The Scarlet Letter notes

Familiar theme: familiar combination of the wife, the lover, and the husband
In spite of the relation between H P and A D, no story of love was surely ever less of a “love-story.”
What appealed to Hawthorne was the idea of their moral situation in the long years that were to follow
The story, indeed, is in a secondary degree that of H P
It is upon her guilty lover that the author focuses, with the livid and sinister figure of the injured and retributive husband always nearby.
The story goes on between the lover and the husband—the tormented young Puritan minister, who carries the secret of his own lapse from pastoral purity locked up beneath an exterior that commends itself to the reverence of his flock, while he sees the softer partner of his guilt standing in the full glare of exposure

 

Related to the motif of Hester’s brand is that of Dimmesdale’s

          We first read of the minister’s often repeated gesture in chapter 3, when he is urging Hester to reveal the child’s father.  He is described as speaking to her and “leaning over the balcony, with his hand upon his heart.”  In the next chapter, when R C is also urging her to tell the man’s name, he speaks of this unknown villain and says, “’He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garments, as thou dost; but I shall read it in his heart.’”  In chapter 8, Hester and Pearl are at the Governor’s house and Hester turns to the minister for support in her request that she be allowed to keep Pearl:          “…the young minister at once came forward, pale, and, holding his hand over his heart, as was his custom whenever his peculiarly nervous temperament was thrown into agitation.  He looked now more careworn and emaciated than as we described him at the scene of Hester’s public ignominy; and whether it were his failing health, or whatever the cause might be, his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth.”

The gesture of putting his hand over his heart is to be related to Dimmesdale’s own private scarlet letter which has evidently been growing increasingly vivid and painful.  In the next chapter (10), Dimmesdale says, “it must needs be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it all up in his heart.”  It is only a few pages later while Dimmesdale is sleeping, that R C makes his discovery.

 

Hawthorne is concerned only with the results of that sin, with its mark on the two men.
H P, betrayed by the birth of her illegitimate child, has stood on the pillory with the terrible letter on her breats
A D, the accomplice in her guilt, preaches each Sunday from the pulpit while the secret consciousness of his sin eats into him
R C, watching A D with a malevolent eye night and day, awaits with a fiendish patience the ultimate resolution of the situation
Hawthorne is interested only in the effect of the hidden and festering sense of guilt which is slowly consuming A D
A D becomes the center of the book
H P’s guilt is absolved through her public xuffering
H P’s  happiness and her love is never resolved
A D’s problem is solved when he makes public confessional upon that very pillory where H P once sttod with her child in her arms and endured the mockery of the populace.
R C – there is no end to his problem, f or his attempted revenge, circumbented at the very last, by A D’s safety on the pillory from the stings and arrows of men, turns like a ravenous and disappointed hound and rends him apart.

 Romanticism – literary and artistic movement that placed a premium on fancy, imagination, emotion, nature, individuality, and exotica.  There’s a movement here from personal and political documents to entertaining ones.  Purely American topics were introduced such as frontier life.

Transcendentalism – an American literary and philosophical movement of the nineteenth century.  The Transcendentalists believed that intuition and the individual conscience “transcend” experience and thus are better guides to truth than are the senses and logical reason.  Influenced by Romanticism, the Transcendentalists respected the individual spirit and the natural world, believing that divinity was present everywhere, in nature and in each person.  The Transcendentalists believed that the most fundamental truths lie outside the experience of the senses, residing instead, as Emerson put it, in the “Over-Soul…a universal and benign omnipresence.”

 Anti-Transcendentalists – (Hawthorne and Melville) rebelled against the philosophy that man is basically good.  The Scarlet Letter, set in Boston in the 17th century, deals with sin, concealed guilt, hypocrisy, and humility.  Hawthorne was a mentor to Melville.  Both men saw human life in grim terms.

 

Notes from Henry James –
Novel contains little gaiety or hopefulness
It is densely dark, with a single spot of vivid colour in it
The book was the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in America

Absolutely American; it belonged to the soil, to the air; it came out of the very heart of New England
Familiar theme: familiar combination of the wife, the lover, and the husband
In spite of the relation between H P and A D, no story of love was surely ever less of a “love-story.”
What appealed to Hawthorne was the idea of their moral situation in the long years that were to follow

The story, indeed, is in a secondary degree that of H P
It is upon her guilty lover that the author focuses, with the livid and sinister figure of the injured and retributive husband always nearby.

The story goes on between the lover and the husband—the tormented young Puritan minister, who carries the secret of his own lapse from pastoral purity locked up beneath an exterior that commends itself to the reverence of his flock, while he sees the softer partner of his guilt standing in the full glare of exposure and humbling herself to the misery of atonement—between this more wretched and pitiable culprit, to whom dishonour would come as a comfort and the pillory as a relief, and the older, keener, wiser man, who, to obtain satisfaction for the wrong he has suffered, devises the infernally ingenious plan of conjoining himself with his wronger, living with him, living upon him; and while he pretends to minister to his hidden ailment and to sympathise with his pain revels in his unsuspected knowledge of these things, and stimulates them by malignant arts.

The people of the book serve not so much as characters, but as representatives of a single state of mind; and the interest of the story lies, not in them, but in the situation.

 Notes from Herbert Gorman –
Hawthorne is concerned only with the results of that sin, with its mark on the two men.
H P, betrayed by the birth of her illegitimate child, has stood on the pillory with the terrible letter on her breats
A D, the accomplice in her guilt, preaches each Sunday from the pulpit while the secret consciousness of his sin eats into him
R C, watching A D with a malevolent eye night and day, awaits with a fiendish patience the ultimate resolution of the situation
Hawthorne is interested only in the effect of the hidden and festering sense of guilt which is slowly consuming A D
A D becomes the center of the book
H P’s guilt is absolved through her public xuffering
H P’s  happiness and her love is never resolved
A D’s problem is solved when he makes public confessional upon that very pillory where H P once sttod with her child in her arms and endured the mockery of the populace.
R C – there is no end to his problem, f or his attempted revenge, circumbented at the very last, by A D’s safety on the pillory from the stings and arrows of men, turns like a ravenous and disappointed hound and rends him apart.

 Notes from Leland Schubert –
The most powerful and simple motif in the book is the scarlet letter itself
Hawthorne never tells the reader in so many words what the “A” stands for; but there is no doubt in the reader’s minds
First referred to in chapter two:
“the mark”
“a certain token”
“the letter A”
“the SCARLET LETTER”
“the red letter"
“the scarlet letter”
“the ignominious letter”
“the letter A"
 again “the scarlet letter”

Hawthorne refers to  this symbol nearly a hundred and fifty times
Sixty percent of the times he calls it by its full name, “the scarlet letter.”
Also called: “the embroidered letter”
“the ignominious brand”
“the fatal symbol”

it appears forty times in part B, the five chapters which deal with the struggles of Pearl and Hester
Hawthorne uses it only twice in the next three chapters, part C
In the middle chapters it is used three times:
“the embroidered letter glowing upon her bosom”
“letter A” glowing in the sky

In his conclusion, Hawthorne describes A D and H P as both buried under the same tombstone on which is inscribed “On a Field, sable, the letter A, gules.”

