chest. These otherworldly effects heighten the sense of drama in the story, and convey the feeling that while the exact story is probably not true, it conveys a deeper emotional truth that surpasses the specifics of the tale.
The Scarlet Letter also qualifies as a romance in that it incorporates fantastic elements while remaining emotionally and psychologically realistic. Hawthorne wrote in the preface of another of his romances, The House of the Seven Gables, that a romance “sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart.” In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne underscores the emotional veracity of his tale by qualifying the fantastical elements as possibly the result of the characters’ heightened emotional states. For example, when the A appears in the sky, he leaves open the possibility it is an optical illusion caused by Dimmesdale’s guilty conscience: “We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own eye and heart that the minister… beheld there the appearance of an immense letter.” Similarly, Hawthorne suggests some witnesses claimed there was no mark on Dimmesdale’s chest when he died on the scaffold. These acknowledgments that characters’ emotions influence their interpretation of events bolsters the sense of psychological accuracy in the novel.
The Scarlet Letter is also a historical novel, in that it was written in 1850 but set in the 1640s and contains real-life settings, characters, and actual historical events. In setting his story in 17th century Boston, Hawthorne explores the Puritanical foundation of our country, and uses the period’s strict laws and repressive beliefs to ask enduring questions about the nature of sin and guilt. Several characters from the book are based on actual historical figures such as Governor Bellingham, Mistress Higgins, and the character of the narrator himself, whose life story closely follows Hawthorne’s own biography. Hester’s punishment for adultery in the form of a scarlet letter A affixed to her dress echoes the true instance of a woman named Mary Batcheller, who in 1651 was sentenced to have the letter A branded into her flesh after she was found guilty of an extramarital affair. (In The Scarlet Letter, one of the townswomen suggests Hester’s punishment is too lenient, and she should have had “the brand of a hot iron” on her forehead.) By the end of the 17th century, women convicted of adultery had to wear the letter A sewn into their clothes.
Hawthorne uses his historical setting to suggest that many of the beliefs and customs of his characters are the result of the times they’re living in, and that society is continually moving between repressive and permissive modes. He compares the dour Puritanical community in Boston both to the “sunny richness” of Old World Europe, where Hester was born, and to the generations to follow, which, he writes “wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it” – a reference to the Salem witch trials that would take place fifty years later. The character of Miss Hibbins, who freely boasts of consorting with the Black Man, or devil, in the book, is based on the real life figure Mary Hibbins, who was executed for witchcraft in 1652. The fact that the townspeople tolerate Miss Hibbins, and gradually soften their stance towards Hester, implies that their Puritanism is more forgiving and humanitarian than the version that will be practiced by the next generation. In setting his novel in the past, Hawthorne comments not only on the morals of a specific period, but contrasts them to both the past and the future.