Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1208

Most reviewers gave Hawthorne's novel high praise at the time of its publication. Evert A. Duyckinck, one of the most influential critics of his day, called the tale a "psychological romance . . . a study of character in which the human heart is anatomized, carefully, elaborately, and with striking poetic and dramatic power." He also praised Hawthorne's departure from the overly ornate writing style popular at the time, which displayed "artifice and effort at the expense of nature and ease." Duyckinck's review was supported by that of Edwin Percy Whipple, who considered the novel "deep in thought and . . . condensed in style." A striking theme common to both critics is Hawthorne's difference from French literary models. Both saw French fiction, particularly that of George Sand (a woman novelist), as far too immoral in its depiction of issues similar to those treated in The Scarlet Letter. Whipple wrote that the novel had "utterly undermined the whole philosophy on which the French novels rest, by seeing further and deeper into the essence both of conventional and moral laws." The terms of the anti-French attitude of those early reviewers, placing Hawthorne's positive insight into convention and morality against the French lack of such insight, is of special significance. It refers inevitably to the historical fact of the 1848 revolution in France and American anxieties about its spread overseas.

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This is not to say the positive critical appraisal of Hawthorne's moral representations was unanimous. Arthur Cleveland Coxe, writing in the Church Review, considered Hawthorne's novel the story of "the nauseous amour of a Puritan pastor," who commits adultery with "a frail creature of his charge, whose mind is represented as far more debauched than her body." (However one interprets the moral order—or its lack—that Hawthorne describes, very few have considered Hester a "frail creature.")

Henry James's 1874 study, Hawthorne, stands as the first "modern" analysis of the novel, insofar as he considered it not as a work of entertainment but one of serious art. James declared that the novel was the "finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country." Yet he was put off by what he considered an almost ridiculous level of symbolic effect, writing of the scene where the scarlet letter appears in the sky above Boston as one of nearly "physical comedy" rather than high "moral tragedy." Henry James was himself a great author of literary realism, and this preference is shown in his criticism of Hawthorne's symbolism.

Most modern critics have wrangled with The Scarlet Letter's unresolved tensions. One of the most insightful, F. O. Matthiessen, describes Hawthorne's method as one of "multiple choice," where different interpretive possibilities are offered by the narrator, who withholds resolution of the reader's inevitable questions. "For Hawthorne," writes Mattheissen, the value of a particular literary moment "consisted in the variety of explanation to which it gave rise." In the climactic final scene where Dimmesdale presumably confesses and exposes the stigmata on his chest, Hawthorne leaves the reader not only with a variety of options on how the letter got there, but even questions about whether there was a mark or confession at all.

Other critics have not been generous with Hawthorne's penchant for mystery. Frederic I. Carpenter, in an essay titled "Scarlet A Minus," calls the book a classic of a "minor order," and complains that "its logic is ambiguous." Carpenter finds the narrative generally characterized by a confusion "between romantic immorality and transcendental idealism." This unresolved tension is most obvious in the character of Hester, who is at once condemned as immoral and glorified as an ideal of courage.

Hester's courage has been the positive subject of criticism by feminist readers, including Nina Baym. Baym wrote a strong and persuasive essay against male critics, particularly of the 1950s, who read the novel as a story primarily about Arthur Dimmesdale. Baym explains the critical subordination of Hester to Dimmesdale as part of a masculinist ideology which held that "it would be improper for a woman character to be the protagonist in what might well be the greatest American book." Baym shows that Hester occupies by far the greater part of the novel (including the preface) and that she clearly takes full responsibility for her actions in a way that Dimmesdale does not. In short, "Hester and her behavior are associated with the ideals of passion, self-expression, freedom, and individualism against ideals of order, authority, and restraint. . . . Nothing in the plot shows Hester attempting to evade responsibility for her actions."

As Baym suggests, The Scarlet Letter is arguably the most important work of fiction ever written in America. Naturally, it gathers enormous critical attention. Important recent works include those by Jonathon Arac, Michael Davitt Bell, and especially, Lauren Berlant and Larry J. Reynolds. These critics are highly various, but generally speaking they have examined the way the novel elaborates—that is, both represented and helped to produce—the powerful symbols and myths of dominant American structures of power. But by far the most influential of recent studies with such an emphasis is Sacvan Bercovitch's The Office of The Scarlet Letter.

Bercovitch maintains that the most telling point in the novel is the one sentence paragraph in chapter thirteen where the narrator tells us, "the scarlet letter had not done its office." Here, according to Bercovitch, we learn that the scarlet letter "has a purpose and a goal," thus, "Hawthorne's meanings may be endless, but they are not open-ended." So what is the "goal" of the scarlet letter? To transmute "opposition into complementarity." By this Becovitch means that the letter, in the end, defuses dissent and reestablishes unity: The Scarlet Letter "is a story of socialization in which the point of socialization is not to conform, but to consent. Anyone can submit; the socialized believe. It is not enough to have the letter imposed; you have to do it yourself." The scarlet letter is at first imposed on Hester by the Puritan magistrates, but this does not represent the best form of socialization because Hester does not wear it willingly but bears it as a punishment. An important turning point is the scene in the forest where she discards the letter by the brook, but then, through Pearl's imploring, takes the letter back upon her chest. Also, according to this reading, her planned escape with Pearl and Dimmesdale from Boston must fail, for leaving would represent an unwillingness to fully accept the letter. It is clear that the letter has finally accomplished its office when, after eventually going with Pearl to Europe, Hester willingly returns to the community of her shame. As Hawthorne writes in the Conclusion, "She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale." Instead of being a figure of scorn and shame, she becomes a valued counsellor in the community, resolving conflict, as opposed to representing it. For Bercovitch this is an allegorical representation of an American method of controlling dissent. "To understand the office of the A . . . is to see how culture empowers symbolic form, including forms of dissent, and how symbols participate in the dynamics of culture, including the dynamics of constraint."

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