“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter opens dramatically with a scene of startling vividness, but Hawthorne makes us wait for it. For he had added a very long chapter titled “The Custom-House”, and subtitled “Introductory to The Scarlet Letter”. I suppose it is up to the individual reader whether or not to treat this “introductory” as an integral part of the novel: looking through various online comments, many readers seem to find this boring, and skip it. I, however, am something of a completist in these matters, and it did not seem to me boring at all: quite the contrary. Written in a most eloquent and musical prose style, it consists, for the most part, of a delightfully diverting account, leisurely narrated, of the custom house in which Hawthorne had worked, with pictures of various colourful characters associated with the place. Hawthorne presents himself as friendly, open, and companionable, and, reading this chapter, I could not imagine to myself a more convivial presence by the fireside. But it wasn’t entirely clear in what way this “introductory” is related to the rest of the novel: for all his apparent openness, Hawthorne leaves this something of a mystery.

In this introductory chapter, which Hawthorne tells us right away will be autobiographical, he tells of his own dreary travails at the custom-house, in order, seemingly, to placate the stern ghosts of his Puritan forefathers with remunerative toil; and he tells also of the apparent drying-up of his literary imagination during his three years spent here. And, towards the end of this chapter, he moves seamlessly from what he had till that point presented as fact, to what, we may surmise, is fiction, by telling us of his discovery of the Scarlet Letter itself – a small piece of cloth with the capital letter A embroidered in scarlet – and of the manuscripts he had found with it, telling the story of Hester Prynne. What follows, he tells us, is his re-writing of the story, “imagining the motive and modes of passion that influenced the characters who figure in it”. “I have allowed myself,” Hawthorne continues, “nearly or altogether as much licence as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention. What I contend for is the authenticity of the outline.”

Of course, there are many other examples of fictions that claim to be derived from authentic documents, with the claim itself implicitly understood to be part of the fiction. What is more puzzling is why Hawthorne should pen so long an introductory chapter merely to make this not very remarkable point, when a mere paragraph or two would have done just as well.

Hawthorne goes further:

While thus perplexed,—and cogitating, among other hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive, in order to take the eyes of Indians,—I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me,—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

Here, Hawthorne explicitly identifies himself with Hester Prynne, the wearer of the Scarlet Letter, and more than intimates some mysterious connection between himself and the Letter, and, indeed, with Hester Prynne herself.

And only now do we come to the first chapter. The opening is rightly famous. The setting is the prison house in Boston, in the Puritan society of the late 17th century.

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized 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.

Symbols abound. There is the heavily timbered prison door, studded with iron spikes; the prison itself, “the black flower of civilised society”; and, next to the prison door, Nature’s counterpart to this “black flower”, a wild rose bush. And there’s the scaffold, upon which the adulteress Hester Prynne stands to public gaze and scorn, holding to her breast her illegitimate child; and, of course, the embroidered Scarlet Letter upon her breast. These are very explicitly symbols, and are often referred to as such throughout the narrative. But what precisely they are symbols of is not always clear. Indeed, they are often as vaguely glimpsed and as obscure as that most famous literary symbol of all, the white whale dreamt up by Hawthorne’s friend Melville.

The embroidered letter A is clearly the symbol, to begin with, of Hester Prynne’s sinfulness, of her transgression. But as we progress, it acquires various other layers of meaning that are not always obvious. The daughter Pearl is explicitly referred to at one point as a “symbol”: there is about her an element that Hawthorne describes as “pagan”: at one point, she is referred to as an “elf-child”. She is a child of Nature, seemingly unaffected by the stultifying moral codes that bind together this Puritan society. When out in the forest outside the reaches of the town – another symbol – Hester momentarily takes off her Scarlet Letter, but Pearl immediately protests, and Hester puts it back on again. What are we to make of this? And, in the epilogue, we are told that Hester, as an old woman, and no longer under any obligation to wear the Scarlet Letter, insists on keeping it on. We can, should we choose, invent all kinds of correspondences: the letter represents sin, humiliation, expiation, defiance, inner strength – whatever we want; but as with the white whale, the symbol, though resonating powerfully throughout, remains beyond the reach of any such facile explanation.

But whatever the symbolic underpinnings of the story, Hawthorne does not bind himself to them. Hawthorne promises us at the end of the first chapter “a tale of human frailty and sorrow”: not an allegory in which the humans embody abstract concepts, but a drama, played out in human terms. The various symbols certainly resonate, but our understanding of the drama does not depend upon correct interpretation of the symbols – even assuming that these symbols are capable of being interpreted “correctly”: rather, the nature of these symbols help us penetrate the minds of the three protagonists.

The first protagonist is, of course, Hester, publicly humiliated, living the rest of her life in poverty with her daughter Pearl, and shunned by the rest of society. The next is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl’s father, tormented by his awareness of his own sinfulness, which is known only to himself and to Hester. The third is a desiccated old man, Roger Chillingworth, who makes his first appearance in town on the very day of Hester’s public humiliation: he is, unknown to all except Hester herself, Hester’s husband, though long separated from her by circumstance. He soon discovers for himself the identity of his wife’s lover, and, his identity still secret, delights in tormenting him.

