The Scarlet Letter
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5860
Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804864) novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) raises important questions about the relationship between literature and history. A historical novel set in seventeenth-century New England, it offers Hawthorne's interpretation of the meaning and legacy of the Puritan culture that defined the region. Like many nineteenth-century American authors, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper, and Lydia Maria Child, Hawthorne looks to America's colonial past as a source of subject matter in a country that he lamented (in the preface to his 1860 novel The Marble Faun) had "no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a common-place prosperity" (p. 854). As did his contemporaries, Hawthorne saw in an exploration of the past an opportunity to evaluate how that past shaped the character and culture of America in his own day. Through this interpretation of the past, however, Hawthorne could also consider issues that were important to mid-nineteenth-century America, including the relationship between the individual and the community, the impact of a society's codes and values upon its members, the place of women in American culture, and the difficult position of the artist or independent thinker in any society, past or present.
Hawthorne raises some of these concerns in "The Custom-House," which serves as a preface to the novel proper. "The Custom-House," set during Hawthorne's day, provides insights into Hawthorne's own relationship with the state, as he had been a public employee at the Custom House of Salem for three years prior to writing his novel. Turned out of office when the presidential administration changed in 1849 and the anti-Jacksonian Whigs came to power, Hawthorne defended his record as an employee but also revealed his uneasiness over the conditions that arise when individuals remain too long dependent upon the state. He presents his former coworkers as marked by "the lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses" (p. 124), suggesting that lifetime government appointments undermine the self-reliance and personal initiative valued in Hawthorne's culture. Hawthorne had depended on patronage appointments himself, for until the success of The Scarlet Letter, he had been unable to support his family on the proceeds of his writing career. But he claims that his powers of imagination and creativity were diminished while under public employ, returning only after he had been dismissed and no longer had to conform to a particular political identity.
Hawthorne also makes use of his position as a "surveyor" in the Custom House to assess the traditions from the past that have given rise to the concept of an "American" identity. Hawthorne explores the ways in which individual identity is shaped by family, place, and the past, suggesting that his own identity is bound up with the tales of his ancestors and the town of Salem. He describes the attachment to place as an "instinct" that impels an individual to return after periods of absence, an instinct that comes into play for The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne at the end of the novel. In addition to the questions he poses about individual identity, Hawthorne, like many of his contemporaries, looks to the Puritan past of New England as the source of America's democratic impulse. Sacvan Bercovitch has pointed out the way that Hawthorne, in common with many mid-nineteenth-century historians, saw in the early settlers' desire to create a new order that separates itself from Old World hierarchies and institutions the foundation for the balance between individual liberty and the consent to compromise that allows for both America's progress and stability (pp. 368).
Hawthorne links the preface to the novel proper through the explanation of his discovery in the Custom House of a manuscript and the remnants of an embroidered letter A supposedly left behind by one of his predecessors, the surveyor Jonathan Pue. These materials, Hawthorne suggests, provided him with the substance of the narrative that follows and lend it authenticity. This claim of physical evidence for the story that unfolds emphasizes its ties to history, but Hawthorne also explores his fascination with the idea of the scarlet letter, his desire to discern its meaning, to solve its riddle. He speaks of the letter as a "mystic symbol" that demands interpretation and that offers a multiplicity of meanings. He suggests that his own "imagining [of] the motives and modes of passion that influenced the characters" (p. 147) gives access to a truth that may be found when "the Actual and the Imaginary . . . meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other" (p. 149), indicating his view that the romance allows its author to engage in imaginative reconstruction, to tell the stories of the past that may not be part of the official public record but that have a bearing on personal and cultural identity and on the specific historical circumstances of the writer's own time.
HAWTHORNE AND NEW ENGLAND'S HISTORY
Hawthorne was well steeped in New England history, having spent a number of years in his early adulthood studying the works of various historians who examined and interpreted the colonial era. He was also well read in texts that were popular during the colonial period, such as the Puritan theologian and religious leader Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), a history of New England that celebrates the evidences of Christ in the New World. Hawthorne's own family background had made this period of interest to him, for he traced his paternal lineage back to Puritan officials and judges, including John Hathorne, who served during the Salem witchcraft trials. Hawthorne felt uneasy about the harsh judgmental aspects of this godly form of governance, seeing in his ancestors stern and inflexible men who seemed to show little mercy toward those they deemed in the wrong, meting out harsh punishment to those who violated the laws and codes of their community. Hawthorne admired his ancestors' strength of purpose and industriousness but wondered what they would think of a descendant who spent his time writing fiction instead of competing openly in the marketplace to build his fortune and provide for his posterity.
