My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What is The Scarlet Letter about? Generations of confused American students want to know!
This short 1850 historical novel, written by a middle-aged and modestly successful short story writer and lately deposed customs inspector, tells a tale of crime and punishment in Puritan Boston. Its heroine, Hester Prynne, has committed adultery before the story begins; it opens with her exposure, along with her illegitimate baby, Pearl, on the town pillory. There she is spied by her husband, lately arrived in America after having sent her on ahead from Europe years before. She vows to him and to the community to keep her paramour’s identity a secret, even as her husband disguises himself as a doctor and enters the life of the colony under the name Roger Chillingworth. Meanwhile, the settlement’s beloved minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, a sensitive and nervous young man, declines in health and requires the new physician’s aid. Over the course of the narrative, seven years pass, during which Dimmesdale declines under Chillingworth’s watchful eye, the branded Hester remains alienated from the community that has banished her from its sympathies, and her child Pearl grows to be a lawless imp. Two more scenes on the pillory—one in the middle of the book, one at the end—provide the novel with its structure, but a minimum of external action occurs: all the action that interests Hawthorne takes place inside his four main characters’ inner lives.
Hawthorne did not consider himself a writer of novels. For him, the novel as a genre was synonymous with what we would call realism—the fictional treatment of socially typical characters in commonplace settings. Hawthorne, on the other hand, wrote romance; this genre, by contrast with realism, presents a heightened and perhaps even fantastical version of reality. In his Preface to The Scarlet Letter, he describes the tone and content of the romance by likening it to an accustomed setting seen in a new and uncanny light:
Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly—making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility—is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests.
Accordingly, The Scarlet Letter focuses on a very limited set of psychologically and morally emblematic characters who are not quite socially typical; the narrative is ever verging on the fantastical, with hints of witches, magic, rendezvous with the devil, and demonic possession, though the diffident narrator, posing as a historical chronicler, disowns his own tale’s imaginative touches by attributing all instances of fantasy to the credulity and superstition of the Puritan community. This element of the half-ironic semi-fantastic, deployed as an anti-realist aesthetic and also as a cultural satire directed both at the modern lack and the premodern excess of imagination, will remind contemporary readers of magical realism.
Combine Hawthorne’s irrealist aesthetics and his emphasis on psychology and symbolism over action with his dense and intricate prose style, its hypotactic sentences modeled on the great English essayists as well as on his most distinguished American precursor, Washington Irving, and you have a recipe for readerly bewilderment. Hawthorne often describes his characters as wandering in a maze or a “moral wilderness,” but the same might be said of his readers. In what follows, I will attempt to cut a path through the wilds of The Scarlet Letter. The first thing to understand about the book is that we are in part meant not to understand it.
1. A Is for Ambiguity
The titular letter is A. Hester Prynne, living in the Puritan settlement at Boston in the 1640s, is condemned to wear this A in token of a crime she has committed. Hawthorne’s loquacious but evasive narrator nowhere tells us the word this letter signifies. We must determine it for ourselves. Over the course of the narrative, the letter A is reinterpreted by the Puritan community; when it appears in the sky upon the death of Governor John Winthrop, they take it to mean angel; when Hester proves herself a sedulous and charitable citizen, they say that it means able. It is obvious enough that A is for adultery or adulteress—that Hester Prynne has arrived in Boston from the enclave of British Puritans in Amsterdam without her husband, and that she has borne a child out of wedlock with a man she will not name. As a punishment for this transgression, she is condemned to bear the sign of her sin on her bosom. But Hawthorne’s refusal to supply the word that would explain the letter alerts readers that they will have to work at interpretation, and that, like the Puritans, they will have to be prepared to treat letters, and perhaps words and sentences too, as open-ended, ambiguous symbols.
2. A Is for Allegory
Symbolism, though, was not the Puritan hermeneutic. They were allegorists instead. The allegorist understands a phenomenon as corresponding directly to a higher and preestablished spiritual significance. Hence the punishment they visit on Hester: a reduction of her person and her personality to one fact about herself. When she visits the governor’s mansion and sees there the suit of armor in which fought a war of near-extermination against the Pequods, she beholds herself in the distorting mirror of Puritan power, obliterated by the allegorical meaning they have assigned her:
[S]he saw that, owing to the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. In truth, she seemed absolutely hidden behind it.
