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"The Irreverent Imagination: Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter"

“The Irreverent Imagination”: Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter
“The world is mistaken in this Nathaniel Hawthorne,” Herman Melville wrote in 1850.
“He is immeasurably deeper than the plummet of the mere critic." Popularly known as "a
pleasant writer, with a pleasant style,—a sequestered, harmless man, from whom any deep and
weighty thing would hardly be anticipated:—a man who means no meanings," for Melville he
was, like Shakespeare, a master of "the great Art of Telling the Truth,—even though it be
covertly, and by snatches" (342). Thus Hawthorne "like many other geniuses...takes great delight
in hoodwinking the world" (347)—his duplicitous artistry provides a charming surface for the
superficial as well as chilling depths for the more perceptive. D.H. Lawrence brilliantly
elaborated on Melville's interpretation seventy years later. Our classic authors, he argued, were
divided against themselves, giving "tight mental allegiance" to a set of values their deeper
emotions opposed; only in their "art-speech" can we find "the impeccable truth" of their day.
Hence, his advice to the critic is "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale" (3). "You must look
through the surface of American art, and see the inner diabolism of the symbolic meaning.
Otherwise it will be mere childishness. That blue-eyed darling Nathaniel knew disagreeable
things in his inner soul. He was careful to send them out in disguise" (122). For Lawrence, The
Scarlet Letter is "the most perfect American work of art" largely because of its "marvelous
under-meaning...its perfect duplicity" (147).
Hawthorne himself felt that The Scarlet Letter was a darker and more disturbing work
than he had intended: "To tell you the truth," he wrote to his friend Horatio Bridge, "it
is...positively a hell fired story, into which I found it almost impossible to throw any cheering
light" (312). The novel is Hawthorne's masterpiece precisely because in it he followed his
artistic instincts to the point of tragic wisdom. It seems obvious but it needs restating: If great art
were easy we'd have more of it. How to create a masterwork is a mystery even to those who
have done it. Only a fortuitous set of circumstances enables a gifted novelist to write a book—
rarely more than one—of lasting value. We prize The Scarlet Letter far more than Hawthorne's
other novels because it is significantly different; in it he is able to accomplish something more
important than in the others. As Spinoza reminds us, "All things valuable are as difficult as they
are rare."
At a time when canon-busting critics are busy turning mountains into molehills we need
to be reminded of the need for masterpieces. The great writers in their finest works have
something important to tell us they could not communicate in any other way. It is the craft of
fiction, the art of dramatizing life in characters and scenes, that enables the artist to present a
more complex way of looking at the world than he or she could otherwise achieve. We have a
right to expect wisdom from our writers rather than symptomatic rehearsals of the going notions,
the unexamined assumptions of their age. Hawthorne as dramatist is a wiser man than
Hawthorne the conventional moralist and complacent defender of the status quo. One of the
attractions of writing fiction is that authors, in a sense, don't have to make up their minds.
Instead they make up various characters, of differing minds and values, and set them in conflict
with themselves and each other. They dramatize, in sum, and so the novel "speaks" in a dramatic
way, and we value certain novels more than others because we believe that their "art-speech" is
more significant. Writing fiction gave Hawthorne access to different voices and deeper
meanings than he could normally express in the workaday world—therefore, we must look for
what those deeper voices have to say, not try to translate the novel back into conventional
sentiments. This is what Lawrence meant by trusting the tale, not the teller—you are not
ignoring the author's point of view, but you are assuming that it is more profound than his public
The most problematic voice in The Scarlet Letter is that of the vacillating narrator. We
need to be reminded that Hawthorne wrote before Henry James's "Prefaces," at a time when the
"rules" for fiction were not set in stone—hence, it is not surprising that the narrator is
inconsistent, contradictory, sometimes even incoherent. He speaks in several voices—Puritan,
Victorian, Tragic, Subversive, etc.—and the critical difficulty is to asses their relative value. The
narrator is an artful dodger, a coy evader who always takes "another view" of his characters. He
is, to a degree, the "hero" of the story, calling attention to himself and challenging his readers to
play a game of catch-me-if-you-can behind his acts of ventriloquism and unveiling. In effect, he
provides levels for various readers. Both prigs and libertines, moralists and psychologists, New
Critics polishing the rims of their Grecian urns and Deconstructionists pulling the wings off
butterflies may believe that Hawthorne gives aid and comfort to them. Other readers throw up
their hands in frustration with this overdetermined tale and its indeterminate teller, this Narrator
Who Can Never Make Up His Mind. For them Hawthorne's shape-shifting and role-playing, his
hypotheticals, qualifiers, innuendos and insinuations become an exercise in hopeless
equivocation. How can critics understand an author who speaks in tongues? How can they gloss
It is fashionable nowadays for criticism to denigrate "the author function" or to use the
text merely as a pretext for its own pyrotechnics. Consequently, the narrator of a novel is always
a "persona," not to be confused with the real author. But the narrator of The Scarlet Letter is, in
truth, Hawthorne at his highest degree of complexity, speaking more fully out of his inner self
than he could as an ordinary man. The "Hawthorne" we honor as one of our great writers is to be
found in this particular narrator more than anywhere else. To stretch the point perhaps too far,
"Hawthorne" made fitful appearances as early as 1828 in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," and