Hawthorne does not provide the exact dates for the action of The Scarlet Letter, but he sets the scene during one of the governorships of Richard Bellingham, most likely that of 1641642, and no later than 1654, since Bellingham's sister, Anne Hibbins, who makes brief appearances in the novel, was executed for witchcraft in 1656. In the 1640s the Puritans were still establishing their colonies and making inroads into the wilderness that surrounded them. Their plans for settlement were founded in the hope of establishing communities that would exemplify the religious and moral rigor they deemed necessary for salvation. In the words of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were to be "as a city upon a hill," modeling righteousness and a social order defined by religious precepts ("A Modell of Christian Charity," quoted in Miller and Johnson 1:199). Winthrop urged his fellow settlers to sacrifice personal ambitions for the good of the community, to place the needs of the whole above those of the individual. The Puritans followed strict codes of conduct and severely punished anyone who was thought to threaten the cohesiveness of the group. Their anxieties about the success of their "errand" and the role they were to play in the unfolding of God's Providence were intensified in the 1640s and 1650s by the events occurring in England, as Puritans there came to power during the English Civil War. Some New Englanders feared that the emergence of a Puritan Commonwealth at home made their own experiment extraneous. This time of insecurity for the Puritans in New England makes it a perfect era in which to set a historical novel, for moments of cultural conflict are those that produce changes for individuals and for a society as a whole. Hawthorne's own day marked another period of cultural conflict, both in light of the revolutions and political upheaval occurring in Europe and in the growing anxiety over the impact slavery and sectional conflict would have on the state of the union in America. In addition, various reform movements of the 1840s and 1850s, including women's rights and temperance, challenged cultural assumptions while people continued to adjust to changes wrought by the expansion of industry, especially in the Northeast.
The Puritan settlements of New England were troubled by discord at home as well as by political upheaval abroad. The so-called antinomian controversy, which erupted in the late 1630s, centered around the actions and ideas of Anne Hutchinson, a figure to whom Hawthorne often compares his main character, Hester Prynne. Hutchinson was well acquainted with church teaching and with Puritan theology. She began to hold meetings in her home to instruct other women, and she asserted that individuals could realize their salvation through direct revelation from God, an idea that some felt eliminated the need for clergy to interpret the word of God to their congregations. Her views were labeled "antinomian," meaning contrary to the law, and she was accused of crimes against the church and the state. Hutchinson was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638, eventually moving to New York, where she died during an Indian raid in 1643. Hawthorne's comparisons of Hester Prynne to Anne Hutchinson underscore Hester's role as a figure who tests her culture's ideas and values; Hutchinson's exile suggests what might befall Hester should she speak her thoughts in public.
The other domestic threat to the stability and security of the colony was the supposed presence of witchcraft. The witchcraft hysteria that gripped Salem and other Massachusetts Bay towns did not occur until about fifty years after the events recounted in The Scarlet Letter, commencing in 1692. But fear of witchcraft was present in the colony from its founding, as was fear of Satan's attempts to undermine the efforts of settlers to carry out God's will in the New World. Witches were perceived as threats to the social and spiritual order because of their supposed relationship with the devil, a relationship that gave them access to supernatural powers and dangerous knowledge. Those accused of witchcraft were often independent thinkers or individuals who had provoked their neighbors through contentious behavior. In The Scarlet Letter, Mistress Hibbins hints at dark knowledge and secret meetings in the forest, suggesting both the presence of witchcraft and the way that Hester's own knowledge and journey into the forest might be perceived.