Hester Prynne’s husband enters the novel at its beginning; an aged scholar, he disguises himself as Roger Chillingworth—it is a sign of Hawthorne’s dry satire on allegory that his villain should assume so explicitly villainous a name—and vows revenge on the man who has sexually usurped him. He has been living among the Indians for a year—he first appears “clad in a strange disarray of civilized and savage costume”—and has learned their medicine, which he adds to his own store of knowledge. He has studied alchemy and speaks a magical language of “sympathy”—alluding to the occult principle that “like calls to like”—and he treats the community’s young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, with the herbs he gathers at the border of the settlement.
In short, Chillingworth, whatever he was in Europe, is not a Puritan in America; nor is he really even a modern scientist. He is instead a magus. Yet he, the novel’s villain, also inveterately allegorizes, for what is the magician’s maxim, “As above, so below,” but an allegorical principle? That his own exterior deformity signifies his inner evil is a regrettable lapse into dehumanizing cliche on Hawthorne’s part, but it may also be read as a parodic judgment on Chillingworth’s own philosophy that externals betoken essences. Chillingworth and the Puritan elders seem to represent opposing principles—magic and religion—but they meet on one point: the imposed limitation of meaning. But if meaning is open to thought and discussion, then allegory, whether Christian or occult, fails. Meaning can never be one.
3. A Is for Antinomian
How open is meaning, however? Hawthorne posits religion and magic as balanced extremes, equally distorting the human into grotesque shapes in service to allegory. Perhaps he favors an escape into anarchy from these excessively authoritative ideologies. The romance’s first chapter, describing a wild rose bush by the door of the prison that Hester exits, ends with an invocation of an anarchist:
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.
The real-life Hutchinson was an antinomian heretic, expelled by the Puritans: she believed that her salvation was predestined and that therefore she was without obligation to earthly order or community. Hester is akin to Hutchinson in that, exiled from the community, she too begins to reason that she has no need of law: “The world’s law was no law for her mind.” Like the political and intellectual revolutionaries of Europe, Hester, isolated in her cottage on the edge of the settlement, overturns tradition, custom, and religion inside her own mind. Not only akin to the Puritan dissident Hutchinson, she is also like Hawthorne’s contemporary and acquaintance, the pioneering feminist Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, in her increasing conviction that the entire western ideology of gender must be razed to the ground and built anew:
As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down and built up anew. Then the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position. Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change, in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated.
Does the novel endorse its heroine’s nascent radicalism? Hardly: “The scarlet letter had not done its office,” the narrator comments in a decisive one-sentence paragraph. Meant to rehabilitate the transgressor and bring her into the community, Hester’s excessively stern and cruel punishment has only made her into a rebel. As with religion and magic, Hawthorne shows authoritarianism (represented by the Puritans) and radicalism (represented by Ann Hutchinson’s antinomianism and Margaret Fuller’s feminism) to be opposite extremes—both to be avoided in a quest for personal and communal balance.
Hester is saved from a futile rebellion by Pearl—being a mother ties her inextricably to what Hawthorne, in common with many other nineteenth-century writers and thinkers (e.g., Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Maria Child, Charles Dickens, et al.), saw as the domestic virtues of hearth and heart. Maternity roots her in sentiment so that she does not spin off into the excess of theoretic violence typified by European revolutionaries.
Pearl herself, though, is described as an elf-child. Raised in isolation, she too is a budding antinomian, associated throughout the novel with all that Puritanism rejects: nature and the devil. In one bravura passage, Hawthorne, again playfully disavowing his own magic, describes Pearl in the forest:
The small denizens of the wilderness hardly took pains to move out of her path. A partridge, indeed, with a brood of ten behind her, ran forward threateningly, but soon repented of her fierceness, and clucked to her young ones not to be afraid. A pigeon, alone on a low branch, allowed Pearl to come beneath, and uttered a sound as much of greeting as alarm. A squirrel, from the lofty depths of his domestic tree, chattered either in anger or merriment—for the squirrel is such a choleric and humorous little personage, that it is hard to distinguish between his moods—so he chattered at the child, and flung down a nut upon her head. It was a last year’s nut, and already gnawed by his sharp tooth. A fox, startled from his sleep by her light footstep on the leaves, looked inquisitively at Pearl, as doubting whether it were better to steal off, or renew his nap on the same spot. A wolf, it is said—but here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable—came up and smelt of Pearl’s robe, and offered his savage head to be patted by her hand. The truth seems to be, however, that the mother-forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognised a kindred wilderness in the human child.
