The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne is a classic masterpiece and a mandatory read for American high-schoolers and English majors, and also often their nightmare…
Indeed the work may seem daunting with its stern puritan setting, its highly symbolic and historical framework and somewhat-labyrinthine syntax.
Far from a « page-turner » full of twists (though it includes a pretty big one !) and cliffhangers, its seeming « eventless » plot relies on powerful and rich atmosphere and imagery that capture the reader’s imagination while triggering countless interpretations and subtext quests. It is considered to be the world’s first truly symbolic novel.
This iconic book was issued in 1850 at a time when patriotic feelings for the new United States were stirred up, under the influence of the « American Renaissance movement » which was led by Emerson and his self-reliance theory (1841). Hawthorne was marginally associated with Emerson intellectual circle and some transcendentalist (Emerson’s literary movement based on the oneness with nature and a direct relationship with the divine) traces can be found in The Scarlet Letter. He also married a transcendentalist woman.
Later on, Hawthorne came also to be known as an « American Renaissance father » along with Edgar Allan Poe.
Prominently influenced by the Romantics, as this latter, he developed more specially a distinct American Gothic. His style stresses mainly imagination and emotion along with a sharp criticism of America’s Puritan heritage. Unlike Poe though, his work was deeply rooted in American history and landscapes; that feature drew a particular national attention (though his depiction was not really flattering…) to his work, as America was working at gaining a cultural independence to complement its political independence.
Descendant of a prominent Puritan family in Salem, Massachusetts (among the earliest settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony), Hawthorne drew upon « the old trunk of his family tree » as he called it to trace their history while portraying -and denouncing- the puritan society and its harsh rules.
Haunted by his dark family history and more specially their involvement in the « martyrdom of witches » (the « Salem Witch Trials » in 1692), the writer kept exploring throughout his work, this disturbing past.
A work branded with the seal of guilt and shame that is perhaps most embodied in The Scarlet Letter.
This personal stigma and trauma directly echoes The Scarlet Letter that his heroine Hester Prynne is doomed to wear. In his introduction (« The Custom House ») he refers explcitly to this indelible « blood stain » (maybe a forefather of the « human stain » by Roth…) that sticks to his forebear (and to him through inheritance) even in the grave : <em<« So deep a stain, indeed, that his dry old bones, in the Charter-street burial-ground, must still retain it ».
Given this premise, he (inter)weaves a complex, dark and burning tale revolving around sin, guilt and redemption while setting many levels of meaning. Endlessly interpreted ever since, it marked a literary milestone in American literature. Herman Melville, among others, hailed Hawthorne as the “American Shakespeare.” Novelist John Updike commented on Prynne: « She’s such an arresting and slightly ambiguous figure. She’s a funny mix of a truly liberated, defiantly sexual woman, but in the end a woman who accepts the penance that society imposed on her. And I don’t know, I suppose she’s an epitome of female predicaments. She is a mythic version of every woman’s attempt to integrate her sexuality with societal demands. »
To Henry James, « (…) It has in the highest degree that merit which I have spoken of as the mark of Hawthorne’s best things–an indefinable purity and lightness of conception and naturalness of fancy.” . »
Massachusetts Bay Colony (New England), one of the first major americain colonies settled in the early 17th century by a massive migration of English Puritans: in this rigorous and religious society, Hester Prynne, the wife of an ageing settler and mother of an illegitimate child, is doomed to wear a scarlet « A » (for « Adulterous ») embroidered on her breast and ostracized by the contemptuous community.
After she had refused to reveal the father’s name, she learnt to overcome her moral plight even though a dangerous triangle takes place between her former husband, her lover and her child…
A Sensory Experience : A novel Between Chiaroscuro and Fire…
From a literal point of view, apart from the countless interpretations, The Sarlet Letter is above all a sensory and mesmerizing experience that captures the reader’s imagination.
