Writers for Conservatives 57: The Scarlet Letter
When Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) published his first novel, The Scarlet Letter, in 1850, he was known only as a writer of odd, grim tales of obsessions, guilt, and witchcraft, most of them taking place against a somber Puritan background, a characterization which also fits the novel, although that's not the way it begins. The first chapter - "Introductory-The Customs House" - is a prosy account of his observations during the time he worked there in the 1840s. Salem, once a bustling port, was now an idle backwater, and Hawthorne's account of the aging idle employees is gently humorous. His purpose here is to establish the historical authenticity of the novel by his claim that in an attic he discovered a bundle of old documents as well as a remnant of the scarlet letter itself, a not uncommon literary device. That, however, is much less important than the effect produced when this chapter is succeeded in the second chapter by the story itself. Not only does the scene change to the Boston of 200 years before, but the prose itself, sportively ironic, gives way to straightforward grimness describing a stern reality. The transition is a shock (as it is meant to be) and from now until the end we shall be in this foreboding world.
The three significant characters are present in the first scene when Hester Prynne, the adulteress, with her babe in arms is led out from the jail to the scaffold where she is to be exhibited as a shameful warning. There she is exhorted to name her partner in sin by the saintly, reverent preacher, Dimmesdale, and it is covertly observed by her long lost (and presumed dead) husband, Roger Chillingworth. Although we are not told that Dimmesdale is her lover, alert readers will begin to suspect. Chillingworth's part in the story is soon revealed when he has an interview with her in the jail. He, a much older, scholarly man, married her in order to provide a comfortable home for his old age, and she had innocently acquiesced. Planning to emigrate to Boston from England, he had sent her on ahead, but when he followed he had been shipwrecked and held captive by Indians. In the jail interview he pledges her to silence about himself and swears to discover her lover.
The plot is easily outlined. Hester, shunned, lives in a cabin on the town's outskirts, becomes a nurse and purveyor of small charities to the poor (even as they scorn her), supporting herself by doing fine needlework for the town gentry. She fills the role of a martyr, but is a strong, stalwart character. Chillingworth, respected as a learned man and physician, becomes intimate with Dimmesdale and works to pry out his secret. Late in the book, Hester and Pearl (her child) and Dimmesdale meet by accident in the woods where Hester persuades him to flee with her to England on a ship that's leaving in a few days. Removing the scarlet letter, she lets down her luxuriant hair, an obvious clue to her strongly sensual nature. Pearl, an imp of perversity, clearly meant by the author to be not only the physical but also the symbolic fruit of their unlawful union, forces her mother to pin up her hair and replace the letter on her breast. Soon thereafter, Hester and Pearl are standing outside the meetinghouse where the minister is preaching his most eloquent sermon on the ceremonial day of the installation of the governor. She has already taken passage on the ship and learns now that Chillingworth has also done so. She sees him in the crowd looking triumphant as the dignitaries leave the meetinghouse in a procession and Dimmesdale pauses beside Hester and Pearl and, full of guilt and remorse, bids them stand with him on the scaffold where he publicly confesses his sin (to the chagrin of Chillingworth who tries to prevent the confession which will save the minister's soul) and dies.
Hawthorne's writings, even those dealing with his contemporary world, like The Blithedale Romance, are romances rather than realistic novels or stories. A romance does not try to chronicle the details of our quotidian lives, so, for instance, we never learn what Hester's cabin is like, nor do we ever see the ordinary street life of the town. The prose, therefore, dwells almost exclusively on the three main characters, on their thoughts and acts, so the book moves right along. My edition is nearly 400 pages long, bit it didn't seem so to me. Problems of circumstances, very important in novels, are managed perfunctorily in romances. So the marriage of Chillingworth and Hester, like the adulterous act between Dimmesdale and Hester, we accept as part of the conventional machinery of the story even if both seem highly unlikely. In a romance only character and atmosphere count, and while both may have melodramatic touches, they must be both powerful and believable. Hawthorne sometimes suggests that the scarlet letter glows with an unearthly light, and the minister, when he bares his breast at the end may seem to reveal the letter burnt into his breast, and Chillingworth may seem not unlike Bela Lugosi in "Dracula," but we never doubt for a moment Hester's corporeality, Dimmesdale's guilt and weakness, or Chillingworth's sadistic malevolence.
It is possible to write historically accurate fiction (as Kenneth Roberts did), but Hawthorne's past is conceived in terms of romance. The past 200 years that he sketchily outlines in dark hues enables him to surround the characters and events with the drama of the stern rigors of Puritan Calvinism, thus giving the situation of Hester and Dimmesdale a plausible and portentous background. And he can get away with such melodramatic touches as having the governor's sister suggest to Hester a witch's coven in the woods. The book is permeated by darkness: the dark woods, the black clothing of the dignitaries, the night scenes. One of the most striking scenes occurs when the minister, agitated by guilt and remorse, stands alone on the scaffold and gives one unheeded shriek into the darkness. Soon thereafter, returning from a vigil at a sick bed, Hester and Pearl appear and Dimmesdale invites them to stand beside him. Pearl asks him to repeat that in broad daylight, but he promises to so only on the Judgment Day. A brilliant light from a meteor illumines the scene, and what does the minister see?
We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own mind and heart, that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter - the letter A - marked out in the lines of dull red light
He also sees:
Roger Chillingworth . . . standing there with a smile and scowl, to claim his own.
In the space of moments in time and half a page of prose, Hawthorne brings his characters again together in their destined roles, the whole scene obviously one of romance.
Hawthorne's meaning - that unexpiated sin cuts us off from our fellows and dooms us - is difficult for modern sensibilities to accept, and that the sin in this case is adultery offends the contemporary mind in which unbridled sexuality has joined life, liberty, and happiness as another one of our inalienable rights. So a movie of the book was made a few years ago with a "happy ending." I'll bet that most readers of the scene in the woods where Hester lets her hair down are ardently on her side when she persuades him to run off with her. But the moral of the story is not what the discerning reader (and all my readers are discerning) carries away with him when he reads the book. What he vividly remembers is the clash of brilliantly limned passionate characters portrayed against a darkly ominous background. That is Hawthorne's great achievement. We do not forget it, just as we do not forget other passionate American characters like Captain Ahab. This is a triumph, the first truly American work of fiction.
His stories are Twice-Told Tales and Mosses From an Old Manse, and The Show Image. A novel with the setting of the Brook Farm utopian experiment (in which Hawthorne played a small part) is The Blithedale Romance. *