returns periodically to write his best stories, but he only consistently existed for a few blessed
months in late 1849 and early 1850 when The Scarlet Letter was composed. In this sense, Babe
Ruth was only "Babe Ruth" when he was hitting the long ball. The problem is how to
differentiate what is most profound in Hawthorne from his more conventional and sentimental
selves. Since the narrator's multiple voices and values tend to blend into each other, it is in fact
impossible to pin down definitively where Hawthorne "stands." But any adequate reading of the
novel must at least begin with a recognition of the author's sly artistry. His imagination,
dramatized in the voices of his narrator, is multifaceted—"reverent" on one side, "irreverent" on
"The Custom House" makes the connection between Hawthorne the man and Hawthorne
the narrator inescapable; the author's voice in the introduction and in The Scarlet Letter is the
same. A close look at the intriguing ways in which the narrator "speaks," therefore, is a good
preparation for interpreting the novel itself. The section opens with Hawthorne's confession that
he has given in to an "autobiographical impulse" and that he wants to establish "some true
relation with his audience" (121). But who is his audience and what is this relationship? "The
author addresses," he says, "not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up,
but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates" (121). In
order to assist—or sort out—these devotees, he offers "proofs of the authenticity" of the narrative
that designate his "true position as editor, or very little more" (122) of The Scarlet Letter. He
also insinuates that the careful reader will and will not find the "real" Hawthorne in his book. A
novel, he admits, may reveal "the divided segment of the writer's own nature," but in his case
pains have been taken to "keep the inmost Me behind its veil" (121). There are several games
going on here: Since nothing allures like a veil, Hawthorne is daring his readers to discover his
divided nature. Furthermore, he opens with repeated pledges to be "true," but then proceeds, as
Huck Finn would say, to tell some "stretchers." He is no more the mere editor of The Scarlet
Letter than Cervantes was of Don Quijote. An often cited moral of Hawthorne's novel is: "Be
true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may
be inferred!" (341). A curious moral, when examined, since it suggests that being "true" consists
of hinting at the worst ways in which you have been untrue. In sum, from the very start of "The
Custom House" we are in the presence of an irreverent imagination, a narrator who proffers false
clues and misleading assertions. The implication is that only the happy few will catch on to the
wordplay and delight in the subversive ironies.
"The Custom House" dramatizes the plight of the artist in the crass world of American
capitalism. It presents an ironic variation on the parable of the talents, as Hawthorne recounts
how he almost lost but then regained his artistic gift. Although he describes himself as an
ambitious author, "a man who felt it to be the best definition of happiness to live throughout the
whole range of his faculties and sensibilities" (153), he finds himself trapped by a "strange,
indolent, unjoyous attachment for my native town" (128). Salem is described as a place whose
wooden houses do not even "pretend to architectural beauty," whose "dilapidated wharfs" are the
aftermath of "decaying trade" (124). The once prosperous seaport has become a dreary
backwater, characterized by "the dead level of site and sentiment, the chill east wind, and the
chilliest of social atmospheres" (128). It is clearly no spot for an artist to thrive in, yet
Hawthorne felt doomed to cling to this "joyless" place with "oyster-like tenacity" (128). Why?
Characteristically, his reasons are mixed: Does he stay because his ancestral roots, dating back to
"the original Briton," cause him to feel a "sensuous sympathy of dust for dust"? (126). Although
he admires some of their strong "Puritanic traits," he also feels guilty about "the persecuting
spirit" of those forefathers and offers to "take shame upon myself for their sakes" (127).
Whatever keeps him in Salem, he confesses, "is not love, but instinct" (128). His whole
meditation on the question serves as an introduction to his fascination with "the deeper
psychology" (James 476), the question of how much unconscious impulses rule our lives. It also
foreshadows Hester's decision to return to Boston, where she feels a "sensuous sympathy" for the
dust of Arthur Dimmesdale.
The Salem Custom House is a kingdom of old men. In overseeing this "patriarchal body
of veterans," Hawthorne intimates that he was at once a harmless administrator and an
"exterminating angel" (130). He did not place "those white heads under the axe of the guillotine"
(130), instead he put them out to pasture or fanged them with his venomous satire. Many critics,
taken in by Hawthorne's genial tone and soothing rhythms, miss how lethal a weapon his style
can be. Take, for instance, this excerpt from his portrait of the Old Inspector: "He possessed no
power of thought, no depth of feeling, no troublesome sensibilities; nothing, in short, but a few
commonplace instincts, which, aided by the cheerful temper that grew inevitably out of his
physical well-being, did duty very respectably, and to general acceptance, in lieu of a heart"
(133). Hawthorne's velvet paw conceals a tiger's claw. While he seems to be praising "the rare
perfection of his animal nature," his damning conclusion about the Old Inspector is that "he had
no soul, no heart, no mind; nothing, as I have already said, but instincts" (134). If Hawthorne is
looking for the proper balance between jollity and gloom, clearly this man doesn't have it. And if
the meaning of life resides in the ability of the human sensibility to respond richly to experience,
most of the customs collectors are men who feed and sleep rather than think coherently and take
life to heart. They are "a set of wearisome old souls, who had gathered nothing worth
preservation from their varied experiences of life" (132). The man termed the "fittest to be a
Custom House officer" is characterized by frivolous indulgence and superficial optimism, rather
than moral seriousness. No wonder Hawthorne warns that "neither the front nor the back
entrance of the Custom House opens on the road to Paradise" (130).