Hawthorne excels at crafting a new kind of tale where shifting play of (various intensity of) lights and shadows contribute to create a fascinating and fairy atmosphere.
Indeed the light is a central and consistent motif in the novel and completely shapes it, setting it tone and mood throughout the story.
Contrasts of light are more particularly used : from the sunshining opening scene where Hester is displayed on
the scaffold and offered to the public scorn in broad daylight. This « too vivid light » is blinding, violent, almost unbearable, expressing the pain and the suffering of this woman. After this dramatic climax, Hester who had been set apart from the town, will experience a dusky life, in a « circle of seclusion from human society » and « confinement ».
But in her isolated and dim nook, this retreat, she also recovers or at least seeks to recover from this trauma and her alduterous sin. This chiaroscuro in which she lives acts like a soothing balm (that « soothes her sorrow away ») or a protective shell and allows her to « purge her soul » and also reinvent herself.
It represents a place to commune with herself, to grieve and meditate.
The night is a time fostering and even summoning up supernatural phenomena and the metamorphosis she’s going to undergo.
Nevertheless this gloom is not total and came to be illuminated by the red and ever-changing light of the letter A. Its glow that flickers, carries a sense of mystery, magic and fascination like a fireplace, a luminous sparkling source of light on which eyes fasten.
The author employs an extensive, various, and rich language to describe the light and its vast range of aspects: « the glimmering of the gold embroidery », « the glittering symbol on her bosom », « flaming », « blazing, « red hot », « burning » or even « scorching » into her breast, etc. He also emphasizes his precious quality contrasting with Hester’s somber attire.
An « untempered light » which proves to be, by turns, frightening, ghastly, or exercising a magnetic (and hypnotic) power over those who gaze at it who are held spellbound.
It is associated with an « infernal fire », an « ignominy », a « red infamy », a « torture », a « fatal token », a deep « stain of crimson and gold » (repetition of this idea of « stain » mentionned in the preface), or sometimes an « ornement », a « jewel » or even a « luxury » (cf: scene with the bond servant in chapter « The Governor’s Hall: « a great lady in the land » by analogy with the brillancy of the governor’s house (see below). The sumptuary which is also considered a sin in this puritan society. It is also compared to a « talisman » and endows Hester with some extra-sensory perceptions (see « The criticim of the society hypocrisy » in the 2nd part of the review). The scarlet letter empowering her in a certain way by « taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself« .
Later on, it even invests her with a « kind of sacredness » keeping her safe « amid all peril ».
All these adjectives make the letter virtually alive, it feels like a -malevolent- growing creature or a throbbing blushing heart that stands out. What may strike here is that this letter which is just a « mere » piece of cloth turns out to be as physically painful as a red-hot iron brand, producing for instance a « deeper throb of pain ».
Hawthorne excels at showing and depicting in detail the force of the psychological torment that it inflicts. In a nusthell : the force of a symbol. Maybe the author tries to demonstrate that nothing is more powerful than a symbol… An identical mental torment is sustained and suffered by Dimmesdale even if he doesn’t wear any « token », he feels it anyway, as an abstract, on his bosom symbolized by his repeated -twitched- gesture (hand over his heart). This very precise location of the heart reflects at the same time passion and sin.
The moving outer appearance of the letter goes along with this idea of a general shift which works his way throughout the novel. It marks the inner shift Hester is going to undergo -from a « sinful woman » to a « Sister of Mercy »- along with the change of meaning of the letter from « Adulterous » to « Able » (see below). In this way the novel could be viewed as a spiritual journey.
In resonance with this insistent motif of light, the eyes of the characters also reflect various meaninful glares : the eyes of Pearl feature for instance « a decided gleam » or are « glazed » on the other hand he mentions the shining splendor of Pearl writing « there was an absolute circle of radiance around her on the darksome cottage floor.« ; as for Chillingworth « a light glimmered out of the physician’s eyes, burning blue and ominous, like the reflection of a furnace, or let us say like one of those gleams of ghastly fire… » and later on the fading light of Dimmesdale’s eyes in the forest « kindled by her enthusiam, flashed up and died away. »
His extensive use of light, as in a painting (particularly well rendered by the George de la Tour masterpiece featured on the cover of the Penguin Popular Classics Edition, « The Magdalen with the Nightlight« ), enables him to convey indirectly and subtly multiple ideas and perceptions and moments of revelations.
