[lit-ideas] The Scarlet Letter, meanderings after reading

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas" <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 30 Nov 2006 12:24:11 -0800

In response to something I wrote about Hawthorne, my friend in Iraq (whom I
haven't heard from since he announced that he would be attending a meeting
in Baghdad -- I read later that three "contractors" were killed at about
that time, but he, not being a contractor, is probably okay) said that he
read The Scarlet Letter years ago, perhaps in response to the requirement of
a class, and didn't like it.  I also read it years ago, in 1965, but
couldn't recall whether I liked it or not so I reread it.

 

I was resolved to do that in any case after reading the biographer, Edwin
Miller, and the several people he quotes describe how marvelous the novel
is, but it was tough. Aside from the dreary pessimism that pervades the
novel, I was most unhappy with the Gothic nuances.  I mean, this isn't a
Gothic novel, so why is he bothering with what seem to be gratuitous Gothic
insertions:  Pearl has what can only be described as preternatural knowledge
of the nature of the Scarlet Letter and of Dimmesdale's relation to it.
Mrs. Hibbered whom Hawthorne tells us more than once was executed for
witchcraft after the events described in his "Romance" were concluded, also
has the same sort of knowledge.  She knows that Dimmesdale has had truck
with the "Black Man" [Hawthorne's, and presumably the Puritans', name for
the Devil].  She also knows that Dimmesdale and Prynne have been together in
the woods -- although I suppose one could alternatively account for that
knowledge as being the result of her superior woods-craft, there is no
support for that in the novel.

 

No, there is supernatural knowledge, Hawthorne believes, and supernatural
events do occur, but Hawthorne nevertheless looks forward to a more rational
time when they won't; which seems rather incurious of him.  He is dealing in
his novel with supernatural events associated with The Black Man, but if
these are real, surely events associated with his antithesis are also real,
and to be fair Hawthorne does assume them, but in a more subdued traditional
sense.  Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold and calls Hester and Pearl up there
with him as support while he makes his grand confession before dying, and
this confession defeats the evil designs of his (and Hester's) nemesis,
Roger Chillingworth, who withers up after Dimmesdale's death since he no
longer has a purpose in life.

 

And what does one make of Hawthorne's prophecy at the end of his novel:  He
writes of Hester returning years later and resuming her Scarlet Letter and
of the women who flock to her for comfort and advice which she gives them:
"She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period,
when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven's own time, a new
truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between
man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness. Earlier in life, Hester
had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but
had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and
mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down
with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow.  The angel and apostle
of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and
beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal
medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the
truest test of a life successful to such an end!

 

"So said Hester Prynne, and glanced her sad eyes downward at the scarlet
letter.  And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old
and sunken one [the one in which Dimmesdale lies], in that burial-ground
beside which King's Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and
sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers
had no right to mingle.  Yet one tombstone served for both.  All around,
there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab
of slate -- as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex
himself with the purport -- there appeared the semblance of an engraved
escutcheon.  It bore a device, a herald's wording of which might serve for a
motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it,
and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the
shadow:-- 'On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.'"

 

We cannot condemn Hawthorne at any point for being either naive or maudlin.
For example, after Dimmesdale makes his grand confession and then dies in
scene worthy of Verdi or Puccini, Hawthorne describes the various reactions
all of which fell short of Dimmesdale's intention.  Some even persisted in
believing in Dimmesdale's holiness, claiming that he made this gesture not
because he was Hester's consort but because by seeming to claim to be he was
demonstrating that he too was a sinner like everyone else -- these theorists
were thereby free to continue to believe that he wasn't.  

 

And so, I suppose, we should see in Hester's prophecy not a true prophecy
but Hawthorne's belief that Hester does indeed qualify for the position she
denies herself: as the "lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise" "angel and
apostle of the coming revelation."  And yet is she?  It is true that Hester
after seven years of wearing the letter attempts to talk Dimmesdale into
fleeing to Europe with her.  So she eventually rejects the justness of her
(and his) punishment -- and she does it in such a way that the reader is not
willing to find fault with her for doing so.  So perhaps that is her attempt
"to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of
mutual happiness."

