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Title: An overview of The Scarlet Letter

  Novel, 1850

Author(s): Pearl James

  American Writer ( 1804 - 1864 )

Publication Details: an Essay for Exploring Novels. Gale, 1998.

Source: Literature Resource Center. Gale, Cengage Learning. From Literature Resource Center.

Document Type: Work overview, Critical essay

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Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

[In the following essay, James, a doctoral candidate at Yale University, explores the historical concerns that shaped The Scarlet Letter and how Hester Prynne's emblem serves as several types of imagery.]

Nathaniel Hawthorne envisioned The Scarlet Letter as a short story to be published in a collection, but it outgrew that purpose. Most critics accept Hawthorne's definition of it as a “romance,” rather than as a novel. It usually appears with an introductory autobiographical essay, “The Custom House,” in which Hawthorne describes working in his ancestral village, Salem, Massachusetts, as a customs officer. Hawthorne describes coming across certain documents in the customs house that provide him with the basis for The Scarlet Letter. But this essay fictionalizes the origins of the story in that it offers “proofs of the authenticity of a narrative therein contained.” Following other literary examples in early American literature, like Washington Irving's History of New York, Hawthorne masks his literary invention by making it seem “historical.” He calls his motivation for writing the essay “a desire to put [himself] in [his] true position as editor, or very little more.” This editorial positioning indicates his interest in creating a aura of “authenticity” and historical importance for his narrative.

Not surprisingly, therefore, much criticism of The Scarlet Letter focuses on its relation to history. Many critics have investigated the Puritan laws governing adultery and searched for an historical Hester Prynne. Other critics have used clues within the tale to specify its context. For example, when Dimmesdale climbs on the scaffold at midnight, Hester and Pearl have been watching at the governor's deathbed. Charles Ryskamp associates this with the death of Governor Winthrop on March 26, 1649, and notices that celestial disturbances were actually recorded after his death. Similarly, Election Day, on which Dimmesdale's sermon commemorates the inauguration of a new Governor, can be located historically on May 2, 1649. To notice these dates, however, is to notice that Hawthorne takes liberties with them. (“The Minister's Vigil” chapter takes place in “early May,” not March, and so on.) His role in composing The Scarlet Letter far exceeds that of a mere “editor.” The tale is an invention, and Hawthorne's use of disparate historical details should be understood not only as significant, but also as symbolic.

Hawthorne's interest in the history of the colonies and his Puritan ancestors was deep and genuine, but complicated. He was interested in not just documenting, but creating an “authentic” past. In “The Custom House” and elsewhere in his writing, Hawthorne imagines an ancestral guilt that he inherits; he takes “shame upon [himself] for their sakes.” (One of his ancestors, John Hathorne, ruled for executions during the Salem witch trials.) At still another level, Hawthorne invites the reader to relate The Scarlet Letter to contemporary politics of the 1840s. “The past is not dead”— it lives on in the custom house, and other contemporary political institutions. He writes The Scarlet Letter after having lost his administrative position, as a self-proclaimed “politically dead man.” Hawthorne insists that the nation both enables and impedes the lives of its constituents and the telling of its histories.

In the novel's opening pages, we wait with the crowd for Hester to emerge from the prison. We overhear snatches of conversation among the women of the crowd, who express little sympathy for Hester and even wish for a harsher sentence. The narrator interrupts these bitter sentiments, which match the prison's “gloomy front,” and contrasts them with a wild rosebush that blooms by the prison door. He hopes this rosebush may serve “to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found” by the reader of this “tale of human frailty and sorrow.” Explicitly, then, Hawthorne identifies The Scarlet Letter as a moral parable, which offers its readers a “sweet” and “moral” lesson. This lesson emerges from the faults made by the Puritans' early experiment in society, which the narrator consistently uses irony to deflate. He comments, for example, that “whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness” the founding Pilgrims had envisioned, a cemetery and a prison both became necessary institutions. He aims his irony not at the fact that the need for a prison arose, but at the naive fantasy that it could have been otherwise. As he does in The Blithedale Romance (1852), Hawthorne deflates the tradition of American dreams of Utopia and new social orders. In The Scarlet Letter, the fault shared by the Puritan settlers, the women outside the prison, and Arthur Dimmesdale most of all, is pious hypocrisy: they naively imagine that sin, or “human frailty and sorrow,” can be avoided through denial and pretense. Chillingworth, using an assumed name and hiding his intent of revenge, becomes an increasingly diabolical villain by his own duplicity. At the other end of the spectrum, Hester Prynne, because she wears a sign of shame on the surface of her clothing, cannot feign innocence; consequently she has a greater potential for salvation and peace.