Only in chapter 1, 9, and 20 does the scarlet letter not appear.

 

Related to the motif of Hester’s brand is that of Dimmesdale’s

          We first read of the minister’s often repeated gesture in chapter 3, when he is urging Hester to reveal the child’s father.  He is described as speaking to her and “leaning over the balcony, with his hand upon his heart.”  In the next chapter, when R C is also urging her to tell the man’s name, he speaks of this unknown villain and says, “’He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garments, as thou dost; but I shall read it in his heart.’”  In chapter 8, Hester and Pearl are at the Governor’s house and Hester turns to the minister for support in her request that she be allowed to keep Pearl:          “…the young minister at once came forward, pale, and, holding his hand over his heart, as was his custom whenever his peculiarly nervous temperament was thrown into agitation.  He looked now more careworn and emaciated than as we described him at the scene of Hester’s public ignominy; and whether it were his failing health, or whatever the cause might be, his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth.”

The gesture of putting his hand over his heart is to be related to Dimmesdale’s own private scarlet letter which has evidently been growing increasingly vivid and painful.  In the next chapter (10), Dimmesdale says, “it must needs be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it all up in his heart.”  It is only a few pages later while Dimmesdale is sleeping, that R C makes his discovery.

 

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NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE:  THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

 It was a brash, bustling, energetic country in which Hawthorne grew up and carved out his writing career.  The covered wagons were rolling West, with signs that bravely declared "California or bust!" The first passenger railroad opened, and the trains went huffing and puffing along at the (then) incredible speed of 20 miles an hour.  Jackson was elected president, throwing the conservative statesmen out of office and ushering in the age of democracy and the common man.

 It was an age between wars, when America, having beaten England for the second time--in the War of 1812--was flexing its adolescent muscles.  Hope was in the air, and also a feeling of impatience with the imported, second-hand, European way of doing things.  "Down with the past" might have been the slogan of the time.  Americans sensed a fresh, creative task at hand in the building of a new country.  It was a task that called for strong backs, clear eyes, and open minds.

There were experiments in living going on to match the experiments in politics and technology.  Starry-eyed intellectuals gathered outside Boston to thrive on a vegetarian diet at Alcott's Fruitlands.  Thoreau conducted his own private experiments in a life close to nature at Walden Pond.  Horace Mann planned to change the world by changing education.

 Where was Hawthorne while all this excitement was going on? In his bedroom in Salem, reading a book.  You get the distinct feeling about this man that, so far as the great adventures of
his time were concerned, he simply wasn't paying attention. Hawthorne was gazing intelligently off in another direction. Most of his generation looked expectantly toward the future.Hawthorne kept his eyes on the past.

He was an introvert, almost a recluse, this native son of Salem, Massachusetts.  After graduating from Bowdoin College, he spent close to twelve years at home in his room, reading and learning his writer's craft.  For subject matter, he turned not
to life but to books and to his own family history.  When he was a boy, his Puritan ancestors had haunted his imagination.  And now, he read voraciously about early New England history, fleshing out his childhood dreams.

 Perhaps Hawthorne read so much about the Puritans that their concerns became his.  More likely, his reading struck a chord in him that was already familiar.  Hawthorne thought about sin.  He thought about guilt.  He thought about the dark side of the soul.  He pondered questions that few other men of his time thought or cared about--questions like:  What happens to people who nurse a secret sin throughout their lives?  Or, is it true that the evil taint of a crime lingers forever on the soul?

 Hawthorne had a wide, unconventional streak in his soul, and he didn't like it.  Some part of him was always at war with the recluse and pessimist in himself.

 Hawthorne even briefly flirted with Utopianism.  He joined Brook Farm, a community near Boston, in the hopes that a life in the open air, in communion with other writers, would be congenial to him.  But milking cows and raking manure proved too much for Hawthorne.  He left after a year to resume a private writing career.

 Hawthorne made other attempts to put himself in touch with the currents of his time.  At the age of 35, he sought--of all things--a political appointment.  Hawthorne went to work in the Salem Custom House, where his nose was really rubbed in the grimy details of trade.

 There was a good reason for that particular choice. Hawthorne had met his future wife, Sophia Peabody, and he needed money to marry on.  He was never a best-selling author, and a lack of funds was a problem he would wrestle with all his life.

 The question of money would rear its ugly head again in 1846 when Hawthorne, now a husband and a father, returned to the Salem Custom House as Surveyor.  He spent three mildly discontented years there, to be thrown out in 1849 when a Whig victory ended the Democrats' reign.  (Hawthorne was a member of the Democratic party.)

Hawthorne was bitter at such high-handed treatment.  But his dismissal from the Custom House proved a blessing in disguise. He was free to write again.  Indeed, he had to write in order to keep a roof over his head.  He set immediately to work and produced The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850.

Perhaps the novel served as a kind of creative trigger, for the famous works now followed quickly, one on the heels of another:  The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, and The Blithedale Romance in 1852.

We can talk about the later events of Hawthorne's life:  the birth of more children, a consulship to England, the publication of The Marble Faun in 1860.  And yet, if we do, we will get no closer to the man.  Hawthorne lived a decent, middle-class, intellectual sort of life.  He wrote, he served his country in minor capacities, he had children, he worked to support them. And yet, there was something he held back, a part of himself he showed only to the four walls of his room.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a man, for instance, who married a genteel, delicate woman, a woman to whom love meant the sweet sound of violins.  But the creator of Hester Prynne knew a different side of things; knew just as surely as he lived that there were dark, erotic temptresses out there with eyes a man could drown in.

 

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  HESTER PRYNNE

 Hester Prynne is one of the most enigmatic characters in all literature.  As the wearer of the scarlet letter, she may be expected to possess some definitive insight available to no one else.  Yet her final word on the subject is "I know not.  I know not."

 Is Hester a glorious heroine, standing up to an unduly repressive society in the name of love and freedom?  Or is she a sinner who has broken a basic and sacred law?  And if she is a sinner, does sin lead her in the direction of evil or of good?

 Let's look at Hester from a number of different viewpoints:

 1.  Hester is a magnificent woman fighting for her natural rights to love and freedom.  To know what Hawthorne means by his heroine, you have only to look at her.  With her flashing eyes, her rich complexion, and her abundant hair, she stands for what a real woman should be beside a crowd of tight-mouthed Puritans.

