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)

Lafcadio Hearn, “Some Chinese Ghosts” (1887) Transgressions in Chinese Folk Lore

Lafcadio Hearn was quite the wanderer in his life and like many of us living in this liquid world moved around, never quite finding a suitable intellectual or physical home.  His writings too him to Japan, China, New Orleans, and the Caribbean.  In this sense, he is a great representative of the phenomenon of Americans participating in the world system brought on by Western imperialism.  We could probably place Hearn in the company of “orientalists” but his sympathies are much more complex that what we tend to expect from those who wrote on the empire from the privileged perspective of the center.  Hearn was transgressive in his own life, breaking anti-miscegentation laws by marrying a former slave.  He later marries into an old samurai family in Japan and takes on many of the accoutrements of Japanese living.  In is in this period that he writes his famous English versions of Japanese ghost stories.  He eventually takes on Japanese citizenship.  His “American Writings” are collected in the Library of America, but I am not sure if we should properly call him an American writer since he was born in Greece and spent most of his life outside of the U.S. (although he did live there for around 20 years in his most formative years).  He also lived much of his life in poverty.  His work would sustain a sympathy for working people.  Given this biography, it seems to me that we have much to learn from Hearn about living in a liquid world, but I will test that hypothesis while I explore some of his writings this week.


Hearn wrote Some Chinese Ghosts from his base in the United States and before visiting East Asia.  He later expressed regret that he tried to understand China without visiting it, from books alone.  He would not make this mistake with his great retelling of Japanese ghost stories, which are a product of many years living in Japan.  These were developed from his reading of works by important sinologists and reflect his first attempt at translating East Asian folklore.

We can take a look at this on three levels.  The first is what role folklore, in particular ghost stories, play for us in general, in a Jungian perspective.  From this we can imagine that ghost stories allow us to explore the limits that our value systems will allow.  By dealing with the impossible, they allow us to explore the limits of our possibles.  We would expect transgression to be written into the texts.  Another way is to look at these as Chinese ghost stories, developing from a certain cultural context.  The transgressions possible in these tales are only transgressive in the context of Chinese culture.  We would be wrong to try to read a universal human story in them.  Finally, we can read these as orientalism.  That is, to read them as an Western imposition, a threat to the authentic Chinese tale.  They can only teach us how Westerner looked at China in the 1880s.  I suspect all three have merit.  In any case, all the tales in Some Chinese Ghosts carry in them a story of transgression.


The first tale “The Soul of the Great Bell” speaks of an emperors mad attempt to fuse many metals into one alloy that will create the perfect sound based on the character of each metal.  The metallurgist hired to cast the bell fails two times.  It seems the dreams fusion is impossible.  When the emperor threatens death to the metallurgist, his daughter decides to cast herself into the metal.  Her ghost fuses the metals together perfectly, creating the “precious metal” and the mighty bell.  It, however, speaks the name of the craftsman daughter, “Ko-Ngai.”  On the surface, this is simply another tale of Confucian filial piety run amok, but she through her sacrifice she is able to reach immortality.  Rather than bind herself to the duty of the past, she is capable of projection into the eternal future.  We should also note that her sacrifice makes possible to impossible, the creation of that impossible alloy.

I had half expected “The Story of Ming-Y” to turn out to be a fox-spirit story, since it starts with a promising young scholar turned away from his path by a beautiful woman.  Instead of a fox spirit, Ming-Y met the ghost of Sie-Thao, the most beautiful of women who died “not as other women die.” (26) Ming-Y, hired by the magistrate to tutor for his family, sneaks away every night to be with this beautiful woman he met on the road.  At a crucial moment, before he learns the truth but after he decided to end the visits, he decided to reject the duty to his family and live with her alone.  The truth intervenes and allows Ming-Y to live a stable and proper life, but that does not undermine the importance of his choice.  It is the story teller, not the character who cannot accept the transgressive path.

“The Legend of Tchi-Niu” is similarly contesting the reality we have been given by proposing the potential of a woman bread-winner.  In this tale, the destitute Tong sells himself as a slave.  While in the nadir of his life, he is approached in a dream by a woman who offers to be his wife and promises “I will provide.” While he cannot be public about his new marriage because it entails a complete surrender of his role as a male provider.  He is rejecting existing reality through the half-real marriage.  Of course, his wife turns out to be supernatural.  In this case, she is the goddess Tchi-Niu, this revelation is made only after she provides him a son – continuing the her promise to him.”Thus he was made free; and prosperity came to him with his freedom; and whatsoever he gave to the sacred earth was returned to him centupled.” (34)

There are three more tales, but I will not have room to explore them today because I want to bracket the question of gender for a moment to make the point.  Notice with me that in all three of these tales the active agent is female.  This turns the traditional yin-yang definitions on their head (where the yin is female and passive, while the yang is masculine and active).  We certainly can find many tales of female agency in Chinese literature but they seem to require the imposition of a supernatural element.  In this way, we can consider the hypothesis that the power of supernatural tales is that, like science fiction, they can push the limits of what is possible.