The bleary-eyed denizens of the Custom House are as incapable of savoring Hawthorne's
contraband themes as they are of spotting smuggled goods at the Salem docks. Yet he chooses to
be "a man of affairs" amid these men who are singularly incapable of appreciating his artistry:
"None of them, I presume, had ever read a page of my inditing" (141). Since most Americans
care nothing for books, he asserts that it is both morally and intellectually healthy for "a man
who has dreamed of literary fame" to step outside the small circle of his admirers and to learn
"how utterly devoid of all that he achieves, and all he aims at" (141). Just as
Hawthorne likes to switch literary styles—first satirizing the Old Inspector then praising the Old
General—so he feels compelled to "exercise other faculties of my nature" and switch lifestyles to
prove that his system was "naturally well balanced" (140). He prides himself in being more
realistic than "the dreamy brethren of Book Farm" and the abstracted transcenden-talists: "Even
the old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott" (140). Yet
Hawthorne knows that his venture into commercial drudgery is dangerous, that it is "a life which
could not with impunity be lived too long"; perhaps he has "bartered" his creative powers for "a
pittance of the public gold" (148).
The related themes of gift and profit are central to "The Custom House." Convinced of
his artistic gift, Hawthorne is not sure that his talent is compatible with the money-grubbing
world of his time. Although writers depend on down-to-earth experiences for their material, he
fears his own small candle will be snuffed out beneath "baskets of anatto" (142). At the same
time, the fact that he is the author of "unprofitable pages" (141) has forced him to seek other
means of financial support. But what profit it an artist if he gain the whole world and lose his
distinctive gift? Genuine writers are profited only by what enriches their talent. Hawthorne
exerts his "fancy, sluggish with little use," as well as his "instinctive curiosity," and begins to
search for inspiration. What he claims to find on the second floor or the Custom House is "a
treasure," consisting of a "rag of scarlet cloth" and a "small roll of dingy paper" (145).
The pages devoted to Hawthorne's discovery of "a certain affair of red cloth" and "several
foolscap sheets" are consistently coy, their seeming literalness belied by subversive hints (note
the puns on "affair" and "foolscap"). When Hawthorne tells us that the capital letter A was
exactly "three inches and a quarter in length," that it had been food for "a sacrilegious moth," and
that when touched it produced "a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, of burning
heat" (146), he is toying with stolid readers who want nothing but the facts. In the pragmatic
world of the Custom House it is necessary for the artist to lie, to allege that his imaginative
creations are authenticated by documentation. Yet, as he mocks the assumptions of realism, he
implies that his novel is precisely proportioned and that the topic may be too hot to handle—
although he pretends to have no idea what the A signifies, calling it "a riddle" he has "little hope
of solving" (145). We might even infer that our "sacrilegious" author has at last found artistic
sustenance in his "absorbing contemplation" of the scarlet letter. Hawthorne adopts Jonathan
Pue, an eighteenth-century royal surveyor whose "wig of majestic frizzle" had recently been dug
up in a Salem graveyard, as his "official ancestor" (147). He imagines Pue's ghost charging him
to deal justly with "this matter of old Mistress Prynne," promising that "the profit shall be all
your own!" To which Hawthorne responds, "I will!" (147). He makes a pact with a
representative of merry old England, one who was "Illuminated by a ray of the splendor that
shone so dazzlingly about the throne" (147). If Hawthorne is to show reverence toward him he
will have to show irreverence toward his American contemporaries. To be a loyal amanuensis to
Pue is to stress that the novel is Hester's story and that she is essentially English—that is "the
outline" Hawthorne has "authorized and authenticated" in "The Custom House."
Hawthorne worries that this invaluable inspiration may have come too late to save his art,
since his imagination had become "a tarnished mirror" that reflected the characters he was trying
to create with "miserable dimness" (148). Had he squandered his creative powers? Had he lost
"an entire class of susceptibilities, and a gift connected with them"? (150). He fears that he "had
ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerable good
Surveyor of the Customs" (151). If that were the case, then "Uncle Sam's gold" was indeed "the
Devil's wages," for Hawthorne would have forfeited his artistic soul. To revive his dormant
talent Hawthorne resorts to the tricks of his trade, relying on moonlight to induce reveries. His
room becomes "a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the
Actual and Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other" (149). In
such a setting Hawthorne trusts that he will once again be able to "dream strange things and
make them look like truth" (150). Thus, fiction lies in order to unveil hidden significance.
