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)


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)

Lynd Ward, “Madman’s Drum

Lynd Ward’s second graphic novel Madman’s Drum explores the inheritance of a father’s crimes, the perversion and insanity of a life committed solely to intellect, and the banality of evil.  Ward also explores the ways in which intellect provides a barrier to community, family, and happiness.


The setting of Madman’s Drum is unclear.  It seems to be a modern industrial economy with modern labor conflicts but is only one generation from sailing ships and the slave trade.  The protagonist ends the novel in late middle age, so I suspect the novel covers most of the 19th century.  Like Gods’ ManMadman’s Drum has something to tell us about the horrors of exploitation and the dissatisfaction inherent in the unstable industrial world but it does this from the perspective of the oppressors (a slave trade and a intellectual).

In his essay on Madman’s Drum, Ward admits that Gods’ Man was too simple, too black and white.  “The things that happen to the central character, from boyhood through adolescence to the final crisis of his maturity, are not unique to a distant time and place.  Given the modifications imposed by varying social systems, they can be encountered almost anywhere at any time.  They are things that spring from universal human relationships — for example, between child and parent or man and wife–and can include the problems of those who seek solutions in running away, as well as those who take the shelter of the family unit too much for granted and so are quire unprepared to cope wit the abrasive world outside.” (789)   He admits to being heavily influenced by the Sacco and Vanzetti trials.  Ward will place his protagonist in the role of persecutor in a similar trial.

The novel is broke until nine sections and is made up of 118 wood carving plates.  It is, however, much more complex and disturbing than the more hackneyed plot of Gods’ Man.
Part One introduces the father of the main character.   He is a slave trader and comes across an African playing a drum.  He steals the man and his instrument, sells his captive as a slave and returns home rich.  He has a family waiting for him in his home town.  He returns with a chest of gold and the drum he stole.  He uses his wealth to upgrade his home.  But lacking musical interest he places the drum on display, along with the sword he used to secure his family’s wealth.  The slave-trader becomes a respected member of the community.

Part two introduces us to the main character (I will call him “the intellectual”) and we see how he was put on the path of the intellect.  The father finds him playing the drum.  He disciplines his child and sets him to work mastering the texts in his massive library.  There will be no time for music, which the man associates with savagery.  Paradoxically, he desires to return to his old job in Africa.  The father is lost at sea.  While he paid for his crimes, the family inherits the wealth and the drum and his father’s lesson to his son to savor the intellectual over the emotional.


Part three explores the adolescence of the intellectual.  He ignores the life around him for his studies.  Embraces religion for the sake of his mother.  He even seems to write a book.

Part four, as a young man the intellectual turns his back on sex, drink, and camaraderie.  He is developing to be a strange young man. Learning in his books of ancient Egypt, he turns his back on Christianity by throwing a cross on the ground.  His mother trips on the cross and dies in the fall.  This section ends after his mother’s funeral.  He looks out his window and sees a flute player.  The player appears to him demonic and mad.

Part five shows us the intellectual in middle age.  He makes some astronomical discovery and but his results are taken with indifference by other astronomers.  Reaching the peak of his career, he chooses to marry.  Not for love, it seems, but as something he has to do.  He is brutally cold but perhaps his wealth and prestige encourage his future wife’s father of the power of the match.

Part six is about the misery of the wife.  She produces two girls for the intellectual but she is miserable.  She meets a musician who tries to seduce her.  In a plate, the intellectual is shown separated from his wife by a literal wall of books.  His wife enters into the affair with the musician, which somehow ends in her death.  (The confusion here seems to be universal.  Art Spiegelman comments on how confusing this part of the novel is.)

In part seven, the intellectual’s daughter gets involved with a labor organizer.  He is told of the man and his communist sympathies so he arranges for his arrest.  The intellectual’s daughter is dejected since the trial (which the intellectual plays a key role in prosecuting) ends in the hanging of the labor organizer.

In part eight, we learn of his second daughter’s love affair.  The intellectual tries persuading her to follow his path, but she rejects the intellect.  She meets a womanizer (or maybe a pimp) who seduces her and begins selling her to the men of the community.

In the final section, the intellectual learns that his daughter has become a prostitute.  The pimp returns a small flower belt and throws the intellectual out on the street.  He pleads for aid from the community, who viciously laugh at his misfortune.  Finally, surrounded by the graves of the people in his life he goes insane, takes the drum he was forbidden to use as a child and goes off with the flute player.


A very strong theme here is the danger of the rejection of the cultural, emotional, physical realm for brutish intellect.  The intellectual’s father found the drum – the symbol of the emotional and cultural realm – in “dark Africa” and acquires it by committing a brutal crime.  The intellectual, by rejecting the physical and emotional is able to participate in horrible crimes – including the unfair judicial murder of a labor organizer.  His intellect gave him the emotional distance required to be as brutal as he needed to be.  Although Ward would not have had the language, he is describing the banality of evil here.

Every attempt the intellectual made to move beyond his mind failed.  Religion, marriage, career, and law all are inadequacy to break him out of his isolation.  In some ways, they only reinforced his isolation.  At the end, he is baffled at the indifference and hostility of the crowd toward his losses.  These are, however, simply the end result of his perpetual indifference to his community.