In contrast, Hearn’s next major work, Chita, is fully of the world and brutally honest at that.

Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories”


Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line challenged the hard boundaries of race and class that shaped post-war America.  He also shows that the longer we look at the absurdity of the “color line,” the more quickly it looks both ridiculous and brutal.  This progressive realization of the brutality of race is suggested in the structure of the stories.  The first story (“The Wife of His Youth”) is a rather nice tale of a slave who ran away, received an education, and after the war reached an elite station – even gaining membership in the “Blue Veins,” a society of elite blacks, many of whom were biracial.  To escape slavery, this man had to leave his wife.  During a party, this man recognizes his former wife – a very dark-skinned woman – and tells their story for the audience of elitist, skin-tone-conscious blacks.  The final story in the collection, “The Web of Circumstance,” examines the same color line, reflected now in unequal applications of the legal system, by showing how a man’s life is destroyed by an unfair prosecution.  In the end he is indiscriminately shot by his former boss, seeing him now only as “a desperate-looking negro, clad in filthy rags, and carrying in his hand a murderous bludgeon.” (266)  And while the main character is strangely fated via the web of circumstances, we cannot escape the formal and informal applications of power at every step of the way (the courts, prisons, racial privileged, and property law) that explain his outcome.  I am reminded of David Simon’s use of the concept of fate in The Wire, where post-industrial institutions control our lives and define out path.   Chesnutt is not shy about his argument, which he presents in the final page. “Some times, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there is to be another golden age, when all men will dwell together in love and harmony, and when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a thousand years.  God speed the day, and let not the shining threat of hope become so enmeshed in the web of circumstance that we lose sight of it; but give us here and there, and now and then, some little foretaste of this golden age, that we may the more patiently and hopefully await its coming!” (266) We can, perhaps, forgive Chesnutt’s passivity at the end.  In the face of such domineering structures of power, what was possible?  We now know, it took sustained struggle.


The rest of the stories hover between this brutality and pessimism and the more sentimental, but they all remind us how blurry the color line was, even under slavery and in the harsh legal separation of Jim Crow.  Sometimes this blurring is caused by history, as in “The Sheriff’s Children,” about a sheriff who struggles to keep a black man safe from a Klan-like mob while he await’s trial.  We learn at the end that the prisoner is his own son.  As a slave owner, he impregnated one of his slaves and then sold her and her child to a speculator.  Othertime it is blurred by the prejudices of biracial and middle class blacks.  In “A Matter of Principle,” a rich member of the Blue Vein Society, Cicero Clayton, was excited by the prospect of a marriage between his daughter and a Congressman.  When Clayton goes to meet the suitor at the train station he mistook him for a someone else and rejected the meeting because he was too dark.  “If the Congressman had turned out to be brown, even dark brown, with fairly good hair, thought he might not have desired him as a son-in-law, yet he could have welcomed him as a guest.  But even this softening of the blow was denied him, for the man in the waiting-room was palpably, aggressively black, with pronounced African features and woolly hair, without apparently a single drop of redeeming white blood.” (160-161)  This honest internal monologue is contrasted with Clayton’s public proclamations, calling for the “Brotherhood of Man.”  In “Uncle Wellington’s Wives,” a mulatto man leaves his wife (since his slave marriage was not legitimated after the war), goes north to pass as white.  He marries a white woman, but eventually returns to his original wife and community finding a greater degree of acceptance there.  Nevertheless, passing for Uncle Wellington was easy.  Chesnutt often reminds us how flexible the line was.

I am conflicted about this.  On the one hand it is important to remember how we can take on new identities and take actions that blur the lines that divide us.  In these stories it is almost always unsatisfying.  This freedom often comes at great cost.  For Uncle Wellington it meant the disruption of his community and family and the betrayal of his wife.  More importantly, “passing’ was only possible for some.  If it is our physical characteristics, our bank account, our job, or gender that define our identity, crossing the line is more difficult and requires more destruction in its wake.  Thus, without the destruction of race as a category, these acts can only be solitary, individual revolutions.

One story in this collection does suggest a bit more agency and is set in the days of slavery.  “The Passing of Grandison” tells the story of a slaveowner’s son who tries to free one of his father’s slaves by taking him to the North and then Canada, giving him plenty of chances to run away.  He seems to remain loyal, throughout, much to the frustration of the young man.  Finally, Grandison, the slave, is left behind in Canada.  He returns to the plantation.  What seems at first glance to be evidence of irrational loyalty to a slave master turns out to be an elaborate ruse, when Grandison leaves for Canada a few weeks later with his entire family.  His true loyalty was to his family, who he did not want to leave behind.

These fascinating and satisfying tales provide both the tragedy of racism and Jim Crow but also reveal the potential for transgression in the wake of institutionalized slavery.