Those who would know the "deep meaning . . . most worthy of interpretation" (145-6) in The
Scarlet Letter must learn how Hawthorne communicates to his astute reader's sympathetic hearts
as well as analytic minds.
"The Custom House" serves as both an introduction and a coda to Hester's story. The
scarlet letter Hawthorne purportedly finds is distinguished by "wonderful skill of needlework"
that evidences "a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the
threads" (145). Both Hester and Hawthorne, we may infer, practice an artistry more Elizabethan
than Sentimental, one that subtly communicates itself only to the most receptive sensibilities.
We also learn that Hester "flourished" until the close of the seventeenth century, living to be "a
very old, but not decrepit woman, of stately and solemn aspect" (146). She served the Puritan
community as "a kind of voluntary nurse," giving "advice in all matters, especially those of the
heart," until she "gained from many people the reverence due to an angel" (146). We note here
first appearance of the flower imagery associated with Hester, as well as the fact that she kept her
dignity to the end, advised the lovelorn, and transformed her letter A into yet another misnomer.
"On Hester Prynne's story," Hawthorne assures us, "I bestowed much thought" (147-8). But in
first trying to tell her story he found his tale inert, taking on "neither the glow of passion nor the
tenderness of sentiment" (148). In other words, he knows that he needs to counterpoint Hester's
seventeenth-century passions with the sentimentality of his own age, but he fears that he has lost
his "manly character" in the Custom House. Without "sturdy force," "courage," "constancy,"
"truth," and "self-reliance"—traits that characterize Hester—Hawthorne will not be capable of
bringing her story to life.
Fortunately, right at the moment when Hawthorne is most in doubt of his artistic potency,
he is metaphorically decapitated. The "besom of reform" sweeps him out of office and his Whig
successor gets to pocket "his emoluments" (125). Once again the genial style conceals the
barbed wit: "The moment when a man's head drops off is seldom or never, I am inclined to think,
precisely the most agreeable of his life" (154). In a sly mockery of the American rhetoric of
uplift, he offers tongue-in-cheek advice about how to make the best of a beheading! In truth,
Hawthorne's loss of political office was his artistic salvation, enabling him to become once more
"a literary man" and "a citizen of somewhere else" (157). Only by recovering his artistic self and
his cosmopolitan viewpoint can he write his masterpiece. No doubt the "still seething turmoil"
(150) of his dismissal (along with his mother’s death) helped him to tap into the underlying
emotions and hidden motivations he needed to create Hester. Because of that inner turmoil The
Scarlet Letter wears "a stern and sombre aspect" (156) to his eye, emerging as a darker and
gloomier book than its author intended—and also, irony of ironies, a better one.
In "The Custom House" we become accustomed to Hawthorne's irreverent imagination,
his devious ways of hinting at disturbing truths and baffling readers who want customary
reassurances. To trace all the permutations of that narrative voice in The Scarlet Letter would
require a volume several times longer than the novel itself. Perhaps sketching some facets of
Hawthorne's "irreverence" will suffice. His use of the editorial "we" as narrator is especially
appropriate in the book, since a close reading reveals that he speaks in multiple voices. As
omniscient author he plays both God and devil's advocate, while also expressing various sides of
his multifaceted sensibility—Puritan divine, Victorian sentimentalist, tragic dramatist,
philosophical romancer, psychological analyst, ironic skeptic, sly equivocator, etc. To let one
passage stand for many, here is an exemplary passage from Chapter V:
She had in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic,—a
taste for the gorgeously beautiful, which, save in the exquisite productions
of her needle, found nothing else, in all the possibilities of her life, to
exercise itself upon. Women derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to
the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle. To Hester Prynne it
might have been a mode of expressing, and therefore soothing, the passion
of her life. Like all other joys, she rejected it as sin. This morbid
meddling of conscience with an immaterial matter betokened it is to
be feared, no genuine and steadfast penitence, but something doubtful,
something that might be deeply wrong beneath. (189-90)
These five sentences illustrate Hawthorne’s shifting perspectives. In the first he speaks as an
artist in terms of sensuous aesthetics: there’s something “gorgeous” in her nature and her needle
work is “exquisite.” The second gives voice to Victorian sentimentality: women’s role is to stay
at home and sew. In the third, Hawthorne’s fascination with “the deeper psychology” emerges;
she’s sublimating and trying to “sooth” her passionate desires. As if troubled by his own artistry,
the last two sentences retreat into Puritan orthodoxy, warning of the wages of “sin” and her
failure to truly repent. The reader must keep these various “voices” in mind throughout the
novel. Moreover, Hawthorne often shifts, without warning, to a third-person limited narration,
presenting the points of view of several characters in their own words. Despite this unsettling
cacophony of voices, most critics try to make Hawthorne the spokesman for some harmonious
orthodoxy. But it is truer to his genius to note the novel's compelling undertone in praise of
The Scarlet Letter is an irresistible temptation to critics because it is about interpretation
and the relationship of words to the world. The letter A, of course, is an enigma that becomes
harder to define as the book progresses. Three things, among many more, that it comes to stand
for are Alpha, Author, and Art. The novel is remarkable self-reflexive, referring constantly to the
artistic process and the adequacy or inadequacy of alphabets, authors, and art to express the truth.