The playfulness of this paragraph, its odd combination of tongue-in-cheek asides with arresting lyricism, suggest that the opposition of nature/magic to society/religion is not tenable—not realistic. Pearl’s fate intimates Hawthorne’s values: she is redeemed at the novel’s conclusion when her father—Dimmesdale—reveals himself as such on the town pillory, abandoning his ethereal and ineffectual hypocrisy for honesty. Kissing him sympathetically, she leaves behind mere rebellion and fantasy and enters the complex sphere of human maturity:
A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.
In an epilogue, the narrator informs us that Pearl goes to Europe with Hester after the main events of the novel, and that she remains there, a married woman, for the rest of her life; a Henry James heroine ahead of her time, she grows to maturity when she leaves the moral simplicities of good-vs.-evil America behind.
4. A Is for America
Hester, for her part, returns to Boston and freely assumes the burden of the scarlet letter: she accepts the fate her actions have designated for her and abandons her earlier radicalism; it is not within her power, perhaps it is not in the power of any individual, burdened with sin and sorrow as we all are, to change the world:
[A]t some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness. Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognised the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow. The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful, and wise; moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy…
Such ambivalence on the part of author and heroine—the world must be reformed; it is within no one’s power to reform it—is the essence of Hawthorne’s much-despised political position. He agrees with the liberal that change is needed; he agrees with the conservative that willful change will prove destructive. He compares the Puritan pillory to the Jacobin guillotine, seeing all terrorism and totalitarianism as one. In favor of feminism’s ultimate goals, he was also against any real feminism; against slavery as immoral, he also opposed abolitionism as fanatical. It is not only the contemporary leftist critic but even God Himself who would cast such a lukewarm sensibility out of His mouth. I myself learned to read Hawthorne’s political elusiveness from reading the late Sacvan Bercovitch, who with great scholarly dignity despised it. Even so, Hawthorne’s advocacy of balance has this to recommend it: in holding ever open the meaning of A (i.e., America) as against the various final definitions promised by Puritanical reactionaries and Gallic revolutionaries alike, Hawthorne allows us to hope that change does not have to mean apocalypse, that thought and discussion, rather than violence, may be the solid ground of reform. To disparage out of hand Hawthorne’s caution as mere knock-kneed and self-serving bourgeois weakness is perhaps also to be too credulous about the benefits of destruction.
5. A Is for Art
The novel’s second sentence announces its anti-utopian politics, which some would argue is the reason for its Cold War prominence in the canon of American schoolbooks:
The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.
But Hawthorne was anxious that in his distance from his utopian forebears he had become a nullity; in the Preface to The Scarlet Letter, he writes:
No aim that I have ever cherished would [the Puritans] recognise as laudable; no success of mine—if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been brightened by success—would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively disgraceful. “What is he?” murmurs one grey shadow of my forefathers to the other. “A writer of story books! What kind of business in life—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” Such are the compliments bandied between my great grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.
What is the social worth of stories, mere symbolic, open-ended, and anti-allegorical fictions? What aspect of the utopian legacy do they show in the present? Let us return to the idea that our job as readers is to interpret the letter A Hester is forced to wear on her bosom. In the novel, we are told, she has sewn it herself, “so fantastically embroidered and illuminated,” just as Hawthorne has embroidered and illuminated the narrative that contains it. All four of our main characters are akin to Hawthorne, are in some sense authors: not only Hester at her needle, but Dimmesdale in his preaching, and Chillingworth in his psychological investigations; even Pearl in her lonely play is a budding novelist: “Her one baby-voice served a multitude of imaginary personages, old and young, to talk withal.”
A, finally, is for art. An imaginative object with many possible meanings, embroidered with ironies and fantasies and complexities, a work of art gives us a spectacle to behold—more humane than the pilloried malefactor—and, above all, to interpret and re-interpret. The work’s form provides the boundaries to our speculation, to prevent us from succumbing to wild radicalism, while its many possible significations goads us likewise out of a complacent conservatism. If this novel perplexes you, it is meant to. Your attempt to understand is already an understanding; to seek an exit from the moral wilderness is to have exited it already. The only utopia allowed us, art in its many-sidedness offers what the title of chapter XIII promises of Hester: “another view” of ourselves and others, one more reasonable, sympathetic, and beautiful than those of our country’s clashing, discordant reactionary and revolutionary legacies.
N.B. While my reading of the novel is informed overall, as noted, by Sacvan Bercovitch, my A Is for… structure is gratefully borrowed from an undergraduate Hawthorne lecture by Michael West I attended some fifteen years ago. See also chapter 9 of his Transcendental Wordplay.
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