But the story is not really about “sin”, as such: it is, as Hawthorne clearly says, about “human frailty and sorrow”. The “sin” for which Hester – though not her lover, whose identity she refuses to divulge – is punished is adultery: in that society, it was considered a grievous transgression, and we are told that even the death penalty had been considered for Hester. In Hawthorne’s own times, this transgression would not have been so harshly judged, but nonetheless, it still bore a stigma: Hester would most certainly have been ostracised. In our own times, we would barely consider it a transgression at all, given especially that Hester had never really been close to her much older husband, had not heard from him for years, and that he was, in all probability, dead. Hester herself does not appear at any time to consider herself guilty: she stays on in the town, earning a meagre living as a seamstress, but at no point does she express remorse or penitence: on the contrary, she fights fiercely when it is suggested that Pearl be taken away from her; and, despite much pressure put upon her, she refuses to disclose Dimmesdale’s name, either to the authorities or to her husband. The letter A, embroidered upon her breast, and intended to be a humiliating mark of sinfulness, she wears almost as an act of defiance.

Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is torn with remorse and with guilt. But his guilt is not because he has let Hester alone bear that punishment and the public humiliation that he himself fears so much: it is for the act of adultery itself. And the Scarlet Letter that Hester wears so openly, Dimmesdale wears secretly in his heart. He has, indeed, every reason to feel guilty: but like all weak-willed men, the pain he feels is solely for his own self: at no point does he stop to consider what Hester Prynne may be going through. Nonetheless, the pain he feels is real enough, and what he thinks is sorrow for his sin of illicit sex may well be a displaced sorrow for a greater guilt – the lack of human empathy. But Hawthorne is not censorious: human frailty and sorrow are common to us all, after all.

The conceit that this story is Hathorne’s own retelling of an old tale he had found in his manuscript allows his both to be realistic, as he is in the psychological depictions of courage and of guilt, and also unrealistic, as he can bring into his narrative elements of folklore and of the supernatural, claiming that these elements were in the manuscript he had found, but, as a modern man, expressing scepticism about them. At one point, Hester is met by Mistress Hibbins, an actual historical character who had been hanged for witchcraft, but who, at the time of this drama, had been very much alive; and Mistress Hibbins tempts Hester to join her in the woods at night to meet with the Devil. Hester turns down the invitation: despite the Scarlet Letter upon her breast, she is no sinner. But the supernatural is introduced here quite unobtrusively, without ruffling the realistic surface of the story.

The drama plays itself out to its superb climactic scene set during a public holiday, and here, the Scarlet Letter that had burned secretly within the Reverend Dimmesdale’s breast is finally revealed. Once again, Hawthorne gives us the option either of accepting the supernatural, or preferring, in line with what we perhaps unthinkingly expect from nineteenth century novels, a more realistic interpretation. Neither diminishes the extraordinary dramatic culmination of this “tale of human frailty and sorrow”.

All of which still leaves open the enigma of that introductory chapter. Why does Hawthorne align himself so unmistakably with Hester Prynne? Normally, I try to consider a work independently of the author’s biography, but since the author has introduced autobiographical elements so explicitly into the work, that becomes impossible here. Hawthorne had, he tells us, worked at the custom-house because he felt that he owed it to his ancestors to be more than a mere storyteller, but that, during his time there, his imaginative faculties had dried up; and only after he had stopped working there could he return to the art of storytelling. Could it be that he saw his return to his literary vocation as a defiance of his Puritan forebears, much as Hester’s proud display of her Scarlet Letter was similarly a defiance of the Puritan ethos? I honestly do not know. It’s the only explanation I can think of, but it seems to me frankly far-fetched. But leaving aside that introductory chapter – which, though wonderfully diverting, remains for me something of a mystery – what Hawthorne has given us is a wonderfully moving tale, narrated in the most exquisite prose, and drawn with clear precise lines that belie the complexity of its underlying symbols, of human frailty, of human sorrow, and also, I think, of human courage, and resilience, and love.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by nosnivel on May 19, 2019 at 6:47 pm

    The high-school student who I once was thanks you and applauds you for legitimizing the observation that the book’s symbolism is elusive. We were sure, fifty-plus years ago, that there must be a single correct answer known to all the teachers.

    Reply

  2. The novel is perfect for teaching in that it is actually about symbolism, meaning symbols people create in real life, not in art.

    The novel is likely not perfect for teaching in many other ways.

    Reply

    • I had forgotten that this is something of a standard text in American schools. I suppose this means it’ll be getting a lot of traffic. Oh dear! Does this mean chunks of this post will be appearing in school essays? I fear the marks awarded won’t be very high…

      Although I loved this book, I didn’t really have too much to say about this. Which accounts, I guess, for this post only being some 2000 words…

      But you’re right about the symbols, of course.

      Reply

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