 It is true that during the years of her punishment, Hester tries to subdue her spirit and sensuality, hiding it all (with that wonderful hair of hers) beneath a sad cap.  But she can't do it.  One breath of fresh air, one ray of sunlight, one moment alone with her lover in the forest, and she is herself again, reaching passionately for a life of freedom and fulfillment.

2.  Hester Prynne, if not the out-and-out criminal the Puritans believe her to be, is still a woman who has deeply sinned.  She is, after all, guilty of adultery--no small matter, even today.

 As Hester herself admits, she has irreparably wronged her husband.  And so she bears some responsibility for the corruption of Chillingworth's soul.

 She has also shattered Dimmesdale's peace.  She has lured the minister--admittedly, with his full cooperation--from the straight and narrow path of orthodoxy, where it was surely in his interest to stay.

 3.  Hester is, indeed, a sinner.  But her sin is a cause not of evil but of good.  Suffering disciplines Hester, so that she grows strong.  Sorrow awakens her sympathies, so that she becomes a nurse.

In fact, the best deeds of Hester's life come about through her fall from grace.  Her charity to the poor, her comfort to the broken-hearted, her unquestioned presence in times of trouble are the direct result of her search for repentance.  If Hester had not sinned, she would never have discovered the true depths of tenderness within herself.

4.  Hester is neither a heroine nor a sinner, but something in between.  She is a flesh-and-blood woman in tragic circumstances, trapped in a loveless marriage and in love with another man.  Whichever way she moves, there is bound to be a sacrifice of some vital part of herself, either her honor or her deepest need.

 

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  ARTHUR DIMMESDALE

 Dimmesdale is a coward and a hypocrite.  Worse, he is a self-confessed coward and hypocrite.  He knows what he has to do to still the voice of his conscience and make his peace with God.  He simply cannot bring himself to do it.

Dimmesdale is somewhat pale and weak from the first moment we see him.  And he grows paler and weaker by the minute, as he lives ridden with guilt, a guiltmonger by his side.  By the time the minister comes to the forest, he barely has the strength to throw himself down on the leaves in the hope that he can lie there forever.  He lacks the will even to wish to live or die.

When we read such a description, we cannot help wondering what Hester ever saw in the man.

 Yet there is a presence in the minister that demands a live audience and knows how to sway one.  We see it in his eyes--large, brown, and melancholy--which seem to search out men's souls.  We hear it in his voice--sweet, deep, broken--a finely tuned instrument for touching women's hearts.

 Were Dimmesdale just a little stronger, a little more energetic, we would say he has charisma.  And probably, in his own time and place, he did.  Ministers were the Puritan culture's heroes.  Hester would have met Dimmesdale first as the revered idol of the community, the object of worshipping glances from every girl in sight.

 We sense in Dimmesdale this split between his private and his public self, his purity and his passion.  We wonder, was the split always there?

To some extent, Dimmesdale's story is the story of any sensitive young man's initiation into sexuality, especially in a society that treats sexuality with ill grace.  But his problem is enormously complicated by the fact of Hester's marriage (for him no technicality), and by his own image of himself as a cleric devoted to higher things.  Unlike other young men, Dimmesdale cannot accept his loss of innocence and go on from there.  He must struggle futilely to get back to where he was.

 By the time we meet Dimmesdale, he has lost (if he ever had it) the simplicity of an earlier time.  He has bitten into the apple and destroyed his old sense of oneness with God.  The split in the man's nature is deepened by his situation.  If he wishes to continue in his ministerial role, he must bury his sensuality and wrap himself up in a cloak of sanctity.  He must wear one face for the world, another for himself.

What happens to a man who struggles to hide a terrible sin in the depths of his heart, but who believes profoundly in a God that sees and loves the truth?  That is a question Hawthorne surely asked himself in creating the character of Arthur Dimmesdale.

If the minister is a brilliant study in guilt, it is because he believes with all his soul that his sin is terrible, and that a concerned, personal God is watching every move he makes.

Torn between the desire to confess and atone and the cowardice which holds him back, Dimmesdale goes a little mad. He takes up some morbid forms of penance--fasts and scourgings--but he can neither whip nor starve the sin from his soul.  In his agony, he staggers to the pulpit to confess, but his words come out as generalized, meaningless avowals of guilt.

Dimmesdale knows what he is doing, of course.  "Subtle, but remorseful, hypocrite," he is nothing if not self-aware.  But the dark stain he perceives on his soul is spreading now, sapping the meaning from life, the strength from his will.

 By the time the minister meets Hester in the forest, he is ripe for an invitation to flight.  Perhaps flight is the only way out.  And anyway, he wonders, for a moral wreck like himself, what does it really matter whether he goes or stays?

If he stays, there is Chillingworth, whose gloating eye he does not know how to escape.  There is duty, too, that endless round of tasks he has always gone about without complaint.  But the tasks seem hollow now, since (as he believes) he is unfit for his office, since his actions are no longer informed by any sustaining faith.

 If he goes, there is Hester and the dream of love he has not permitted himself for so long.  A glowing face in the firelight and an embrace (has he not just felt it?) that is like an infusion of strength.  There is England, too, with the sweet, deep-sounding bells of Cambridge, and the winters soft after New England's penetrating cold.  And minds of his own calibre!  The chance, after nine or ten years, to really talk!

Dimmesdale nearly buys the shining vision of a new life that Hester holds out to him in the woods.  And yet, with his last ounce of strength, he rejects it.  He crawls to the scaffold--and confession--instead.

 Is Dimmesdale right to choose confession over escape; the shreds of his religious belief over Hester and love?  Your answer will depend on your own definition of the good life, and on where you think Dimmesdale has been headed all along.

Some readers believe that Dimmesdale's decision is the only possible ending to his long and tortuous struggle to return to God.  Others see it as a desperate flight from his true, but never acknowledged, self.

Let's look at the second argument first.  According to this view, Dimmesdale found out something essential about himself when he fell in love with, and made love to, Hester Prynne.  He found out he was not a pure, ethereal scholar-priest, but a man with a man's heart and a man's desires.  What should he have done about it?  What all men do, when they are ready to grow up. Accept responsibility for a wife and child.  Marry the woman (or live with her, in this case) and keep a roof over her head.

 The first argument runs somewhat differently.  The real Dimmesdale (it goes) is no lover at all, but a Puritan minister from the top of his head to the tips of his toes.  In Hester's arms, he may have yielded temporarily to the claims of the flesh.  But he never altered his basic commitment to the spirit, and to God.  The point is not whether we believe that Dimmesdale's love for Hester is sin.  The point is that he believes it, with all his heart.  There is only one way he can expiate that sin.  And that is to stand on the scaffold and confess.

 The chilling fact about either argument is that it leaves half of Dimmesdale out.  The flesh has to go or the spirit. There is no way of integrating both.  Dimmesdale is given a stark choice, and he is given it by Hawthorne:  To deny love and desire (and their consequent human commitments) in the only final way possible, in death; or to live, and submerge his finer qualities in a life too closely tied to earth.

