References are to the Portable Hawthorne, edited by William C. Spengemann.
I suspected at the time of writing that my harsh judgment of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” was perhaps a bit overhasty and that I was missing something. Post-lecture, placed in the context of a bald American nationalism and seeing the conflicted Rousseauian spirit of the mob scene, I see more clearly its power. Rousseau’s chained freedom is precursor to Emerson’s all-is-mediated and they form the conflict at the heart of an American form of life. What is clear from the miss, however, is that of the two kinds Henry James called Hawthorne’s “stories of fantasy and allegory” and his “little tales of New England history,” I clearly am most at home in the former (being more algebraic in Emerson’s sense), whatever James’ denigration of it. The Scarlet Letter, on most scores, moves back to this form, though it must in a more complicated sense.
The first interesting facet of the story to be noticed is Hawthorne’s relation to the writing of it. The Scarlet Letter does not present itself as simple piece of made-up fiction. Hawthorne presents it as a recorded narrative, like an historian. “Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader.” (160) Hawthorne’s figural gesture of plucking one flower to present creates the illusion of a larger reality in which the story sits, which is the illusion of reality, realness. Hawthorne isn’t, of course, pretending that he’s telling us about something that actually happened. What this gesture does is create a mask behind which Hawthorne can hide, essentially creating an Author persona that mediates between Hawthorne and the story.
This allows Hawthorne to use an ironic aside to his readers throughout the story. For instance, “On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.” (162) The question of what Hawthorne thinks about his contemporary situation is completely blocked behind the mask of the Author. What we are left with is an irony that reflects back on us the question of whether the statement itself is true or not: have we moved past the Puritanism of two hundred years ago? This is the constant question forced upon us by Hawthorne through the Author.
The great question in force, it would seem, is that of the nature of sin. I’m guided her by a comment of D. H. Lawrence’s at the outset of an essay on Hawthorne: “Sin is a queer thing. It isn’t the breaking of divine commandments. It is the breaking of one’s own integrity.” This is a distinctively Emersonian transvaluation of sin and gets something importantly right about the common project of mid-19th century American writers. Hester Prynne wavers a good deal on the scaffold, though almost always keeping a bold face to the crowd. What is fascinating is her summons of strength at the moment of truth: “Never!” she tells Dimmesdale, looking not at the crowd or her questioner, but straight into “the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman.” (178) And though her second cry breaks a bit, the strength of her will, having traversed the chapter’s rising sense of agony, is thunderous, and could only adhere to one of singular character. I take the “wildness of her nature” (188) to signal Hester’s authentic self, the one that thundered “Never!” in the face of society’s shame, and that her great sin is that she holds out hope for a reunion with Dimmesdale. Her wildness is chained in New England, the truth of which she must hide from herself, the great strike against sincere authenticity: “doubtless it was so, although she hid the secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hole.” (189) The serpent, Satan’s form in Eden, “the tempter of souls,” is here the form of her love for Dimmesdale.
Much of the middle section of The Scarlet Letter is given over to the development of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, two characters, I must confess, I find far less fascination with than Hester and Pearl. But part of the growing power in Hester and Pearl lies in their relations to the two, so pass through them we must.
Pearl, in her earlier chapter, is shown to be a vast font of unpredictable, unlawful power, akin by her perceivers to an imp and delivishness. I think this marks the unmistakable odor of a rising feminism. The rules of the past are being broken, and though Hester rests between the past and the future, she does wish “to create an analogy between the object of her affection, and the emblem of her guilt and torture.” (209) Pearl embodies her own passion and wildness, her own break with the past, her sin, and so is consistently held, as Chillingworth cogently sees, as having “no law, nor reverence for authority, no regard for human ordinances or opinions, right or wrong, mixed up with that child’s composition. … Hath she any discoverable principle of being?” Dimmesdale responds, equally cogently, “None,—save the freedom of a broken law.” (237) The wild unpredictability of Pearl depicted by Hawthorne, I think, is his correct apprehension of the unseen vistas of the future to which we in the present must hammer out. This is the romantic Coleridge’s (or was it Wordsworth?) suggestion that we create the taste by which we are judged given its American twist in Emerson’s call for internal, authentic self-reliance, setting out our own rules for ourselves, for Whitman’s vision of democracy and the eratic, yet internally compelled Pearl, with her as yet undiscovered principle of being.