By drawing on the historical past and the romance tradition to shape his narrative, Hawthorne feels free to "claim a certain latitude," to focus on circumstances of his "own choosing and creation" (as he phrases his approach in the preface to his 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables, p. 351), determining which characters and events will occupy the foreground of his narrative and which will provide only background context. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne makes mention of officials within the Puritan colony, but he uses them as secondary, though powerful, players in the conflicts that unfold. In the novel, Hawthorne is more concerned with the lives and relationships of his four central charactersester Prynne; the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale; Roger Chillingworth; and Hester's daughter, Pearligures who are not historical personages but whose thoughts and actions are affected by the culture that surrounds them. Each of these characters struggles with questions of identity, both in terms of self- and public perception. Their relationships to each other and the patterns of concealment and revelation that emerge from their interactions allow Hawthorne to explore how identity evolves and how individuals construct public personae to suit their own needs. His characters' interactions with the larger Puritan community raise questions about the nature of patriarchal culture and its control of women, the tension between individual freedom and community standards, and the potential for rein-tegration into the social order.
Individual freedom is clearly a foreign idea to the colony, for Hawthorne opens the narrative proper with a chapter entitled "The Prison-Door." This door, "studded with iron spikes" (p. 158), asserts the power of the civil authority and its willingness to use physical force to coerce individuals to conform their behavior and their thinking to the standards of the community. By beginning with this image of enclosure and punishment, Hawthorne emphasizes the oppressive restriction of the world his characters inhabit. Each of the public settings he useshe jail, the marketplace, and the scaffoldre infused with meaning by the culture that has constructed them, particularly the scaffold, which is seen as an instrument conducive to good citizenship. Against this darkness and gloom, Hawthorne contrasts the wild rosebush that grows alongside the prison door, a thing of beauty that he claims "has been kept alive in history" (p. 159); he associates the rosebush with Anne Hutchinson and through her with independence of thought, something that persists despite the efforts to eradicate it. Hester Prynne's story unfolds with the opening of the prison door, but her entrance into the narrative is not a step into freedom but a movement initially toward further punishment.
Hester Prynne re-enters the public world from which she has been secluded until after the birth of her child. The marketplace is peopled by various members of the community: government officials, members of the clergy, and local townsfolk, who view Hester as a criminal and source of scandal, a scandal that affects not only her personally but the community as a whole. In this Puritan culture, marriage is viewed as one of the foundations of social order, and a crime that violates the bonds of marriage threatens order itself. The demand for punishment of Hester's crimes is evident in the words of some of the female spectators, who feel she has not suffered enough, that the civil authorities "should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead" (p. 162). This desire to see Hester physically marked for her crime reflects what the modern French theorist Michel Foucault has identified as the law's need to display its triumph visibly on the body of the transgressor; it also reflects the Puritan distrust of the flesh, which is perceived as a source of temptation. Initially this scene suggests a uniformity of vision among the community, but Sacvan Bercovitch calls attention to the multiple viewpoints actually present in the crowd; he sees this as evidence of "pliancy" within the Puritan community, creating the possibility for evolving views of Hester Prynne and, on a larger scale, an evolving culture that will eventually lead to the successful American Revolution (pp. 556).
When Hester emerges from the prison carrying Pearl, the evidence of Hester's guilt, she cannot escape the charge of adultery. As she climbs to the scaffold, Hester is placed in a position that emphasizes her isolation from those around her. Questioned by the civil and religious authorities, Hester refuses to name her partner in adultery, even though she recognizes him among the dignitaries before her. In doing so, Hester takes the responsibility for what has happened upon herself, intensifying her isolation and loneliness. By positioning her as he does in this scene, Hawthorne calls attention to Hester's oppositional role against the patriarchal authorities of Puritan church and state. He uses her silence in ironic ways; Hester's culture expects women to keep silent, yet her silence here functions as an act of resistance against an authority she does not accept. As punishment for her choices, Hester faces exile to the edge of the settlement, emphasizing her position as an outcast, but for Hester this marginalization allows her to engage in further resistance to authority as she speculates on the possibilities of freedom and self-realization unhampered by the close scrutiny of neighbors.
