6 Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter

Mr. Subham Chowdhury

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The Author: a few biographical details


Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) belonged to a family that descended from the earliest settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Born as Nathaniel Hathorne, he later added a w. As Sarah Bird Wright informs in Critical Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work (2007), his ancestors ‘emigrated to Massachusetts in the early 17th century, settling first in Dorchester, and then moving to Salem. The earliest Hathornes took part in the persecution of Quakers and those thought to be witches.’


A voracious reader, he read as a boy the works of Shakespeare, Milton, John Bunyan and James Thomson. And, Wright informs that ‘[t]he first book he bought as a boy with his own money was Spenser’s The Faerie Queen.’ Wright also tells us that ‘[a]ccording to a library records, he borrowed at least 1,200 works of nonfiction from the Salem Athenaeum.’ In his Bowdoin College days, he made friendship with people like H. W. Longfellow (who would become a poet and Harvard professor), Franklin Pierce (who would become the 14th President of the United States) and Horatio Bridge (who would help Hawthorne in publishing his first collection of short stories). Later, in 1839, Hawthorne also became acquainted with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In 1845, he got work as a customs surveyor (like the narrator of The Scarlet Letter) for the port of Salem. When the Whigs won in the 1848 election, he lost his job. In 1849, he made acquaintance with Herman Melville who would dedicate his Moby Dick (1851) to him. Hawthorne himself began to write The Scarlet Letter in September 1849 and finished it in February 1850.

Plot overview


The Scarlet Letter begins with an introductory chapter which reveals how the book came to be written. The narrator used to work in the custom house in Salem, Massachusetts, as the surveyor. In that custom house, he discovered some documents including a manuscript wrapped in a scarlet, gold-embroidered piece of cloth in the shape of ‘A’. The manuscript, the work of a Jonathan Pue, a past surveyor of the custom house, records events that occurred about two hundred years ago. Having lost his job, he decides to write a fictional account of the recorded events.


The story is set in the seventeenth century Puritan Boston. Hester Prynne, a young woman charged with adultery, moves from the prison to the scaffold, wearing the letter A that is meant to stand for Adultery. She has a little daughter. Asked to name the father of the child, she refuses. In the crowd, there is an elderly onlooker whom Hester recognizes as her  missing husband. From another man in the crowd, her husband gets to know what has happened. He hides his identity by choosing to call himself Roger Chillingworth.


John Wilson and the minister of the church, Arthur Dimmesdale, ask Hester to divulge the name of her partner in adultery. She refuses. In the prison, Chillingworth meets her as a physician. Both of them think that they were themselves wrong. However, as Chillingworth asks for the name of her partner, she still refuses. He says that he is going to find it out. He also asks her not to divulge his own identity.


After her release from the prison, Hester settles in the periphery of the town and earns some money with her needlework. She lives a secluded life with her daughter, Pearl, who is also growing up. Hester is slightly frightened of her daughter’s unusual behaviour. Church also suggests that Pearl be taken away from her mother.


Hester goes to Bellingham’s house, where, in accordance with Hester’s appeal, Dimmesdale persuades Governor to let Pearl remain with her mother.


With the deteriorating health of Dimmesdale, Chillingworth arrives for his treatment. Chillingworth begins to suspect that Dimmesdale is suffering from some repressed guilt. Therefore, as Chillingworth suspects that Dimmesdale might be Hester’s partner in adultery, he begins to put him under mental pressure.


Tormented by his conscience, Dimmesdale confesses his guilt to Hester and Pearl in that same scaffold where Hester had to stand several years ago. However, he lacks the courage to go for a public confession. Later, Hester informs Dimmesdale of her husband when they meet in the forest.


On the Election Day, Dimmesdale delivers his best sermon. But, after that, he confesses his sin on the scaffold and dies in Hester’s arms. Chillingworth also dies, thereafter, leaving  Pearl an inheritance. Hester and Pearl leave Boston. But, several years later, Hester returns to her old cottage. After her death, she is buried near Dimmesdale’s grave.