 

Hawthorne tells us earlier that Chillingworth was more to blame than Hester
for her unfaithfulness.  He should have known and indeed did know that
someone else's beauty would eventually find hers with irresistible result.
Hawthorne obviously wants us blame Chillingworth above Prynne or Dimmesdale,
for he turns him increasingly ugly and demonic, in the manner of the picture
belonging to Dorian Gray, the more successful he is in tormenting
Dimmesdale.  And so the "brighter period, when the world should have grown
ripe for it," the period in which "the whole relation between man and woman"
will be placed "on a surer ground of mutual happiness," will be one in which
the future Prynnes and Dimmesdales will be allowed to consort together
without anyone objecting.  That seems to be what Hawthorne is recommending
to us (unless we assume that he is intending Hester to be making a true
prophecy about a period not yet upon us), but such a recommendation is
untenable.

 

It is utterly tenable from a practical point of view for this is the state
which all men and women living in Liberal Democratic societies enjoy today,
but it is untenable from an ethical point of view for it involves some level
of betrayal.  The future Hester would have to betray the future
Chillingworth in some manner.  Putting it in its best light, she would at
least have to say that when she was very young she thought she could spend
her life with the old and ugly but intelligent and talented Chillingworth,
but as time wore on she discovered that she could not.  He can hardly blame
her for her ignorance, for her ignorance was not intended by her but was
intrinsic in her youth and inexperience; which he should have anticipated.
Guilt must therefore not be assigned to her for deciding to divorce
Chillingworth and run off to live happily ever after with Dimmesdale.
Whatever Nation this divorce takes place in will not place fault on either
person (All Liberal Democracies seem to have embraced a philosophy of "no
fault" not only in regard to relationships), but popular opinion will think
Chillingworth an old fool for attempting to lock up the beautiful Hester in
what they would perceive as an "impossible" relationship.  

 

They wouldn't, perhaps, be willing to apply any of Hawthorne's attributes
(i.e., "lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise") to this future Hester at the
time of her divorce, but they wouldn't deny her the possibility of growing
into them.  Sure she was young and foolish when she married old
Chillingworth, but that was Chillingworth's and her parent's fault for
letting that happen.  It surprised nobody that she finally wised up and left
him.

 

Did Hawthorne believe that the period within which he lived was this period
"showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life
successful to such an end!"   Hawthorne's biographer quotes liberally from
the love letters Nathaniel wrote to his beloved Sophia; so there is room to
believe that he believed his sacred love made him happy "by the truest test
of life" by his persistence in it to the "end."  However the biographer goes
on to describe Sophia's condition after he dies.  She is far from being in
this "sacred love" any longer but is busy scrambling for financial support
anyplace she can find it.  

 

In moving forward from 1850 to the present time, we don't seem to find any
better examples of this hypothetical "sacred love," or do we?  Periodically
some pollster will go about the nation asking men and women if they are
happily married.  Inevitably a somewhat greater number of men will say they
are than women.  Are there still Hesters out there married to
Chillingworths?   Do the Chillingworths say they are happily married while
back at home the Hesters are chafing to be off after their Dimmesdales?  

 

On the other hand most husbands and wives do think they are happily married.
According to National Review in the 70s the numbers reporting happy
marriages were 69.6 percent for men and 68.6 percent for women.  By the
early 2000s both numbers had dropped.  It was 64.6 percent for husbands and
60.3 percent for wives.  We can focus on the current 4.3 percent greater
unhappiness on the part of married women if we like, but the fact remains
that 60% of all married women consider themselves happily married.  So would
Hawthorne be inclined to think our period closer to his ideal?  One can't
help but wonder how many women would have declared themselves happily
married back in Hester Prynne's day.

 

Lawrence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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