 

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  ROGER CHILLINGWORTH

Sometime in your study of literature, you've probably heard the distinction between flat characters and characters in the round.  Round characters, or three-dimensional ones, leap out from the page with all the vigor and complexity of life.  Flat characters, or two-dimensional ones, stay firmly imbedded in the work of which they are a part.  Flat characters have a specific literary task to perform.  They never get away from their function long enough to assume a life and a will of their own.

The distinction between flat and round characters is important with regard to Roger Chillingworth because most critical discussions address the question of just how convincing a character he is.  He is, in part, an evil type that Hawthorne has used in his fiction before:  the cold heart that observes and does not feel.  (As the character's name implies, Chillingworth is worth a chill.) But does he ever become anything more than a type?  Does he, like Hester and Dimmesdale, take on human dimensions?

There are two radically different answers to that question. You will have to decide between them.

 1.  To some readers, Chillingworth is a creature right out of melodrama.  Hawthorne might have borrowed him from a grade-B horror film.  Chillingworth's very appearance is a hackneyed convention for villainy.  A misshapen shoulder--shades of Richard III!  As if that weren't enough, there are Chillingworth's smoldering eyes and his dark, sooty face.  Why, the man is even less than a real villain.  He is an imaginary fiend.

Chillingworth's appearance aside, his very singleness of purpose is inhuman.  For seven years, he has only one thought: to find and torment the man who has betrayed him.  Now who is there among us who eats, sleeps, dreams, and breathes revenge?

2.  Other readers say that, despite the demonic imagery surrounding him, Chillingworth remains very much a man.  He is, after all, a wronged husband, a figure the 17th century held up to ridicule and abuse.  His lust for revenge is therefore not unnatural, and his method of revenge not hackneyed at all.  No sword or poison for Chillingworth.  He takes the psychological approach.

There are also hints in Chillingworth of a character more complex than any simple, straightforward villain would be.  He has the gift of irony, for instance.  And by turning the cool light of irony on himself, he is able to share the blame for Hester's infidelity.  The learned scholar, as he says to himself, should have seen it coming, should have read about it in his books.

The really interesting question about Chillingworth is why Hawthorne felt he had to clamp down on this character, hammer him into place with nails, and slap a label of "fiend" upon him. Why didn't he just leave Chillingworth free to grow in life and reality, the way he left Hester Prynne?  The answer seems to lie in Hawthorne's terror of Chillingworth's hungry and far-reaching mind.

Chillingworth, we must recognize, is a brilliant scientist. It is no accident that the doctor takes Boston by storm.  He has the capacity--rare in any age, unheard of in Puritan New England--to observe the world without preconceptions, and then to put his observations to work.

Consider.  Chillingworth finds himself beached after a shipwreck, a prisoner among the Indians.  What does he do?  Does he turn up his nose at a pack of half-naked savages?  Does he mutter incantations against demons and black magic?  Does he even quote to the uncomprehending red man passages from the Bible or from European medical texts?  Not at all. Chillingworth considers the possibility that the Indians may have something to teach him.  And he sets himself to learn New World medicine from the Medicine Man.

It is amazing, really.  Just how amazing, we can see by comparing Dimmesdale and Chillingworth.  How alike the two men are, and yet how different!  Both are scholars, somewhat too committed to midnight oil and dusty books.  But Dimmesdale is orthodox.  Eventually, he shies away from new and upsetting ideas to seek refuge in his faith.

Chillingworth, on the contrary, has a brave and adventurous mind.  He has profited from life in post-Renaissance Europe.  He has seen nature yielding its secrets to the scientific method. He knows that the future belongs to him and to men of his kind.

And yet, Chillingworth's is a mind untempered by mercy, humanity, or compassion.  He is all head and no heart.  His probing intellect, as we know from his dealings with Dimmesdale, recognizes no "Stop" or "Caution" sign.

 

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  PEARL

Pearl.  She is Hester's treasure, the pearl of great price, purchased with her mother's peace of mind and position in society.

Pearl.  She is no treasure to the critics.  She has caused many a reader to recommend murder as the only way to deal with such a maddening character.

What is it about Pearl that gets normally sober men and women so riled up?  The character presents problems because we can never relax and enjoy her as a normal child.  We must always be on the alert for what she means.

Pearl is a fascinating experiment, an attempt by Hawthorne to yolk a symbol to a human being and make them live comfortably together in one body.  Sometimes the experiment is successful. Sometimes it's a flop.  Let's look at two scenes in The Scarlet Letter that represent the two ends of the spectrum.  Where does Pearl "work"?

She works particularly well in the forest scene in the chapter called "The Child at the Brook-Side." If you look at Pearl's actions here, they are perfectly understandable without any symbolic interpretation.

She cries, she stamps her feet in the resentment any child would feel at seeing a proper and decorous mother suddenly blossom into sexuality.  Little girls don't like sexy mothers suddenly thrust upon them.  Nor do they welcome brand-new and unexpected fathers.  Pearl is saying what any petted, spoiled child would say under the circumstances:  either you love him (that strange, sad man over there), or you love me.

In the forest scene, the real child can carry the symbol, because Pearl's narrative meaning and her symbolic meaning so neatly coincide.  The child points an accusing finger at Hester, and so does fate.  The child says, go and pick your own letter up.  And fate echoes, the scarlet letter is your burden to carry and yours alone.  We feel the magic of the double role, but not the strain.

Now let's look at a more gruesome incident, Pearl's first appearance in her tunic of crimson and gold.  We know, because Hawthorne has told us, that Puritan children just don't run around dressed that way.

Admittedly, Pearl is no run-of-the-mill Puritan child.  She is the daughter of an outcast, a renegade.  But whatever Hester is, she loves her daughter and wants to keep her.  And in order to keep Pearl, Hester has to prove her conformity to the grimmest and sternest of Puritan magistrates.  It is hardly proof of conformity to arrive at the Governor's mansion, where everyone will be dressed in black, with a little girl outrageously decked out in scarlet.  (Suppose Dimmesdale hadn't been around to explain?)

There is a tug-of-war going on here between Pearl's symbolic function and the psychological demands of the story.  Unless we make a great imaginative effort, we simply don't believe what is going on.  We are distracted, so to speak, by the creaking of the symbolic machinery.

 

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  MISTRESS HIBBINS

Mistress Hibbins is a witch.  Come on, you'll say, there is no such thing as a witch.  Not around the corner from your house, perhaps.  But there were witches in 17th-century Boston. Or, at least, there were women who thought they were witches and who conversed regularly with the devil.

Mistress Hibbins, as the Governor's sister and a woman of birth and breeding, raises an interesting question.  Why would a lady of means and education choose to be known as a witch, when she was likely to end up at the stake?