Historical novel or (psychological) romance? 


Wright writes about Hawthorne in general: ‘He focused on the nation’s past, especially the Puritan era. He was also much concerned with the social and psychological aspects of human behavior and undertook the mission of exploring the darker side of humanity.’ The Scarlet Letter is the best example that validates Wright’s point. So, here, we have two issues: the question of novel and romance, together with the question of fact and fiction; and Hawthorne’s characterization. For now, let us focus on the first point.


In his preface to The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Hawthorne distinguishes between novel and romance: ‘When a writer calls his work a romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former— while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation […] He will be wise, no doubt, to make very moderate use of the privileges here stated, and, especially, to mingle the Marvellous rather as a slight, delicate, and evanescent flavor, than as any portion of the actual substance of the dish offered to the public.’ This passage clearly reveals in what sense Hawthorne subtitled The scarlet Letter as ‘A Romance’. As a romance, this text maintains a balance between the natural and the marvellous, the history and fiction.


In a paper entitled ‘The New England Sources of The Scarlet Letter’, Charles Ryskamp points out the extent of Hawthorne’s ‘fidelity’ to the historical accounts in Caleb H. Snow’s History of Boston, as well as his points of deviations from it. Ryskamp points out that ‘[a] clear instance of Hawthorne’s borrowing a fact from Snow is in the naming of “Master Brackett, the jailer” […] Few colonial historians mention a jailer in Boston at this time, and if they do, they give his name as Parker. But Snow, alone it would seem, gives this information about Brackett’. Indeed, at one point of time in his book, Snow mentions ‘Richard Parker or Brackett, whose name we find on the colony records as prison keeper so early as 1638.’ Ryskamp further points out that ‘[a]nother example of Hawthorne’s use of Snow is shown in the description of Governor Bellingham’s house.’ Snow, on one occasion, describes an ‘Ancient building’ in the following manner: ‘This […] is perhaps the only wooden building now standing in the city to show what was considered elegance of architecture here, a century and a half ago […] The outside is covered with plastering […] But instead of pebbles, which are generally used at the present day to make a hard surface on the mortar, broken glass was used […] This surface was also variegated with ornamental squares, diamonds and flowers- de-luce.’ And, now, let us just take a look at Hawthorne’s description of Bellingham’s house: ‘This was a large wooden house, built in a fashion of which there are specimens still extant in the streets of our older towns […] the walls being overspread with a kind of stucco, in which fragments of broken glass were plentifully intermixed […] it glittered and sparkled as if diamonds had been flung against it […] It was further decorated with strange and seemingly cabalistic figures and diagrams’. No one can miss the striking similarities between the two descriptions. Ryskamp still points out that ‘Snow is also the only historian who tells the story of Mrs. Sherman’s pig in order to bring out its effect upon the early Massachusetts government. Hawthorne, with his characteristic interest in the unusual fact from the past, refers to this strange incident’: ‘a dispute concerning the right of property in a pig not only caused a fierce and bitter contest in the legislative body of the colony, but resulted in an important modification of the framework itself of the legislature.’ There is also striking similarities between Snow’s account of Mrs. Ann Hibbins and Hawthorne’s characterization of Mrs. Hibbins. Snow writes: ‘The most remarkable occurrence in the colony in the year 1655 was the trial and condemnation of Mrs. Ann Hibbins of Boston for witchcraft. Her husband […] was an agent for the colony in England, several years one of the assistants, and a merchant of note in the town; but losses in the latter part of his life […] increased the natural crabbedness of his wife’s temper, which made her turbulent and quarrelsome [..] [so] as to cause some of them to accuse her of witchcraft […] and the miserable old lady was condemned and executed in June 1656.’ And, in The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne refers to Mrs. Hibbins as ‘Governor Bellingham’s bitter-tempered sister […] the same who, a few years later, was executed as a witch’. Now, Ryskamp tells us, ‘[t]here seems to be only one source for Hawthorne’s reference to Mrs. Hibbins as Bellingham’s sister. That is in a footnote by James Savage in the 1825 edition of John Winthrop’s History of New England, and it was this edition that Hawthorne borrowed from the Salem Athenaeum.’ Hawthorne’s characterization of John Wilson as ‘a man of kind and genial spirit’ is also historically accurate. Snow also mentions his ‘compassion for the distressed and […] affection for all’. Ryskamp argues that ‘Hawthorne, to gain dramatic opposition to Dimmesdale, makes the preacher seem older than he really was.’ Hawthorne refers to him as the ‘good old minister’ and pictures him in a ‘beard, white as a snow-drift’. Now, it is also possible to show in a similar way that in many ways Hawthorne also seems to have borrowed from Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana.


