Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850)

“Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjected by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bridge I Arthur Dimmesdale’s!” (293)

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The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel since his youthful Fanshawe, came after Hawthorne had been writing for over twenty years and only fourteen years before his death in 1864. Despite my training I had never read this novel before, even sitting on it for almost a year after the volume of Hawthorne’s novels came as part of my Library of American subscription. I suppose I was confident that it was well understood without me reading it and there was little I can contribute. Neither have I read any commentary on the novel, outside of the occasional mention. I only knew it was an important novel and somehow (as with folklore in general) knew its basic plot.

In the novel, Hester Prynne’s sin is extremely well-defined, clearly proven, and apparent to all in the community. Even without the infamous red letter on her clothing, she had a daughter obviously born out of wedlock. Of course, the authorities of the state—in this case the Puritan elite—had to follow the letter of the law. It is a well-defined crime, but in my reading of the novel I cannot find any explanation of why it was so odious. The narrator, although occasionally waffling on this point, clearly sees the crime of adultery as evil, the work of the devil, and an unredeemable sin. (Although he is of Hawthorne’s generation, he is more of old New England.) Of course, given the situation—a distant and decrepit husband with a young wife—it is rather hard to find fault in Hester’s actions. But my point is that Prynne, the minister Dimmesdale (Pearl’s biological father), the town, the narrator, Hawthorne, and readers from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century seem to take it for granted that there was a sin committed. The debate would then rest on the proper response, given the situation. I suggest we should not so quickly surrender this point. This is not simply an argument for free love, but the necessary anarchist orientation that requires all authority (moral, legal, political) to justify itself.

The enforcement mechanisms of this moral law are very well-developed and incredibly harsh. The scaffolds and the gallows are a constant threat throughout the novel. The coercive tools of a cynical state hardly seem the appropriate tool of a regime based on moral authority, but when of course, how else can the state enforce moral law. Look at the ridiculous convictions of Pussy Riot members in Russia as evidence that morality can still be a tool of state political control. The list of disciplinary measures applied or threatened in this novel is impressive, even by twentieth century standards, and must have seen downright draconian to Hawthorne’s contemporary readers. These institutions of control included jails, the gallows, public shaming, exclusion, economic and social isolation, family, and religious threats of eternal damnation. Even the governor became intensely interested in the transgression of Prynne. And, if we believe the narrator comes from the society of Puritan New England it seems these threats work most of the time. Prynne and Dimmesdale’s transgression is entirely unique in the world of the novel.

The novel begins with another institution of state power, one that emerged much later in New England history, but became central to Hawthorne’s life and the economic history of the region: the custom-house. It works to create the narrator of the story, who worked in a custom-house, like Hawthorne, and discovered the story of Hester Prynne buried in some documents. As I already suggested, unlike Hawthorne, this narrative has much more fully internalized the values of Puritan New England and is apparently not as detached from that tradition as Hawthorne himself was by the time he wrote the novel. What I want to suggest is that instead of reading this just as a story of sin, guilt, and alienation we should also read it as a story of power and in this way, the “Custom-House” chapter fits nicely. We see the locus of New England society move from the internal morality of its residents to their place in the emerging world system, but power remained central to its working.

Salem Custom House

Salem Custom House

The consequences of the enforcement of this constructed and pathetically useless morality are catastrophic. Image Hester Prynne’s situation absent the enforcement regimen. Pearl could have had a normal childhood, Hester could have remained of the community, her returning husband would not have needed to pose as someone else and work for seven years for revenge, and a whole lot of internal trauma could have been avoided. The conclusion we can draw is the root tension in the story is not the sin itself, which except for the arrival of Pearl, is largely a non-event, hardly worth anyone’s time to worry about. It is the naming of the sin that is the problem. We should spend less time doing such nonsense. As if to make this point, the narrator clarifies how easy it is to simple stop naming the sin. Hester could remove the “A” at any time, which she does as she develops a plan to leave New England with Dimmesdale.

The straight-forward way to look at Pearl is that she inherited the sin of her mother and father. She becomes obsessed at a young age with her mother’s red “A.” She is not controllable and shocks the Puritan elite because of her non-orthodox understanding of theology. Providing such information is one of Hester’s main responsibilities and doubts about this produce one of the major tensions, the attempt by the elite to take Pearl from her mother. Can we not also look at Pearl in a more optimistic way? Hester’s transgression carries onto her child. It is not sin that is passed on, but the spirit of rebellion, which lives onto the next generation. She survives the story to go to Europe, breaking free entirely of the institutions of power that so oppressed her mother and near ruined her own childhood.

That is enough on The Scarlet Letter. Others have done better than me (I spent a day when others have spent a career), but I hope this is not entirely useless for the commons. Let me end on a nice, politically-powerful quote.

“Before Mr. Dimmesdale reached home, his inner man gave him other evidences of a revolution in the sphere of thought and feeling. In truth, nothing short of a total change of dynasty and moral code, in that interior kingdom, was adequate to account for the impulses now communicated to the unfortunate and startled minister. At every step he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional; in spite of himself, yet growing out of a profounder self than that which opposed the impulse.” (306)