The Puritan imposition of a single letter A on the breast of the complex person Hester epitomizes
the issue of letter versus spirit. They want to turn her into an allegory, "a living sermon against
sin" (171), but she uses her own art of embroidery to subvert their designs. All the other key
characters rely on a personal art to express themselves and change their status. Dimmesdale's art
is the sermon; he hopes to achieve The Tongue of Flame and redeem his life through eloquence.
Chillingworth devotes his pseudo-scientific skills to the art of revenge. Pearl, ostracized by the
Puritan children, creates imaginary playmates. All this stress on artistry serves to remind us that
the scarlet letter is also The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne, that crafty man of letters, is the creator of
a particular literary "world."
Hawthorne's duplicity is immediately apparent in his patterns of imagery: From the
contrast of "sad-colored garments" and "steeple-crowned hats" in the first paragraph of the novel
to the play on light and shadow in the last, the author weaves a web that encourages but eludes
definitive interpretation. Frequently the imagery subverts, or at least modifies, what a given
scene would seem to be asserting. "The Prison-Door" also gives us our first taste of Hawthorne's
tragic sense: "The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness
they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical
necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a
prison" (158). For a country that believes that happiness comes with the territory and that
American Dreams are within everyone's grasp, this unblinking awareness of human fallibility
and fatality is a bracing dose of realism. Given the novel's focus on passion, we might note as
well the insinuation that virginity is transitory. Likewise, the author's plucking of one of the
flowers of the wild rose-bush suggestive of passion and offering it to the reader, in the hopes that
it may "symbolize some sweet moral blossom" to be found in the story, is characteristically coy.
He holds out the false hope of sentimental consolation at the start of a novel that in truth is a
gloomy "tale of human frailty and sorrow" (159).
Hawthorne is at his most elusive when he suggests that the rose-bush might have "sprung
up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson" (159). The wary reader immediately
asks, "Sainted by whom?" Only before her banishment, not after, was Hutchinson considered by
the Puritans one of the regenerate. Is "sainted" then an ironic reference to their inability to tell
saints from sinners, or does it indicate the author's sympathy with Hutchinson, and by
implication with Hester, as martyrs to the cause of women's rights and free expression? We do
not know for sure, but the adjective certainly raises more questions than it answers. A similar
device is used in the second chapter when Hawthorne posits that had "a Papist" been among the
Puritan crowd at the marketplace, he might have mistaken Hester and Pearl for "the image of
Divine Maternity" (166). This irreverent suggestion is then immediately muted by a mock-
melodramatic rhetoric not to be taken literally: "the world was only the darker for this woman's
beauty, and the more lost for the infant she had borne" (166). Over the course of the book, this
knack to have his cake and eat it too, to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, becomes the
trademark of the author's sensibility.
In a novel that simultaneously reveals and conceals its meanings, not surprisingly the
opening scenes stress the related motifs of silence and secrets. Dimmesdale exhorts Hester to
confess publicly the name of her lover, saying, "What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt
him—yea, compel him, as it were—to add hypocrisy to sin?" (175). Hester shakes her head and
will not speak, and Hawthorne says nothing at this point to explain her silence. Puritan doctrine
expected and demanded a public confession. Why doesn't she speak? Resentful of the fact that
Dimmesdale has abandoned her, does she want to compound his crime with that of hypocrisy?
Or is she too preoccupied with her own dilemma to care about his? Does she still love him so
much she will do anything to protect him? Or is she convinced that their love has "a
consecration of its own" that would be desecrated by public confession? But given his
hypersensitive nature, won't her silence only destroy him? Certainly what he feels at first is
relief: "Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!" (176). If
Hester has indeed shown her strength, she has also shown up Dimmesdale's weakness. Her vow
to keep Chillingworth's secret is equally suspect. Although she knows that her husband is
determined to inflict a diabolical revenge on her lover, she agrees not to tell Dimmesdale about
his identity or intentions. Again, we must ask why. Does she want to see him suffer? Does she
not care? Does she feel guilty and wish to atone for her adultery? Whatever her reasons, Hester
takes an oath: "I will keep thy secret, as I have his" (183). These parallel scenes remind us of the
mystery of human motivation: Our inability to know for sure why human beings do what they
We prefer to believe that we live in ordered universe, that things don't just randomly
happen but rather are part of a divine design. Novels, in a sense, reinforce our desire for sacred
order, since we know for sure that each fictive world has a "creator." In some novels this can
serve as religious reinforcement—if a creator, therefore a Creator. But in a work as self-reflexive
at The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne's references to God are self-reflexive too—the Author is the
author. This general pattern is highlighted by Hawthorne's use of personification and literary
terms when he is supposedly discussing Providence: "Heaven promotes its purposes without
aiming at the stage-effect" (222), "the hand of Providence had done all this" (226), "a scroll so
wide might not be deemed too expensive for Providence to write a people's doom upon" (252),
"the Creator never made another being so sensitive as this" (266), etc. Reverent on the surface,
on second look these passages remind us more of Hawthorne's artistic ingenuity than God's
majesty and mystery. The irreverence becomes unmistakable when Hawthorne equates his craft
to the Devil's cunning: "O Fiend, whose talisman was the fatal symbol, wouldst thou leave
nothing, whether in youth or age, for this poor sinner to revere?—such loss of faith is ever one of
the saddest results of sin" (193). Although the pious rhetoric in the final phrase tries to take
away the ironic twist, we note that the scarlet letter is, above all, Hawthorne's artistic talisman.