So far we have seen the extent to which Hawthorne has remained faithful to the historical accounts. But, he also deviates from history at some points. However, Ryskamp argues that these changes were ‘not made because of lack of knowledge of the facts, nor merely by whim, but according to definite purposes’. We have already seen that regarding John Wilson’s age. In chapter xii, ‘The Minister’s Vigil’, we have the death of Governor Winthrop in ‘an obscure night of early May’. But Ryskamp notes that historically Winthrop died on March 26, 1649. Ryskamp suggests as a possible reason for this historical inaccuracy that ‘[i]t would be difficult to have a night-long vigil in the cold, blustery month of March without serious plot complications.’ He further argues: ‘Hawthorne realized that for a powerful climax, not more than a week, or two weeks at the most, should elapse between the night of Winthrop’s death, when Dimmesdale stood on the scaffold, and the public announcement of his sin to the crowd on Election Day. The Election Day […] and the Election Sermons […] were well-known and traditionally established in the early colony in the months of May or June. (The election of 1649, at which John Endicott became governor, was held on May 2.) Consequently Hawthorne was forced to choose between two historical events, more than a month apart. He wisely selected May, rather than March, 1649, for the time of the action of the last half of the book (Chapters XII-XXIII).’ Hawthorne deviates from history at another point as well. We know that there was a gap of exactly seven years between the first scaffold scene and the second scaffold scene. Therefore, Ryskamp notes, ‘the first four chapters of The Scarlet Letter may be placed in June, 1642 […] Hawthorne says that at this time Bellingham was governor […] Again one does not find perfect historical accuracy; if it were so, then Winthrop would have been governor, for Bellingham had finished his term of office just one month before.’ Here, Hawthorne plays with historical accuracy, most probably, to make use of Mrs. Hibbins as Bellingham’s sister.


Hawthorne’s work not only is a mixture of historical accuracy and inaccuracy, but also maintains a balance between the natural and the supernatural. While he establishes his story in a real historical setting, he also scatters in it a few mysterious elements like glowing red eyes, the A in the sky, Mrs. Hibbins and the Black Man in the woods, and Pearl. All of them seem to border on the supernatural but are never quite it. Thus, as quoted earlier, Hawthorne ‘make[s] very moderate use of […] the Marvellous rather as a slight, delicate, and evanescent flavor’ to prepare, as he says in ‘The Custom House’ Chapter, ‘a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairyland, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.’ However, according to John C. Stubbs’ argument in a paper entitled ‘Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: The Theory of the Romance and the Use of the New England Situation’, Hawthorne’s use of the supernatural in The Scarlet Letter does more than that in effect as it ends up serving the history in an interesting way: ‘For Hawthorne, the balance of the marvelous and the natural was inherent in the New England superstitions.’ Keeping this in mind, we can also take into account  Ryskamp’s claim: ‘Even the portent in the sky, the great red letter A, which was seen on the night of the revered John Winthrop’s death (and Dimmesdale’s vigil), would not have seemed too strange to Puritan historians. To them it would certainly not have been merely an indication of Hawthorne’s gothic interests.’ Indeed, snow had written that during John Cotton’s death in 1652, ‘strange and alarming signs appeared in the heavens’. Stubbs also points out about Chillingworth that ‘Hawthorne stresses the superstitious wonder directed at this man of medical skill by the Puritans.’ He further adds that ‘in similar fashion, Hawthorne envelops Pearl and the scarlet letter with the aura of the marvelous, usually working through the minds of superstitious onlookers.’