Probably the principal appeal of witchcraft lay in its freedom.  Alone among the women of this rigid, strait-laced society, witches could say and do as they liked.

They could express violent hatred, blatant sexual desire, and a slew of other emotions virtuous women had to suppress.  Above all, witches enjoyed a rare privilege in a society that buried so many things--the privilege of telling the truth.

As you will see, Mistress Hibbins not only says what she likes.  What she has to say is right.  She has a sharp nose for secrets, this elegant old hag.  She knows just which shy virgins or modest young deacons have been dancing in the forest, when Somebody was the fiddler.

 Now, truth can be a nuisance.  Who wants to be reminded all the time of midnight deeds and secret thoughts?  The historical Mistress Hibbins, on whom the fictional character is based, was, in fact executed for witchcraft in 1656.

 

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  SETTING

There are two ways to talk about setting in The Scarlet Letter.  One way is to look at the meaning or emotional overtones of specific places.  A second and broader way is to examine the whole Puritan world in which Hawthorne has set his novel.  Not just the time and place, Boston in the 1640s, but the values and beliefs that define Puritan society.

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  THE MARKET-PLACE AND THE FOREST

Far and away the most important scenes in The Scarlet Letter take place in two locations, the market-place and the forest. These are presented to us as very different places, reflecting very different human aspirations.

The market-place is public.  It lies at the very heart of the tiny enclave of civilization the Puritans have managed to carve out of the vast, untouched continent.  The market-place contains both the church and the scaffold--institutions of law and religion.  It is where criminals like Hester are punished, where penitents like Dimmesdale confess, and where men put on the faces they wear for the world.

The forest, on the other hand, is dark and secret.  It is where people come to let loose and be themselves.  The forest track leads away from the settlement out into the wilderness where all signs of civilization vanish.  The forest track is precisely the escape route from the dictates of law and religion to the promised land to the west where men can breathe free.

The market-place and the forest are symbols of the choice that confronts the major characters in the novel.  The choice is not as simple as it seems.

For all its restraints, the market-place is safer and warmer than the forest.  And you can't get into so much trouble there. In the heart of the settlement, there is the comfort of values that are shared, of laws that are laid down and respected.  Above all, there is the comfort of people who care.

The open air of the forest is exhilarating, but cold. Nothing is known in the wilderness, everything is up for grabs. There is no one around to stop you from going to the devil.  And when you do, he is right there waiting for you.

 

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  THE PURITAN WORLD

Surely the setting of The Scarlet Letter--the stern, joyless world of Puritan New England--is one of the grimmest on record. It is all gloom and doom.  If the sun ever shines, we hardly notice.  The whole place seems shrouded in black.  A question comes to mind as we read the novel.  Why did Hawthorne choose this dark world for his masterpiece?

Perhaps we can tackle that question by asking another one. Why did Hawthorne reject the contemporary scene?  Even if he chose to ignore the richly suggestive American settings of the 1820s and '30s, (the Erie Canal, for instance, or the Alamo), he had first-hand material to draw on in his own life and career.

Part of the answer, of course, is that Hawthorne could write about the contemporary scene.  He did write about it in "The Custom House." But what he could write was comedy.  The pathetic old Salemites who worked for Uncle Sam lent themselves not at all to the tragic work he had in mind.

Perhaps if Hawthorne reached back to Salem in the 1600s, he would find more figures invested with the same dark and dusky grandeur, more men and women who would speak as directly to his creative imagination.

The Puritan world of the mid-17th century apparently gave Hawthorne something he badly needed--people who lived their lives to the full instead of snoring them away.  In the pages of The Scarlet Letter, the Puritans emerge from the shadows of an earlier time, broad shouldered, ruddy cheeked, firm of step, and direct of speech.

They were a stern people, of course, and repressive.  They probably put the lid on more natural human impulses and emotions than any society before or since.  But just for that reason, emotions boiled over, passions a novelist could seize at red heat.

More important, the Puritans had a moral vitality never again found on the American scene.  For a writer like Hawthorne, intrigued with the subject of conscience, here were people with conscience to spare.

Whatever their faults, the Puritans at least knew the difference between right and wrong.  And that was the sensibility Hawthorne was after.

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  LAW VS.  NATURE

We live in a permissive society.  By and large, the law only bothers us when we bother the other guy.  There is no law to tell us what to wear, how to think, or whom to love.  In Puritan New England, life was vastly different.  There, laws covered just about every aspect of life.  Not surprisingly, human nature revelled against such strict supervision.  Certain impulses and emotions, passion foremost among them, would not be denied.

 In the love of Hester and Dimmesdale, Hawthorne tells the story of one such rebellion.  In a very real sense, the lovers are criminals.  Their passion is a violation of the rigid Puritan civil and religious code.  As wild as the forest which shelters it, the love of Hester and Dimmesdale asks us to weigh the justice of society's laws against the claims of human nature; that is, against men and women's most deeply felt desires and needs.

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  THE INDIVIDUAL VS.  SOCIETY

The individual vs.  society.  Law vs.  nature.  These are really just different terms for the same basic conflict. Hawthorne is a Romantic writer with a Romantic subject:  a rebel who refuses to conform to society's code.  Most of us instinctively side with the rebel, the nonconformist.  But society in this novel has a good deal to be said for it.  It has assurance, dignity, strength.  We can argue that Hester is right in her assertion that fulfillment and love are worth fighting for.  And we can argue, with just as much validity, that society is right in its joyless insistence that adultery is a crime deserving of punishment.

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  SIN AND REDEMPTION

Hawthorne, as a descendant of Puritans of the deepest dye, is the heir to a strong tradition of sin.  Puritan theology began with the thoroughgoing conviction of sin.  After Adam's fall, every man and woman was thought to be born an awful and vile sinner, who could be redeemed only by God's grace (not by good deeds or by any actions which lay within human control).

Now, Hawthorne is a 19th-century man of enlightenment.  He is not a Puritan.  Nevertheless, he is, morally speaking, something of a chip off the old block.  As a writer, he is utterly immersed in sin, in the wages of sin, in the long odds on redeeming sin.

The Scarlet Letter is a study of the effects of sin on the hearts and minds of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth.  In every case, the effect is devastating.  Once these characters stumble into evil, they flounder about as if in a morass.  Sin changes the sinners.  It darkens their vision and weakens the spirit's defenses against further temptation.

And yet, sin also pays some unexpected dividends.  Sin strengthens Hester.  It humanizes Dimmesdale.  Hawthorne, departing from his Puritan ancestors, considers the possibility that sin may be a maturing force.

If sin is an encompassing shadow in the The Scarlet Letter, redemption is, at best, a fitfully shimmering light. Chillingworth never seeks redemption at all.  Hester looks for it in good works, and fails to find it.

Dimmesdale alone undergoes the necessary change of heart to find a doubtful peace.