THE TWO INTERVIEWS
In the world that Hester Prynne inhabits, a woman is defined by two principal roles in her life, as wife and mother. Each role entails a set of culturally defined obligations and duties, conventions of a patriarchal culture that defines woman only through her relationship to man and to reproduction. Hawthorne uses a pair of "interviews" to explore the expectations held for women in colonial New England and Hester's ambivalence toward them. Hawthorne structures these interviews to underscore how Hester is defined by external forces, despite her desire to pursue self-realization. In each interview, Hester's participation as a speaking subject is curtailed, her voice eclipsed by those of others who exercise outward control over her. The first interview takes place within her prison cell, when the elderly scholar and physician Roger Chillingworth, who is ransomed from Indian captivity just in time to see Hester on the scaffold, comes to see her. Having sent Hester ahead of him to New England and delayed in his own arrival, Chillingworth expresses dismay at what his wife has done. Hester knows that by law she has wronged her husband, yet she argues that she did not love him when they married. For Hester, love has a power that is equal to the law, and it is the tension between these two powers that energizes her resistance to what the law and the scarlet letter demand: her submission to authority, her consent to be governed by a power outside herself. Although Hester makes her protest to Chillingworth,
he reminds Hester of her duty to him and asserts his authority when using the term "wife" in asking her to keep the secret of his identity. By concealing his identity he eliminates his public link to Hester and to any paternal claim that Pearl might make upon him. He also shields himself from the shame of cuckoldry, retaining respect and authority within the community, rather than being perceived as a figure of diminished masculinity who could not control his wife.
The second interview, which takes place at the governor's house before many of the same men who questioned her on the scaffold, focuses on Hester's role as a mother and the questions that arise within the Puritan community about Hester's ability to instill in her child proper values and respect for the law given her own immoral conduct. That Hester gives Pearl freedom to explore her world and to express herself stands in sharp contrast to the standard practice within the Puritan community that strictly regulated a child's actions and strove to break a child of willfulness. Emily Miller Budick suggests, however, that Hester experiences ambivalent feelings about the way her role as a mother inhibits her will toward freedom, so that in her relationship to Pearl, her refusal to answer many of Pearl's questions and her stern responses to the child in effect silence Pearl much the way Hester feels silenced by her culture. Whatever ambivalence she feels, Hester fears that Pearl will be taken from her, denying her the one human bond that provides some solace and normalcy in her isolation. Again in this interview, Hester discovers that her own words do not carry authority, that her voice is negated by those of the officials who question her and even by her child's. Pearl informs the ministers that she was not made by God but "plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses" (p. 213), a statement that recalls the allusions to Anne Hutchinson and the threat of anarchy associated with her. This startling announcement, which Pearl makes out of her own capricious willfulness, convinces Wilson and the others that Hester has failed in her duty as a mother, that her child is as wayward as its mother. Despite Hester's emotional pleas, they remain fixed in their objective to take Pearl away, until Hester admits her ineffectiveness before them by asking Dimmesdale to speak for her. Dimmesdale's calm and logical argument makes the case that Hester could not make for herself, even though his words echo the claims that she has asserted, because his authority among his peers remains unquestioned.
Hawthorne plays upon irony in having Dimmesdale speak for Hester, as Dimmesdale, the father of Hester's child, has engaged in his own pattern of silence and resistance from the novel's opening. Dimmesdale's motivation differs from Hester's, however, for while she remains silent in part to protect him, his silence is self-serving, shielding him from the public ignominy and rejection that Hester has suffered, preserving his authority and right to speak in a community that respects him. While he cultivates a public persona as a devout minister, Hester's partner in adultery wrestles in private with his guilt, seeking expiation not through public confession, as his Puritan tradition endorses, but through bloody scourging in his private chamber. In effect attempting to mark his flesh with the sign of the law's triumph, Dimmesdale finds no relief because he refuses to answer the law's public demands. Unlike Hester, he does not believe that their love for one another legitimated their actions, but he resists accepting the consequences of those actions (including Pearl), not out of principle but out of pride and fear. His role in the community provides him cover, and Dimmesdale himself is aware of the irony in his growing reputation as a powerful and ardent preacher who moves others toward greater piety. At the midpoint of the novel, Dimmesdale stands upon the scaffold, as though he is rehearsing his public confession, but he does so at night, with no crowd present to witness his "exposure." Only Pearl, who with her mother has joined Dimmesdale on the scaffold, seems ready to take him to task, asking him to stand with her and Hester on the scaffold at noon the next day. Dimmesdale engages in evasion to avoid confronting the real questions Pearl asks: Will he own her as his child, in his heart and in public? Will he acknowledge his own human nature and the consequences of his actions?