Feminist Reading of The Scarlet Letter


In an essay called ‘Hawthorne’s Feminine Voices: Reading The Scarlet Letter as a Woman’, Suzan Last writes: ‘The narrator’s “equivocal” style has inspired much critical speculation as to the novel’s “underlying ideology,” including debate over whether the novel is a seminal work of proto-feminism or just the opposite.’ It seems that it is almost impossible to solve this ambiguity about the author’s intention.


If we simply consider the story, it is the woman who alone bears the whole punishment: she is made to stand on the scaffold, wear the mark of shame, and live on the periphery of the society. But the man responsible for her adultery escapes the punishment and lives freely at the heart of the society with full dignity. It reminds us of a little line in Simone de Beauvoir’s The second sex (translated by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier): ‘he commits the fault, but unloads it unto her’. Besides, the fact that Hester’s partner belongs to the very body of the male authority which punishes her reminds us again of another line from The Second Sex: ‘he pushes her to abortion, adultery, misdeeds, betrayal, and lies he [himself] officially condemns’. Thus, at a basic level, Hawthorne’s plot itself seems to invite feminist attack. However, a closer look at the text problematizes this simple reading. From the Christian perspective, while Hester makes her purgatorial journey from damnation to salvation, Hester’s silence makes Dimmesdale suffer within inferno, since, as Dante says, hell is a state, not a place. Therefore, Dimmesdale earnestly asks Hester to divulge the name.


Now, we have the same ambiguity about the characterization of Hester Prynne: Hester certainly exerts a subversive force towards the beginning of the novel, but, on the other hand, she seems to bear no feminist consciousness as such. Charged with the shameful crime of adultery, Hester appears at the prison door, the narrator tells us, ‘with natural dignity and force of character, and […] [stands] as if by her own free will.’ And then, as she reveals the letter ‘A’ ‘surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread,’ she seems to celebrate what is supposed to be the mark of her shame. A female spectator says, ‘what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?’ It promises a bold  female personality who defies the Puritan (patriarchal) morality. As she stands at the prison door ‘in fine red cloth’, with ‘dark and abundant hair […] and deep black eyes’, her tremendous youthful beauty seems to make her the sole partner of the ‘wild rosebush’ which stands, in direct contrast, before the ‘gloomy front’ of ‘this ugly edifice’—the Puritanical prison which is ‘the black flower of civilized society’—and has ‘merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed it’. These images seem to suggest a contrast between ‘the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law’ and the liveliness of what is natural. Thus, in the first scaffold scene, Hester is presented by Hawthorne as a powerful character through whom he seems to make a critique of Puritan severity. But then, Hester fails to sustain this promise as, later, she herself conforms to the Puritan moral codes and thinks that she has, indeed, committed a grave sin.


We know that the punishment for adultery in the seventeenth century was whipping and even death. Then, by suppressing the historical facticity of whipping, critics argue, Hawthorne seemed to be suggesting that the Puritan authority was not as harsh as it is taken to be. Suzan Last also draws our attention to the ‘narrator’s attempt to resurrect the “better deeds” and more noble traits of the Puritans’. Even, in the first scaffold scene, we see that it is the  women in the crowd who want a more severe punishment for Hester: one woman thinks that ‘[t]he magistrates are […] merciful overmuch’ and says that ‘[a]t the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead.’ Another woman goes so far as to say that ‘[t]his woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die.’ Thus, it has been argued, Hawthorne has distorted historical truth to show that contemporary women could be harsher and crueler than the kind Puritan authority. However, Monika Elbert argues in ‘Hester’s Maternity: Stigma or Weapon?’ that ‘[t]hese antagonistic women see Hester’s sexuality in the way men conventionally have viewed it, as a threat’, and have dealt with that threat by ‘becoming more male, more hard, than the toughest patriarch’.