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  THE HEART VS.  THE HEAD

Is there really a war waging inside us between our emotions and our reason?  Hawthorne thinks so, and he's pretty sure which side he wants to win.  The heart leads Hester and Dimmesdale astray, but the intellect--untempered by feeling, mercy, humanity--thoroughly damns Chillingworth.  Hawthorne comes down on the side of the heart.

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  THE PUBLIC AND THE PRIVATE SELF

Hawthorne's Puritan New England is a world which encourages duplicity.  So much is forbidden that almost everyone has something to hide.  Hawthorne's characters walk around in daylight with pious and sober expressions on their faces.  But once they get home at night and lock the door, they pull out their secret thoughts and gloat over them like misers delighting in a hidden stash of gold.

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  SYMBOLISM

Let's talk a little bit about what a symbol is.  The common definition says that a symbol is a sign or token of something. A lion, for instance, is a symbol of courage.  The bald eagle is a symbol of America.  A white bridal gown is (or used to be) a symbol of purity.  We take symbols like these pretty much for granted.  They are a part of our everyday experience.

In literature, matters are a little more complicated. Literary symbols usually don't have instantly recognizable meanings.  Rather they take their meanings from the works of which they are a part.

In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne gives us a symbol, a red letter A whose meaning has to be deciphered.  What does the scarlet letter mean?  It is a question repeated by almost every character in the novel who is confronted with the blatant red token and who has to deal with it:  by Hester herself, as she sits in prison, decorating the emblem with golden thread; by Reverend Wilson, who addresses the crowd at the scaffold with such terrifying references to the scarlet A that it seems to glow red with hellfire; by Pearl, who asks about the letter so often that she threatens to drive her mother (and all of us) mad.

The symbol's meaning is hard to pin down because it is no passive piece of cloth, but a highly active agent.  The scarlet letter provokes hostile feelings in the citizens of Boston, who shun Hester and insult her as something tainted and vile.

Society's response to the letter, in turn, affects Hester. On the surface, she becomes a patient and penitential figure. She looks like someone seeking to live down the sin that the scarlet letter represents.  But beneath the surface, rebellion is brewing.  Society's insults make Hester angry and bitter. She becomes a scornful critic of her world.  Hester takes the letter to herself.  She becomes in fact the renegade she is labeled.  Hester breaks free of conventional ideas and, as we see in the forest scene, she opposes Puritan truths with some devastating truths of her own.

The point Hawthorne is making is that our lives are inevitably shaped by our past actions and by the signs of those actions--be they medals or badges of infamy--which we wear. Symbols like the scarlet letter shape our perceptions and our temperaments.  They determine the kind of people we become.

Over the years, the scarlet letter and its wearer blend into one.  The letter, whatever it means, is the summation of Hester's life.  But a letter is a remarkably ambiguous symbol. It can stand for any word beginning with A.

Does the A stand for Adulteress, surely the intention of the magistrates who imposed it in the first place?  Does it stand for Able in recognition of Hester's devotion as a nurse?  Does it even mean Angel, with the consequent suggestion that Hester has risen above the society which condemned her?

There is danger and excitement in the uncertainty.  If we knew for sure that the A stood for Adulteress, we would have Hester neatly pegged.  We would know we were supposed to condemn her.  But Hawthorne is not content to let the matter rest at that.  He asks us to look at Hester from other, very different, viewpoints.  We are never altogether sure whether we should condemn Hester or admire her.

The Scarlet Letter began life as a short story.  (Hawthorne was advised to expand it into a novel, which he did.) In many respects, it retains the characteristics of a short story.  The Scarlet Letter has the tightness and the economy we generally associate with the shorter fictional form.

Hawthorne's novel has only one plot.  There are no subplots--no secondary love stories, for instance, such as you find in the novels of Jane Austen.  It also has only one setting:  Boston in the 1640s.  Although Pearl and Hester eventually sail off to Europe, the reader is not invited to follow them there.

The Scarlet Letter has only four main characters:  Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Pearl.  All the other characters are really part of the historical tapestry against which the action takes place.

Perhaps most important of all, The Scarlet Letter has one predominating mood.  For this, the lighting is largely responsible.  We move in a world of darkness which is relieved only occasionally by a ray of light.  (The darkness sets in early, with the beadle's presence obscuring the sunshine in Chapter 2.  It continues to the end of the novel, with the legend on Hester's tombstone:  "so somber...  and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light, gloomier than the shadow.")

 Since Hawthorne's novel is such a spare and unified work, it is curious that readers disagree about its heart or structural center.  Some critics believe that the heart of the book's structure is the scaffold, or penitential platform, to which Dimmesdale finally brings himself to stand by Hester's side. According to this view, the scaffold scenes alternate with the pivotal forest scenes, where the lovers confront the critical choice of escape from society or return to it.

But no less an authority than Henry James (the novelists' novelist and the acknowledged master of form in American fiction) disagrees.  James dismisses the forest scenes--and indeed, any of the scenes where Hester plays a major part--as secondary.  The Scarlet Letter, James says, is no love story. It is the story of retribution.  And its center is the relationship between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, the guilty lover and the sinister husband whose sole purpose is to keep that guilt alive.

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  THE CUSTOM HOUSE: INTRODUCTORY

Unless you are specifically assigned otherwise, you should save "The Custom House" until after you have finished reading The Scarlet Letter.

Frankly, you will find the introduction rough going.  It is long.  It is plotless.  It depends for its effect on a sense of humor that is far removed from modern comedy shows like Saturday Night Live.  In addition, "The Custom House" is not really an integral part of the novel proper.  It was added by Hawthorne as an afterthought on the advice of his publisher.  The piece was supposed to add a light touch to an otherwise heavy work, and thereby increase sales.

"The Custom House" purports to be an explanation of how Hawthorne came to write The Scarlet Letter.  In fact, you can read the piece twice over without discerning the truth. Hawthorne was fired from his job as Custom House Surveyor when the election of 1849 ousted his party from office.  As the Custom House was a political appointment which depended on the good graces of the administration, Hawthorne was out of work.

In a way, the Custom House job did lead Hawthorne to The Scarlet Letter.  The losing of it drove the novelist back to his original trade.  What's more, Hawthorne's appointment as Surveyor brought him back to Salem.  It put him, once again, in touch with his roots.

Salem had a firm hold on Hawthorne, even if it was a hold he sometimes struggled to break.  The place had been native soil to his family for generations.  Hawthorne's father had been born there, and his father before him--sailors all, who helped to build the great New England shipping trade.  And there were earlier and grander Hawthornes than that:  John Hathorne (the w came later), the notorious hanging judge of the Salem Witch Trials; and John's father, William, one of the original founders of the colony, who had come over from England with Governor Winthrop in 1630.

In short, Hawthorne's roots in Salem went back just about as far as American history.  On the western side of the Atlantic, that ranks as quite a family tree.

