Second part of the analysis the Scarlet Letter (see first part) by Hawthorne. Here are the main topics that are discussed below : What is a sin ? Exploring the nature of sin (and evil) and biblical allegories; The sin of intellectual freedom by Hester and a sense of feminism in Hawthorne’s work ; Criticism of the Puritan society (and transcendentalist ideal) and social hypocrisy.
What is a sin ? Exploring the nature of sin (and evil)
The theme of sin is of course at the very heart (and on the breast !) of The Scarlet Letter.
This persistent and eternal « stain », embued with shame and guilt, that clings to Hester (and Dimmesdale) even after death. Hester Prynne embodies the traditional « sinful woman and passion », « the faulty woman » and the « frailty ». Engraved in the Judeo-Christian ideology, the sin derives from « the Fall », the original sin where Eve is blamed for tempting Adam to eat the fatal fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Ever since, this is a common and ingrained representation of the woman.
As for Hester (and indirectly for Dimmesdale), this fundamental tragic event results in expulsion and suffering.
Here, Hester is charged with adultery, in other words the sin of lust according to the seven deadly sins.
In this logic, Dimmesdale is guilt of yielding to temptation but also of pride and moral weakness.
Finally, Chillingworth is guilt of harassment and moral torture on Dimmesdale (a sadomasochistic relation unite the two of them).
Thus, each character of this infernal triangle is linked to one another through these interconnected sins.
What is striking here and very modern is that Hawthorne merges both opposite biblical figures in Hester : the purity of the virgin Mary, « the image of Divine Maternity », and the sin of the prostitute Mary Magdalene.
This daring distorsion (reminding somewhat the altered biblical images by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, nearly a century later in 1939) and clever ambiguity (that he started to develop in other previous stories) enable him to show the versatile, relative and reversible nature of what society calls « sin ». He moves away from the inherent manicheism, the « types », which are religious cornerstones to show that what Church (or society) calls sin, ill or good, evil and virtue are actually more complex notions.
The line between right and wrong may sometimes blur or even doesn’t make sense at all…
Furthermore, Hawthorne surveys the tight and paradoxical relation between hate and love, how they are closely related to one another. He shows this phenomenons through his three main characters chained together either by love or hate, the former able to trigger the latter and both interdependent. It creates a sort of addiction and obsession in both cases. The narrator points it out : “It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. Each, in its utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another; each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his object.”
As the book tends to investigate the roots of evil, one of its findings could be that evil is a consequence of the intermingling of these extreme passions. A form of evil may be found in each character and « Little Pearl » (symbolizing the Devil) is at the crossroads.
Even though Hawthorne seems to acknowledge that adultery is a « sin », he also gives Hester some mitigating circumstances (her very old husband, a loveless marriage that we might suppose had been imposed on her and above all the sincere love she feels for Dimmesdale).
Indeed, beyond strict sexuality, there is a real sentimental connection betwenn Hester and Dimmesdale.
Here, Hawthorne wanted to dig into the conflict between passion and reason, head and heart.
What he names in the novel « the sphere of thought and feeling« .
Jane Austen would probably have said : « Sense and sensibility » !
This theme is particularly interesting to explore in Puritan context as emotions were fiercely banned.
This denial of feelings is an extreme position that was used as a mean to keep behaviours in check and also a response to the wilderness surrounding the puritan settlements. They endeavoured to set their own boundaries to control their environment. In addition, the cold intellect of Chillingworth, a scholar, represents the lack of human sympathy and compassion.
Hawthorne explictely condemns this domination of intellect over the emotions and romance.
Throughout the novel, he emphasizes the stiffness and « iron-repression » of Puritan society, focusing notably on « men of study » and « learned men » : « the grim and gristly presence of the town-beadle », « the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law », « the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people », « these stern and black-browed Puritans » or « the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy », « the puritanic gloom », « their sour and rigid wrinkles », « an iron framework of reasoning ».
Nevertheless, despite questioning sin and condemning outrageous Puritan methods of discipline, Hawthorne seems to concur with their fundamental doctrine of Total Depravity. One of the cornerstone of the T.U.L.I.P, the acronym gathering the five religious principles (codified by The Synod of Dort). The Total depravity of mankind is the result of the original sin that damned human beings who are seen as « totaly depraved ». Only the « Elect » have a place in Heaven. According to this view, no one can « earn » his way to Heaven. This is an interpretation of Calvin’s texts based on God’s sovereignty and fatedness and Providence. As the result of the fall, Evil comes into the world or at least the knowledge of Evil. The original sin has created a debt to God through desobedience that can never fully be repaired : Adam and his offsping are all responsible.
Therefore, salvation doesn’t exist (except for a few chosen people, the « doctrine of Election »).