If the last argument has allied Hawthorne with patriarchy, we can again go back to the point of Hester’s needlework to look at it from a different perspective which shows Hawthorne as a remarkably modern feminist writer. The fact that Hester has been compelled to put on the letter ‘A’—signifying Adultery— indicates man’s writing (or representation) of the woman. It can be connected with the ‘male gaze’ that Hester is subjected to in this scaffold scene. Laura Mulvey argues in her famous essay called ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975) that ‘[t]he determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly.’ What is it if not man’s writing of the woman in terms of his fantasy?  And man’s fantasy comprehends the woman in binary opposites as either whore or goddess. If the letter ‘A’ was to mark her as an Adulteress, a man from the crowd sees in Hester ‘the image of Divine Maternity.’ Interestingly, Hester’s needlework deconstructs this patriarchal language—the letter ‘A’— by appropriating this same language to rewrite herself: in Chapter XIII, we see that ‘many people refused to interpret the scarlet “A” by its original signification. They said that it meant “Able”; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.’ But then, the ambiguity remains as there is not a single indication in the text about Hester’s consciousness behind her subversive needlework.


The American aspects


Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter might be placed in a tradition beginning from the first American novels like The Power of Sympathy (1789) by William Hill Brown (1765-1793), Charlotte Temple (1794) by Susanna Haswell Rowson (1762-1824), and The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797) by Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840). The Power of Sympathy is a romance that deals with a contemporary scandal of incest and suicide in the Morton family. Its didactic purpose is clearly visible in the preface: ‘To Expose the dangerous Consequences of Seduction’ and to reveal ‘the Advantages of Female Education.’ Richard Gray writes in A History of American Literature: ‘Hardly distinguished in itself, the book nevertheless establishes a currency common to all three of these early American novels: a clear basis in fact, actuality (so anticipating and meeting any possible objections to fiction, imaginative self-indulgence, or daydreaming), an even clearer moral purpose (so anticipating and meeting any possible objections from puritans or utilitarians), and a narrative that flirts with sensation and indulges in sentiment (so encouraging the reader to read on). Even more specifically, The Power of Sympathy shares the same currency as the books by Rowson and Webster in the sense that it places a young woman and her fate at the center of the narrative, and addresses other young women as the intended recipients of its message.’ Hawthorne’s work, certainly, falls into this tradition in all respects. In the preface to Charlotte Temple, the first American bestseller, Rowson writes that her novel is ‘not merely the effusion of Fancy, but […] a reality’ as the basic facts were related to her by ‘an old lady who had personally known Charlotte.’ And, throughout The Scarlet Letter, we see that Hawthorne maintains a balance between fact and fiction. As Ryskamp notes, ‘[t]he characters named in The Scarlet Letter—other than Hester, Pearl, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale, for whom we can find no real historical bases—were actual figures in history.’ Rowson also says, ‘I have thrown over the whole a slight veil of fiction’. And Hawthorne, as he says in ‘The Custom House’

Chapter, tries to tinge the history with a ‘magic moonshine’ so that the history is ‘invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as visibly present as by daylight.’ Rowson also insists on the moral purpose of her writing: ‘For the perusal of the young and thoughtless of the fair sex, this Tale of Truth is designed’. And such a moralizing tone might be discerned in Hawthorne’s work as well. What follows Rowson’s preface is a tale of seduction of a young girl and her suffering. And we know what we have in Hawthorne’s work.

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