Hester too has cultivated a public persona that conceals her inner life. Her charitable works and quiet ways gradually win the sympathy of most of those who originally scorned and condemned her. They assume that her outward actions signify that she accepts the authority exercised over her, feels remorse for her wrongdoing, and admits the need for redemption and reintegration into the community. But Hester's public silence continues to be an act of resistance rather than a sign of consent. Beneath her calm exterior, Hester grapples with radical ideas about her own nature as an individual and the position of women in her culture. Her place at the margin of her community has allowed her to contemplate the restructuring of society, "the whole system . . . to be torn down, and built up anew" (p. 260), with relations between men and women established on more equal footing. Through his sympathetic treatment of Hester, Hawthorne endorses a critique of patriarchal culture, but he expresses reservations about the implications of Hester's radicalism for women and for society, reflecting his ambivalence toward the women's rights movement of his own day. He suggests that something essential to woman's wholeness is lost when she devotes all her energies to thought and reform at the expense of feeling and connection with others.
Hester's inner resistance to the demands of her culture have inspired thoughts of literal escape from its control, thoughts she shares with Dimmesdale when they meet in the forest. Hawthorne treats the forest as a space not subject to the laws and codes of the Puritan community, a space in which the characters give voice to ideas and emotions that have been repressed through much of the narrative. This makes sense in the Puritan context, as Puritans viewed their world allegoricallyhey thought that every earthly aspect had a higher, more "real" spiritual analognd the forest, for Puritans, was the devil's workshop. In keeping with his own spirit of compromise between independence and conformity, however, Hawthorne temporizes that the feeling of freedom that the forest evokes may prove elusive, like the sunlight that flickers in and out of the scene. Hester asserts her continuing belief that love has sanctioned their relationship and sexual union, despite community codes and social consequences. Emboldened by thoughts of escape, she removes the letter from her dress and takes the cap from her head, symbolically lifting the oppression she has endured, revealing the beauty and sexuality that have remained at her core, a transformation that hinges on her reconnection to Dimmesdale. Confident that she can sustain the weakened Dimmesdale and circumvent the power of the patriarchal authority that has kept them apart, Hester beckons Pearl to join in their reunion. Pearl refuses to approach until Hester resumes the cap and letter, a response that reconnects actions and consequences, that reasserts the primacy of the social codes that govern their world and that have shaped both Hester's and Pearl's identities.
The climax of the novel draws all of the characters back to the marketplace and the scaffold, underscoring the public nature and context of the events that transpire. Having resolved to end his silence, Dimmesdale needs this public context as he seeks catharsis by exposing his sin and by owning his actions and his child before the community and before God. In a reversal of their roles in the forest, Dimmesdale struggles to convince Hester that his course is better than the escape she had planned, for it acknowledges their relationship and transgression before the eyes of the community and their consent to be governed by the laws of God and man. For Dimmesdale, this consent initiates a reintegration into their social and moral world, from which both have been separated by the earlier choices they have made. Initially Hester is not willing to accept such an idea, for to do so is to renounce all she has thought and come to believe in her period of exile, to renounce the woman who had spoken with such confidence in the forest meeting. Dimmesdale's death at the close of this scene and his refusal to hold out the promise of reunion in the afterlife leave Hester bereft of the relationship that had meant most to her, that had kept her tied to the settlement at Boston.
The last chapter of the novel focuses on Hester, who after a period of absence returns to New England and the community she had once hoped to escape. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne has praised Hester's strength, her independence of thought, her willingness to own her actions, but he sees her inflexibility as leading to a form of absolutism that inhibits compromise and the resolution of conflict, the same absolutism he mistrusts in the reform movements of his own day, particularly abolition and the more radical elements of the women's rights campaign. Upon her return, Hester voluntarily resumes wearing the scarlet letter, which she comes to see as a badge of membership in a community in which she participates. Hawthorne's ideal of a "true woman" who finds balance between her individual needs and her obligations to the community influences how he shapes Hester's choices, especially that of relinquishing a leadership role in any movement toward dramatic social change. While he may have questioned the power of a patriarchal culture and hoped to see changes in the relationship between men and women, Hawthorne believed such change would come slowly, through modulated, not radical, social evolution.
See also The Bible; "The Birth-mark"; The Blithedale Romance; Courtship; Crime and Punishment; "The Custom-House"; "Hawthorne and His Mosses"; The House of the Seven Gables; Individualism and Community; Marriage; Nature; Puritanism; Religion; The Romance; Sexuality and the Body; "Young Goodman Brown"
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Melissa McFarland Pennell