One of Hawthorne’s hallmark of style is to conjure up a map of possibilities, potentialities, and mental images or cultural representations in the reader’s mind : either biblical allegories, references or feelings, sense of magic and fairy, etc.
In addition his clever and tight structure (and staging) endows his tale with a sense of drama and performance (in particular his three scaffolding scenes and their careful use of space, time and position).
Hester and her infant must play the role they are assigned to, the role imposed by the « A », the label put on her. The way Hawthorne sets up every chapter is even close to early cinematic techniques made up of close-ups, low or high angle shots, and aerial perspectives. Overall, each scene is very graphic and detailed.
A Mystical Tale
Hence the strong dimension of tale relying partly on this fantasmagorical letter and supplemented elements such as of course her illegitimate daughter, « little Pearl », an « elfish/freakish child », half evil half angel, who is often interpreted as a human embodiment of the scarlet letter itself.
Hawthorne also keeps referring to the « fancy » as a medium to reach another level of reality or maybe truth ?
Many scenes, specially those that take place in the nature such as the famous and extensive forest and brook scene convey this preternatural feeling. Hawthorne plays with all the elements of nature and typical gothic features : the « gray twilight », the « clouded sky », the « heavy foliage darkening the noontide », a « gleam of flickering sunshine »…
Above all, the metaphor of the melancholic and mourning brook « whispering tales » and « telling unintelligible secrets » is particularly beautiful and imprints an enduring image in the reader’s mind.
A place to unfold the secrets and the hidden truth.
The forest is also associated with Shakespeare’s plays where magic happens but also epiphanies. It also represents a place out of civilization, a sort of wilderness (Hawthorne also expands on various types of contrasts between civilization and wilderness such as the location of Hester’s cottage on the outskirts of the town, the wild nature of Pearl or their walks along the sea and the forest, not to mention the Black Man legend and the « witch party » in the forest told by Mistress Hibbins or even Chillingworth the physician who was taught by the « savage indians » the art of medicines, etc.).
The needle of Hester may also stir many reminiscences of traditional fairy tales, such as Sleeping Beauty (Charles Perrault in 1697) and its spindle curse or the Greek myth of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey weaving indefinitly a burial shroud.
A Novel of « In-betweeness » (liminality)* : « A neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairyland where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet«
Hawthorne fashionned his whole story with this acute sense of blending or at least intersection between the supernatural and the reality. The effects of various light intensities, as aforementioned, contribute prominently to this aim. Optical effects and reflects help to transmute and transfigure the trifling daily life and the surrounding domesticity. In the preliminary « Custom House », the author discloses his vision of « in-betweeness » (or liminality, from the latin), which is also an access door to imagination.
This « in-between » place embodied in the notion of « threshold » (carried over throughout the novel) enables to capture the invisible ; it is a medium to directly connect to the sensibilities, bypassing the rational brain.
When he writes « The moment I stepped across the threshold…« , he emphasizes this particular turning point, this transition, when everything becomes possible. Standing on the threshold depicts a state of « possible becoming, of potential ».*
We mal also consider the structure of the book relying on a kind of « threshold »* structure with The Custom officle preamble seen as a sort of « antichamber » to get to the « main room » of the novel.
There is also a sense of treshold between the 17th and the 19th century, the period of the novel setting and the time of writing (date of the preface). This notion is carried over into the first chapter, a second « opening » of the book focusing on the prison door connected with this idea of doorway.