When Dimmesdale's glove, a key stage prop, is discovered on the scaffold after his
midnight vigil, he is informed that "Satan dropped it there, I take it, intending a scurrilous jest
against your reverence" (254). Demonic possession merges with authorial intention when we are
told that Dimmesdale "was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing" (306), at the behest of
"the great enemy of human souls" or to blaspheme because "the archfiend whispered" (308) to
him. In a clear foreshadowing of the artistry of the closing chapters, Mistress Hibbins asserts
that "When the Black Man sees one of his own servants, signed and sealed, so shy of owning to
the bond as is the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, he hath a way of ordering matters so that the mark
shall be disclosed in open daylight to the eyes of the world?" (327). The novel, in sum, leaves us
impressed with Hawthorne's masterful "way of ordering matters," while the designs of
Providence and the machinations of the Devil remain ironic metaphors.
Hawthorne further usurps the supernatural by suggesting that he has the power of
prophecy. The walls of Dimmesdale's room are hung with tapestries from the Gobelin looms
depicting "the scriptural story of David and Bathsheba, and Nathan the Prophet, in colors still
unfaded, but which made the fair woman of the scene almost as grimly picturesque as the woe-
denouncing seer" (226). Here Nathan the Prophet merges into Nathaniel the Poet, who is too
fascinated to condemn and too fastidious to condone Dimmesdale and Hester's illicit passion. In
reference to Pearl, "the living hieroglyphic," Hawthorne states what the child symbolized would
have been "all plainly manifest...had there been a prophet or magician skilled to read the
character of flame!" (296). In other passages he seems to delight in his double-dealing, stressing
his clarity and honesty one moment and his obscurity the next. Promising "to hold nothing back
from the reader," he then apologizes for the "indistinctness and duplicity of impression" (303)
created by his reticence. He plays by turns the virtuous philosopher, "We have had, and may still
have, worse things to tell of him" (304) and the chameleon poet "The change may be for good or
ill, and is partly, perhaps, for both" (323).
The culmination of this toying with narrative authority comes at the end of "The
Procession" when Hawthorne states: "The sainted minister in the church! The woman of the
scarlet letter in the market-place! What imagination would have been irreverent enough to
surmise that the same scorching stigma was on them both!" (331). The attentive reader knows the
answer: but Hawthorne, in order to delude the stolid, reverts to equivocation: "With a convulsive
motion, he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were
irreverent to describe that revelation" (338). At the end Hawthorne renews the ploy of "The
Custom House," blaming any confusion of interpretation on his sources: "The authority which
we have chiefly followed,—a manuscript of old date, drawn up from the verbal testimony of
individuals...fully confirms the view taken in the foregoing pages" (341). It would be more
accurate to say the assorted "views" taken throughout the book. In the novel's final paragraph
"the curious investigator," presumably Hawthorn's ideal reader, is asked to contemplate Hester's
tombstone, a "simple slab of slate" bearing her inscrutable escutcheon, in order to "perplex
himself with the purport." (345). As Hester and Dimmesdale's destinies take them from dust to
dust, so Hawthorne's novel moves from letter to letter, alpha to omega, without our having seen
"the dark problem of this life made plain" (231), rather we have experienced a "drama of guilt
and sorrow" made memorable.
If it is Hawthorne's irreverence that has enabled him to imagine and capture the shared
stigma and tragic fate of Hester and Dimmesdale, then as an artist he must believe that
irreverence has its uses. In The Scarlet Letter all of the key characters—Hester, Dimmesdale,
Pearl, Chillingworth, and Mistress Hibbins—have at least moments of irreverence that
differentiate them from the reverent Puritans. The novel opens and closes with crowd scenes,
where Hawthorne stresses the limitations of the mass mind while praising what he terms "the
great heart" of mankind. The Puritans are "a people amongst whom religion and law were
almost identical" (160). In such a theocracy, a reverence prone to self-righteousness is the norm,
as demonstrated by the harsh way in which all but one of the women in the marketplace
condemn Hester. Hawthorne adds that the male magistrates were singularly incapable of "sitting
in judgment on an erring woman's heart" (173). Any sympathy Hester might expect, he asserts,
"lay in the larger and warmer heart of the multitude" (173). In time her skills as a seamstress,
which she advertises on her scarlet letter, effectively blunt the crowd's malice and tap their self-
interest. The Puritans solicit Hester's embroidery for every occasion except "the white veil
which was to cover the pure blushes of a bride"—a moral nicety Hawthorne wryly refers to as
"the ever-relentless rigor with which society frowned upon her sin" (189).