For Hawthorne, his Puritan ancestors and the society they built seemed to forget the wisdom of the great Puritan poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost. Hawthorne repeatedly invokes Paradise Lost in order to reassert its vision of mankind as fallen, and its poetic dramatization of Adam and Eve's fall and expulsion from Eden. Fallen, with the world “all before them,” they gain the potential for ultimate redemption. So Hester, let out of prison, “with the world before her,” seems to have a better chance of redemption than her hypocritical neighbors.

Hawthorne's allusions to Paradise Lost also provide him a way of introducing the question of sexuality and woman as the site of temptation and sin. Hester Prynne repeatedly feels herself to be responsible for the ins of both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth each reinforce this interpretation. The narrator dramatizes the self-serving structure of their accusations, and calls it into question. The irony of Dimmesdale's initial entreaty to Hester illustrates this:

Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for [thy fellow-sinner]; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him—yea, compel him, as it were—to add hypocrisy to sin?

Dimmesdale, as he stands at a literally high place, transfers his own responsibility to acknowledge his part in the crime to Hester. Hester serves both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, and indeed the whole community, as a scapegoat. The “rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic” in her nature, which implies sexuality, is something that the community simultaneously desires and disavows. They ostracize her, but continue to consume her needlework, surreptitiously borrowing from the exotic principle she seems to symbolize.



In this way, Hawthorne directs his irony at Puritan hypocrisy. However, he softens the didacticism (intent to teach) of his tale with the other means he uses: imagery and symbolism. Again, the rosebush should “symbolize some sweet moral blossom”—the key word is “symbolize.” The novel's most important symbol, the eponymous (name-giving) scarlet letter “A,” takes on several different meanings. To the townspeople, the letter has “the effect of a spell, taking [Hester] out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.” The spell of this scarlet letter is akin to that of The Scarlet Letter—the book itself. Like the community of Boston, we are invited to enter a separate sphere, where both imagination and moral growth can occur. As Hawthorne describes it in “The Custom House,” modern life (of the 1840s) has a dulling effect on the mind and the spirit. In his fiction, he wants to create a richer and more challenging world. Just as the meaning of Hester's “A” gradually expands for the townspeople, meaning not just “Adultery” but also “Able,” and perhaps “Angel,” The Scarlet Letter has an ambiguity that opens possibilities of meaning for its readers. Readers continue to speculate on what the “A” additionally suggests: Arthur (Dimmesdale), Ambiguity, America, and so on.

The ambiguity of Hester's scarlet letter “A” has been used as a textbook case to illustrate the difference between two kinds of imagery in writing: allegory and symbolism. Allegory, in which the name of a character or a thing directly indicates its meaning, can be seen in Hawthorne's early story “Young Goodman Brown,” about a young, good man. Symbolism, on the other hand, requires more interpretation; the “A,” for instance, suggests many possibilities which are in themselves contradictory (“adultery” versus “angel”). Most critics understand symbolism as a more sophisticated technique, and see it as more rewarding for the reader, who must enter into the text in order to tease out its possible meanings. In The Scarlet Letter, this act of interpretation outside the text mirrors what happens in the story itself.


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