« My imagination was a tarnished mirror »
An Epitome of the Act of Creation (and reinvention of an identity) : The Seamstress and the Writer
Furthermore, this « threshold state » also serves as a brilliant epitome of the act of creation, more particularly the art of writing and overall of literature. Firstly, in « The Custom Office, the narrator attempts to define and describe what literature is, how to create this distinct form from other genres of history, philosophy or even biography. We must bear in mind that at that period, the term of « novel » had a particular meaning* : it was linked to domestic experience, a kind of sentimentality that Stowe (Uncle’s cabin) does. Hawthorne wants to move away from this direction and that’s why he came up with the new term of « romance » as he considered « novel » a « debased » term. To him, domesticity must be transfigured by the writer’s pen (cf : the moonlight which endowed the daily objects with « dignity »).
Ahead of his time, he also points out and discusses the (present-day) controversial autobiographical aspect (at least in France ! cf the « autofiction » literary movement that mainly boomed in the late 90s) contained in lietrature as his preface is a sort of self exploration (of his family and own carreer).
In addition, The Custom House turns into an exploration of literary creation, its fashioning, crafting (narratives) and simply making. And this is again the « threshold » image which is used to represent the (altered) state of consciousness, almost ghostly, the writer must achieve to get inspired and create storys. Allan Poe used opium, Hawthorne prefers a more safer way : the light !
The firelight in particular (the « dim coal fire ») is mentionned as an « essential influence ». How to ignite the fire of creativity…
This exemplary passage captures, with a great and vivid poetic style, this particular and delicate process.
It’s also worth noting his association with a blacksmith’s job in this particular line : « The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. » This is the idea of a writer as a « wordsmith ». All these references may be connected with the fire image (the letter on fire « A ») that pervades the novel. Connections and relations flow through everywhere when you get to think of it…
Finally, this idea of creation may also be found in Hester through her « art of needlework » for which she is gifted. Hawthorne weaves an analogy between sewing and writing (and especially his type of writing that involves interweaving, in intricacy, motifs and symbols, characters and events of his narrative).
The needle and the pen are quite close in this way. In the chapter « Hester at Her Needle », he really fleshes out her art and mentions for instance her taste for the « gorgeously beautiful » or « the exquisite productions ».
He also states clearly : « (..) it might have been a mode of expressing, and therefore soothing, the passion of her life » (even though a joy is a sin as she is aware of it). The leter is one of her creation and is described as « a specimen of her delicate and imaginative skill » or « a rich adornment« .
Since the very start of the book, Hawthorne connects it with the name of « Artist » (« so artistically done », « a gorgeous luxuriance of fancy »).
Not only Hester creates elaborate embroideries and fringes but she also came to create gradually a new identity of herself through the shift, the spirtual journey she undergoes (see above).
Hawthorne unveils clearly this shift at work from the beginning in chapter 7 (seven years later) : « The letter became the symbol of her calling. » (cf : her charity volunteer work).
The letter enables her to express her individuality despite the society attempt to clamp it down*.
Puritans try to « type » her but she resists being typed*. On the contray, she types herself in a different way* (« A becomes Able »).
Creation goes along with « Transformation », a personal transformation. In the chapter « Hester and the Physician », Hester clearly states it when talking about the letter, she says that it could « fall away » or « be transformed into something that should speak a different purport. »
The transformation is also at work in Chillingworth as Hester, shocked, realized his growing « blackness » : « [He] was a striking evidence of man’s faculty of transforming himself into a devil.« [Alexandra Galakof]
Copyright : Buzz… littéraire, please don’t plagiarize this work for school papers.
Please feel free to report any mistake you may notice (ESL work). Thank you in advance.
*Lecture 22 « Nathaniel Hawthorne », Professor Cyrus Patell, New York University
Outline of the (upcoming) second part of the review : What is a sin ? Exploring the nature of sin (and evil) and biblical allegories; The sin of intellectual freedom by Hester and the feminism of Hawthorne, Criticism of the Puritan society (and transcendentalist ideal) and social hypocrisy.