The Puritans don't know what to make of Dimmesdale's relationship with Chillingworth
either. Reverently looking for the hand of Providence in their minister's failing health and "the
opportune arrival" of a doctor, they foolishly encourage a perverse, destructive relationship.
Only a few, attentive to their hearts rather than their heads, sense that something is amiss: "When
an uninstructed multitude attempts to see with its eyes, it is exceedingly apt to be deceived.
When, however, it forms its judgment, as it usually does, on the intuitions of its great and warm
heart, the conclusions thus attained are often so profound and so unerring, as to possess the
character of truths supernaturally revealed" (226). Although this passage overstates the crowd's
intuition, it dramatizes a key question: How capable are people of judging each other?
Dimmesdale's congregation's worship of him blinds them to his disguised attempts at
confessions: "They heard it all and did but reverence him the more" (242). As the Puritans don't
see either Hester or Dimmesdale accurately, so he misperceives Chillingworth, Hester is
perplexed by Pearl, and critics are confounded by the book as a whole. In the forest scene, when
Hester tells Dimmesdale that "the people reverence thee" (282), their faith only makes him
despair the more: "And as for the people's reverence, would that it were turned to scorn and
hatred!" (283).
In "The Procession" Hawthorne reminds us that "the people possessed, by hereditary
right, the quality of reverence" (323). The concluding chapters elaborate on the implications of
that fact. The pomp and ceremony of the procession itself is designed to play upon the people's
religious sentiments, and Dimmesdale's Election Day sermon touches their hearts: "like all other
music, it breathed a passion and pathos, and emotions high or tender, in a tongue native to the
human heart, wherever educated" (328). Because of their reverence for their minister, however,
most of his listeners heard only an optimistic prophecy foretelling "a high and glorious destiny
for the newly gathered people of the Lord" (332-3). Only a few truly attentive auditors, Hester
among them, heard a "cry of pain": "The complaint of a human heart, sorrow-laden, perchance
guilty, telling its secret, whether of guilt or sorrow, to the great heart of mankind" (328). The
crowd's "awe and wonder," as well as their "tumult," prevent them from grasping the full
significance of Dimmesdale's final revelation. Circumscribed by reverence, they are "unable to
receive the explanation which most readily presented itself, or to imagine any other..." (336). To
preserve their adoration of their minister, they resort to "various explanations." Most prefer the
idea that Dimmesdale, conscious of "the reverence of the multitude," had deliberately "made the
manner of his death a parable, in order to impress on his admirers the mighty and mournful
lesson, that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike" (341). Hawthorne offers this
pious interpretation as one of many proposed by the crowd; then he coyly suggests that, "The
reader may choose among these theories" (340)—each finding his or her own level of
Reverence, then, binds together a community of believers and makes a coherent society
possible, but it also deprives most people of the ability to see above or below or beyond the
confines of their shared faith. Only outcasts, those who have broken "the magnetic chain of
humanity," have the capacity to put all things in question and gain bitter wisdom. Hester's
"haughty" manner in the market place hints at her rebellious stance from the start. Although she
was brought up in a pious home and considers adultery a sin, the ordeal of her punishment makes
her an outsider and a skeptic incapable of genuine contrition: "She was patient,—a martyr,
indeed,—but she forbore to pray for her enemies; lest, in spite of her forgiving aspirations, the
words of blessing should stubbornly twist themselves into a curse" (191). What she loses in
piety, however, she gains in insight. Her stigma, and the experiences it occasioned, brought her
into "a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts" (192). She becomes convinced
that "the outward guise of purity was but a lie," and that saints and sinners are united in "a mystic
sisterhood" (192). Ironically, Hester's irreverent intuitions are a variation on the basic Puritan
doctrine of innate depravity.
Exactly how alienated Hester has become is made apparent in the scene at Governor
Bellingham's mansion. Her life now centers around Pearl, not around Puritan doctrine, and she
is determined to keep her child at any cost. "Speak thou for me!" (214) she tells Dimmesdale,
compelling him to concoct a sophistic argument on the spot in order to justify Hester's wishes.
Only because she was allowed to keep custody of Pearl is she willing to turn down Mistress
Hibbins' invitation to a Witches Sabbath: "Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have
gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Man's book too, and that with
mine own blood!" (217). Needless to say, this triumphantly defiant answer is not the response of
a devout Puritan, a point ironically stressed by Hawthorne's parody of religious rhetoric at the
close of the chapter: "Even thus early had the child saved her from Satan's snare" (218).