It was not the present Salem, however, with its decayed wharf and its equally decrepit inhabitants, that gripped Hawthorne's imagination.  It was the town as it used to be:  the bustling 18th-century port where the white-sailed dippers came to rest after their long voyages to the Indies, and the 17th-century village where grim-faced Puritans, swathed in black, trod the narrow streets with Bible in hand.

How could Hawthorne reach back into Salem's past and mine this rich vein for the characters and stories he wanted to write about?  The Custom House pointed the way.  The place, with its ancient officials, turned out to be a sort of local archives.

Hawthorne found that his co-workers, if they chose, had some fascinating stories to tell.  The General, for instance, had fought in his youth in the War of 1812.  He had even become a legend in his own time by uttering, when ordered to charge a British battery, a simple but courageous phrase.  "I'll try, sir," the young officer had replied.

On a more mundane level, the Inspector also had a positive genius for summoning up the past.  Why, the man could recall gourmet dinners he had eaten sixty or seventy years ago!  As an appetizer, the inspector was better than an oyster.  He could make your mouth water with descriptions of long-since-devoured turkeys and roasts.

 The officials aside, the Custom House itself was a repository of the past.  On the second floor, a little-used cobweb-covered room housed a collection of ancient records.  One day, while rummaging through the rubbish heaps, Hawthorne found a small package, neatly wrapped in yellowing parchment.  It had apparently been overlooked by generations of previous Custom House employees.

Unwrapping the package, Hawthorne found "a certain affair of fine red cloth," shaped like the letter A.  And along with that curious piece of cloth, he discovered a manuscript, which upon examination proved to date from Colonial times, recording the story of Hester Prynne.

Such, at any rate, is the story Hawthorne tells, for the discovery of the letter and the manuscript is a fabrication.  Or perhaps, it is a metaphor for a far less poetic truth.  The Custom House job was a relatively undemanding one that left Hawthorne with a lot of time on his hands.  He used that time to continue his exhaustive research into the history of early New England.  And in that research, or rather in the blend of historical fact with his creative imagination, Hawthorne found the story of The Scarlet Letter.

If the Custom House gave Hawthorne the chance to find his subject matter, it also gave him a stiff case of Writer's block. Hawthorne couldn't write while he was still employed as Surveyor.  There were too many distractions, too many petty details to attend to, to much jobbing and inefficiency about the place.  The Custom House was no atmosphere for a Romantic writer.  Hawthorne needed, as he recognized, a more ethereal ambiance of moonbeams and firelight.

Perhaps we may see "The Custom House" as a sign of departure in American literature.  Hawthorne was working his way out of a realistic tradition.  He was reaching--it was the subject of every one of his prefaces--for a special blend of the actual and the imaginary.  The imaginary is what pulled Hawthorne away from sunlit contemporary scenes, where the details were too sharp and clear, toward ancient shadowy places:  prisons, castles, primeval forests.  (Poe had arrived there shortly before him.)

Hawthorne would later distinguish between the novel, a type of work closely tied to historical fact, and the romance, a slightly different genre that gave the creative writer more elbow room.  He would position himself as a writer of romances and demand all the license that the term bestowed.

There is another sense in which we can see "The Custom House" as a break with tradition.  When he wrote the essay, Hawthorne was being anti-Progressive, critical of commerce, skeptical about the American dream.  His was not the usual optimistic note of American writers.  Only fifty years before, for example, Benjamin Franklin had gloried in the financial opportunities offered by the New World.  He had chosen for his subject what we now call upward mobility.  Here in America--unheard of in Europe--was the chance for a son to rise above his father's station in life.

Franklin fairly oozed with confident assurance that people could better themselves through hard work and perseverance. "The early bird catches the worm." "A penny saved is a penny earned." Listen to Poor Richard, and you were practically guaranteed success in life.

Hawthorne was not of Franklin's mind.  He was not an optimist.  He distrusted easy guarantees.  And he questioned the whole definition of success when it was presented to him in economic terms.  For Hawthorne, commerce was not the upward climb to affluence.  It was the path of descent from higher concerns.

We can see Hawthorne's slant in "The Custom House." His contemporary Salem fostered, not financial growth, but spiritual decay.  Once New England's trade had smacked of adventure.  But now the old sailors sat on the Custom House porch, warming their hides in the spring sun.  Wards of the government, they had lost the vitality which characterizes men who live by their own efforts.  They had sunk, in their dotage, into corruption and laziness.

Even the one efficient man in the outfit--shall we call him the Clerk or the Accountant?  Hawthorne gives him nontitle--tended to confuse good bookkeeping with good morals.  His integrity was really a matter of fastidiousness.  A stain on his conscience would bother him in much the same way as an ink blot in his accounting book.

Compare these Custom House officials, if you will, with the Puritans in the opening chapters of The Scarlet Letter.  These early inhabitants of Salem enjoy a robustness and vitality their descendants have lost.

Grim the characters may be and forbidding, severe even to cruelty in their treatment of Hester Prynne.  But they keep their sights not on receipts of purchase, but on the eternal truths revealed to them by God.

The Puritans have belief, conviction, faith--choose whatever word you like to convey that inner force which makes a human being stand for something larger than himself.  Perhaps you will say the Puritans have soul, if you mean by that an inviolate spirit.

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  GLOSSARY

 ADAMS, THE ELDER Second President of the United States (1797-1801).

 ALCOTT, AMOS BRONSON 19th century Transcendentalist philosopher and founder of the vegetarian Utopian community Fruitlands.  He was also the father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women.

ANTINOMIAN A heretic, according to the Puritans; Antinomians believed that God's grace freed men and women from the obligation to follow civil and moral law.

 APPLE-PERU A plant of the nightshade family; in literature, if not in botany, nightshade is always poisonous.

 ASSABETH A river near Concord.

 BACON, COKE, NOYE, AND FINCH Late 16th-early 17th-century legalists who made major contributions to British common law.

 BEADLE A minor parish official whose duties included keeping order; here the beadle seems to function as a town-crier.

BELLINGHAM, GOVERNOR Governor of Massachusetts on three different occasions during the 1640s, 50s, and 60s.  Hawthorne keeps him in office for reasons of economy and simplicity; also, for his sister's sake.  One historical source listed Mistress Hibbins, the witch, as Bellingham's sister.

BLACKSTONE, THE REVEREND MR.  The first settler on the land that later became Boston.  He was a church of England man who didn't get along with the Puritans.  He sold out and moved away to what is now Rhode Island.

BRADLEY, ENDICOTT, DUDLEY All governors or deputy-governors of the young New England colony.  Bradley's wife was the Puritan poet, Anne.

BROOK FARM A Utopian experiment that flourished outside of Boston in the 1840s.  Hawthorne joined the commune for a year, but left disillusioned.  He later made Brook Farm the subject of a novel, The Blithedale Romance.