There is no human intervention in this process of election (Puritans believed they were Elect).
This philosophy differs from other religions derived from christianism such as catholicism in wich good work, good deeds may influence your fate through the notion of forgiveness.
On the contrary, to the Puritans, God doesn’t deal wirh forgiveness, love or mercy.
He rather acts with men as a law-giver, as a judge and as an executioner.
This vision prevails in Hawthorne’s work. Throughout the novel Hester struggles to repent and redeeem herself and she even shares with Dimmesdale in the forest her hopes to flee and « begin anew » and eventually go to Heaven (see below her « intellectual freedom »).
But in this very scene where she attemps to throw away the letter and let her « burden of shame and anguish » go, Pearl recalls that she is not allowed to remove this letter, in other words there is no redemption as she could have dreamt of it for one moment.
The end of the novel featuring a close-up of the two star-crossed lovers’ graves is particularly clear and meaningful by emphasizing their enduring separation (with « no right to mingle »), even in death.
In his lecture, Professor Patell explains that contrary to Emerson (who promoted « unbridled individualism »), Hawthorne believed in the need of some social contraints through a certain kind of « give and take ».
Emerson considered these arrangements almost « intolerable bonds ». To him Society was just unnecessary evil.
Hawthorne understood that in some ways the social constraints could be enabling constraints and this is what he showed in The Scarlet Letter. On the other hand, Emerson was somewhat criticized for undervaluing, or underestimating the power of evil.
Hester’s urge to Dimmesdale to run away, leaving everything behind and start afresh reminds Emerson’s view.
The Sin of Intellectual Freedom
On the other hand, Hawthorne shows how Hester will experience a sort of inner enlightment in her « lonesome cottage » and find an « intellectual freedom ». In puritan’s world this is an even worse sin than lust and ironically this is their very punishment that will produce this « intellectual sin » (the « sin of knowledge » related to the original sin) : a « deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter« .
As mentionned in the first part of this review, Hester finds a way to express her individuality and not to be only labeled as « The Adulterous ».
As an outcast, she retreats into her mind and her own thinking. Her thoughts begin to stretch and go beyond the puritan boundaries. In other words, she has crossed the line, this threshold again, we discussed earlier.
As a result she ended up living by her own rules, moral standards and beliefs. To a certain extent, her eviction sets her free (specially from religious doctrine bonds as implied in this quote « she cast away the fragments of a broken chain« ). « The world’s law was no law for her mind. »
Hawthorne refers to the Enlightment, in his passage about Hester’s awakening and compares the scarlet letter with a « passport into regions where other women dared not tread,” leading her to “speculate” about her society and herself more “boldly” than anyone else in New England.
In this sense, his writing is considered « feminist » by some gender studies scholars, to a certain extent.
However, this feminism finds its limits in several aspects such as the fact that Hester only thinks but don’t act (« The thought suffices [her] ») and keeps on « conforming to the external regulations of society ».
Motherhood remains first and foremost her identity and social role rather than the one of a political leader such as the religious foundress Ann Hutchinson cited by Hawthorne in comparison.
« Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss. »
Finally, this intellectual awakening doesn’t lead her anywhere and is even compared to « a wandering in the dark labyrinth of mind ». This contrast between light and darkness that runs through the novel is found here again. On the upside, knowledge and the relief from the weight of conformism may make your life brighter and open up new opportunities and options.
On the flip side, this break with the « pensée unique », (the « single-thought ») may also confuse by shaking one’s world and beliefs, isolate you even more and make one feel lost. This is what Hester seems to experience along with some fear of what she discovers (such as the social hypocrisy).
Freedom and knowledge may be scary as they involve isolation and venturing into uncharted places.
Hawthorne compares it to the surrounding wilderness: “She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness… Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods… »
In chapter 13, Hawthorne also analyses what he calls « the whole race of womanhood ». His discourse is quite equivocal once again. He points out, through Hester’s speculation, the inequalities and the unfairness that pervet society. He states quite boldly and radically that « the whole system of society [should be] torn down, and built up anew » along with the « nature of the opposite sex« . In addition, he also highlights a quite forward-thinking requirement in this feminine emancipation process he seems to call for: the necessity for women to « undergo a mightier change ». His view on the woman’s condition is rather pessimistic. Another limit to this assumed feminism could be the art he ascribed to Hester that relates to housework (needlework) rather than an intellectual art (such as writing or painting).
Finally, he also brings up the subject of woman physical features and « the feminine character » as Hester voluntarily deprives herself of her « charms ». He deems these « attributes » (such as « tenderness » and beauty) were « essential to keep her a woman« . These remarks could also question Hawthorne’s feminist stance.
Upcoming last part of the review : Criticism of the Puritan society (and transcendentalist ideal) and social hypocrisy.