The “melancholy prophecy of decay” (225) in Dimmesdale’s voice is partly found in this breakdown of law, impelled as he is “powerfully along the track of creed,” which was “essential to his peace” “while it confined him within its iron framework.” (228) It is again noteworthy that the breath of fresh air Chillingworth gives Dimmesdale, amidst the “musty fragrance, be it sensual or moral” of his books, is the unfamiliar counterpositions of “other moral scenery” (ibid.). But Dimmesdale’s sin lies elsewhere, too, in D. H. Lawrence’s supposition that sin is lying to yourself. Dimmesdale is unaware of Chillingworth’s hunt because of a “certain morbidness” which “rendered him suspicious of all mankind,” (234) a malady we first saw at the close of “Young Goodman Brown.” What Dimmesdale then conjures are sick self-rationalizations, putting him further from himself. He wraps himself in the cloak of God, reasoning that humanly revelations “are meant merely to promote the intellectual satisfaction of intelligent beings.” (235) If I read Hawthorne aright, with his belief in the power of symbols, when Dimmesdale declares that there can be “no power, short of the Divine mercy, to disclose, whether by uttered words, or by type or emblem, the secrets that may be buried with a human heart,” (ibid.) Hawthorne is marking Dimmesdale’s blindness and self-interested swerving from justice, which ultimately is an authenticity to oneself.
Emerson and Thoreau are always pulled together, taken to be from common stock, but less often do we match Hawthorne with the so-called Transcendentalists. Chapter 13, “Another View of Hester,” however, maps on quite well with the Romantic view of nature American Transcendentalists were known for and seems to throw Hester into the mode of a prophet.
After Hester and Pearl’s encounter with Dimmesdale on the stockade, Hester recesses into herself, spending the chapter meditating on her situation, which is suggestively called “Another View of Hester.” In Hester, Hawthorne set up a strong dichotomy between outward and inward appearance, a conflict that manifests itself in deliberation over action, the greatest muddle between our private internals and public externals. To begin, Hawthorne rings a strong Emersonian bell when he says, “Little accustomed, in her long seclusion from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself…,” (261) one that even carries Thoreau’s hermetic influence.
Her seclusion, however, is forced by Puritan society, a decision she in part agrees with. She herself views her time with Dimmesdale as a sin and lives her life as Puritan virtue would have it: “it could only be a genuine regard for virtue that had brought the poor wanderer to its paths.” (262, italics mine) But the doubleness of Hester’s behavior always remains—“This might be pride, but was so like humility….” (263) Though Hester acts like a Puritan, and does as a matter of course, believe in its virtues, her outward behavior passes through the third-person reported ambiguities (“pride or humility?”) to their mirror opposite in her mind, the world of thought where she acts as a true radical. What is interesting is that, like Thoreau, Hawthorne emphasizes the outward, behavioral aspect of this inward turn.
“Standing alone in the world,—alone, as to any dependence on society, and with little Pearl to be guided and protected,—alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even had she not scorned to consider it desirable,—she cast away the fragments of a broken chain.”
This mirroring of Hester’s Puritan virtue with her “emancipated,” radical theories, the outward behavior with the inward, ineffectual thinking is central to reading Hawthorne’s tale as an allegory for the human condition. Hester, like humanity, sits astride her warring passions and cool thinking, her puritanical behavior and radically feminist thought. The height of the allegory is achieved at the end, as Pearl, embodying the free, yet-unforeseen future, “that unknown region where Pearl had found a home,” (354) leaves her mother, who must return home to New England. Hester is shackled to the past, straddling past and future. Hester birthed the future, but she herself cannot be a part of it. If “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” suggests that the most fluid time for social norms—and so the only moments for transcendence—are during revolutions, Hester must come back because we cannot exist in total, permanent revolution.