BUNYAN'S AWFUL DOORWAY The entrance to hell in Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, a popular allegorical work of the late 17th century.

BURDOCK A coarse weed with burrs.

CHANNING, WILLIAM ELLERY A Unitarian minister and social reformer who was involved in the anti-slavery movement.

CHRONICLES OF ENGLAND Holinshed's history of England, written in 1577.

 DIGBY, SIR KENALM 17th-century chemist and founder of a science circle in Paris.

 ELECTION SERMON A sermon preached after the annual election of magistrates in Boston.

 ELIOT, THE APOSTLE A Puritan minister who became a missionary to the Indians.

EMERSON, RALPH WALDO A Transcendentalist philosopher who believed in the virtues of nature and self-reliance.  He is an unmentioned presence throughout The Scarlet Letter, for it is principally his beliefs that are being tested in the character of Hester Prynne.

FIRST ANCESTOR William Hathorne, Hawthorne's great-great-great grandfather, who was one of the original founders of Salem.  He came to New England with John Winthrop in 1630.  (The w was added to the name later.)

GENEVA CLOAK A black cloak worn by members of the Calvinist clergy.  Puritanism was an offshoot of Calvinism, which originated in Geneva, Switzerland.

GOSSIPS Originally friends or close acquaintances, but here perhaps used also in the modern sense of idle chatterers.

HIBBINS, MISTRESS The wife of a wealthy, Boston merchant, listed by one historical source known to Hawthorne as the sister of Governor Bellingham.  She was hanged as a witch in 1656.

HUTCHINSON, ANN A religious dissenter who was excommunicated by the Puritans and expelled from Boston in the 1630s.

IRVING'S HEADLESS HORSEMAN The ghostly figure who frightened the schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, in Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

JOHNSON, ISAAC One of Winthrop's original company in 1630. He came to America just a few months before he died.  He was the richest man in Boston of his time.

KING JAMES Protestant son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who followed Queen Elizabeth on the throne of England.  His reign marked the beginning of a creeping decadence in the court that the Puritans heartily disliked.

KING'S CHAPEL An 18th-century Boston landmark.  Founded in the 1750s, it was the first Episcopal church in America.

KNIGHTS TEMPLAR Medieval order whose task it was to oversee pilgrims on their way to the holy land.

LETHE The river of forgetfulness in Hades, the Greek underworld.

LONGFELLOW, HENRY WADSWORTH Popular 19th-century poet and fellow student of Hawthorne at Bowdoin College.

LORD OF MISRULE Officer of the English court appointed to oversee the Christmas revels.  As the name suggests, the revels were an occasion for turning court decorum upside down.

MARRY, I TROW Truly, I believe.

MILLER, GENERAL A hero of the War of 1812.  When asked if he could take a British battery, the young officer replied, "I'll try, sir."

NEPENTHE A drug thought by the ancient Greeks to cause forgetfulness and loss of pain.

NEW ENGLAND PRIMER A moralistic little book from which generations of American children learned their ABCs.

OVERBURY, SIR THOMAS The subject of an infamous 17th-century murder case.  He opposed the marriage of Robert Carr to the divorced Frances Howard.  He was sent to the Tower of London, where he was poisoned by Lady Howard's agents.

PEQUOD WARS A series of raids on the Pequod villages, conducted in 1637 by the Massachusetts settlers, in revenge for the murder of one John Oldham, a member of the colony.  Hundreds of Indians were burned alive.

SIMPLES Medicinal plants.

SUMPTUARY REGULATIONS Laws of the colony governing expenses, especially for personal luxuries like food and clothing.

TAYLOR, GENERAL Zachary Taylor was the 12th president of the United States.  His election in 1848 cost Hawthorne his job as Surveyor of the Customs.

THOREAU, HENRY DAVID Author of Walden.  He was a Transcendentalist and a friend of Hawthorne's and other members of the Concord literary circle.

TURNER, ANN A brothel-keeper involved in the murder of Thomas Overbury.  She delivered the poison to the Tower of London.

WHIG In Hawthorne's time, the political party opposed to the Democrats.

WILSON, JOHN A Cambridge scholar who abandoned law in favor of the ministry.  He came to America in 1630 and became a teacher at First Church in Boston.  Hawthorne presents him as a leader, or senior member, of the Boston clergy.

WINTHROP, JOHN Official first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  He was the acknowledged leader of the group of Puritans who came to New England in 1630, the group that included Hawthorne's great-great-great grandfather.

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  THEME

 In The Scarlet Letter, passion justifies nothing, while its denial justifies all.  The fallen Eden of this world remains fallen; but the sinful priest purges himself by public confession, becomes worthy of his sole remaining way to salvation, death.  Even Hester, though sin and suffering have made her an almost magical figure, a polluted but still terrible goddess, must finally accept loneliness and self-restraint instead of the love and freedom she dreamed.

 Leslie A.  Fiedler, "Achievement and Denial"  Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Scarlet Letter, 1968

 You have your pure-pure young parson Dimmesdale.  You have your beautiful Puritan Hester at his feet.  And the first thing she does is to seduce him.  And the first thing he does is to be seduced.  And the second thing they do is to hug their sin in secret and gloat over it, and try to understand. Which is the myth of New England.

 D.  H.  Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  PURITANISM

Hawthorne was morally, in an appreciative degree, a chip off the old block.  His forefathers crossed the Atlantic for conscience sake, and it was the idea of the urgent conscience that haunted the imagination of their so-called degenerate successor.  The Puritan strain in his blood ran clear--there are passages in his diaries, kept during his residence in Europe, which might almost have been written by the grimmest of the old Salem worthies.

 Henry James, Hawthorne, 1879

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  SYMBOLISM

"The Custom House" throws light on a theme in The Scarlet Letter which is easily overlooked amid the ethical concerns of the book.  Every character, in effect, re-enacts "The Custom House" scene in which Hawthorne himself contemplated the letter, so that the entire "romance" becomes a kind of exposition on the nature of symbolic perception.  Hawthorne's subject is not only the meaning of adultery but also meaning in general; not only what the focal symbol means but also how it gains significance.

 Charles Feidelson, Jr., Symbolism and American Literature, 1953

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THE SCARLET LETTER:  CHARACTERS

 Above all it is Hester Prynne whose passion and beauty dominate every other person, and color each event.  Hawthorne has conceived her as he has conceived his scene, in the full strength of his feeling for ancient New England.  He is the Homer of that New England, and Hester is its most heroic creature.  Tall, with dark and abundant hair and deep black eyes, a rich complexion that makes modern women (says Hawthorne) pale and thin by comparison, and a dignity that throws into low relief the "delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace" by which gentility in girls has since come to be known, from the very first--and we believe it--she is said to cast a spell over those who behold her.

 Mark Van Doren, Hawthorne, 1949

 

  THE END 

 

 

 

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