Although she may not be of the devil's party, "Another View of Hester" makes clear that
she has a mind of her own: "She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the
other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known it, would have held to be a
deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the Scarlet letter" (259). This crucial chapter refutes all
interpretations that see Hester as genuinely repentant. Her calm demeanor and good works in the
community conceal a soul in turmoil. Hester is thinking revolutionary thoughts, and had she not
had Pearl to care for, "She might, and not improbably would have suffered death from the stern
tribunals of the period for attempting to undermine the foundations of the Puritan establishment"
(260). The focus of Hester's irreverent speculations is the woman question and whether it is
possible for "the whole system of society to be torn down, and built up anew" in a way that
would enable women "to assume a fair and suitable position" (260). The fact that Hawthorne
expresses doubts about her "enthusiasm of thought," stating that she "wandered without a clew in
a dark labyrinth of mind" (261), does not imply that he, or any character in his novel, has that
clue—we are all bewildered.
Because Hester is confused it does not follow that everyone else is clear-headed. She is a
complicated person of shifting moods; sin, guilt, regret are only a part of the mix. What
motivates her is not necessarily a consistent idea, i.e. "I love Dimmesdale," but rather whatever it
takes to make the best of a bad situation. She represses her emotions so much that she is often
out of touch with exactly what her true feelings are. Her meditations on the problems of women
and the need for radical change come mostly after she has been made "the text of the discourse"
(191) for self-righteous Puritan sermonizing. The scarlet letter serves as "her passport into
regions where other women dared not tread"—it imposes on her an "estranged point of view"
that enables her to criticize everything "with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel
for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church" (290).
Before the seduction (exactly who plucked whom under the wild rosebush remains ambiguous)
Hester probably had a lot in common with the young virgins of the church who idealized
Dimmesdale and felt "a passion so imbued with religious sentiment that they imagined it to be all
religion" (241). She probably considered her marriage to be not invalid but unfortunate, her
husband's prolonged absence enabling her to believe that her affair with Dimmesdale had "a
consecration of its own" (286). Hester may entertain wicked thoughts, but she is not a
systematic thinker pledged to a coherent philosophy. Critical attempts to link her to Emerson
and the Transcendentalists are especially misguided: Their heads were in the clouds, her feet are
on the ground; they knew nothing of passion, which is her life. Hester is a walking critique both
of the Puritan world for being too restrictive and of Hawthorne's Victorian world for being too
refined. The revolutionary, Camus says, loves a man not yet born; what keeps Hester from
turning her irreverent speculations into radical actions is the fact that she loves particular people,
Pearl and Dimmesdale, more than any abstract principle.
Since Hester represses her emotions and conceals her thoughts, it is difficult to read her
true character. Both Pearl and Mistress Hibbins, however, serve to remind us of her hidden self.
Pearl expresses what her mother represses. No wonder Hester is constantly saying, "Hush, Pearl,
hush?" and "Hold thy tongue, naughty child?" Pearl, "the unpremeditated offshoot of a
passionate moment," is a wild child who can not be made "amenable to rules" (195). Dauntless,
capricious, irrepressible, Pearl's rich and luxuriant beauty dazzles with its "infinite variety"
(195), while her moods of "perverse merriment" leave us perplexed. She acts out the proposition
that passion is natural, a force that must be reckoned with and appeased. In spite of Hawthorne's
sentimental suggestions that she has a divine mission to lead her parents to heaven, Pearl's main
desire is to have an earthly father who will take her hand at noonday in the market place and be
"bold" and "true" on her behalf. Unfortunately, much of Dimmesdale's character is weak and
deceitful; only for a brief moment before his death does he deserve the name of "father." Pearl,
as Chillingworth perceives, has no "reverence for authority, no regard for human ordinances or
opinions, right or wrong" (233). Flaunting what Hester hides, she does what she pleases and
plans to follow in her mother's footsteps: "I wear nothing on my bosom yet," she tells Hester
when she is seven years old, trusting that a scarlet letter will "come of its own accord, when I am
woman grown" (276). The irreverence of Hawthorne's imagination is captured by his ironic use
of "yet" here, as he tantalizes us with what may or may not come to pass. Our last view of Pearl
promises that she would not "forever do battle with the world, but grow up to a woman in it"
(339). Although she will never wear a scarlet letter, neither will stay in Puritan New England.
Bitter-tempered Mistress Hibbins is even more alienated and sacrilegious than Hester and
Pearl. She has made her pact with the Devil and wants Dimmesdale and Hester to do the same.
She is not troubled by hypocrisy or the conflict between appearance and reality, she merely
accepts duplicity as the way of the world: "We must needs talk thus in the daytime," she tells
Dimmesdale. "But at midnight, and in the forest, we shall have other talk together!" (309).
"What moral imagination could conceive it," she whispers to Hester in the market place. "Many
a church-member saw I, walking behind the music, that has danced in the same measure with
me, when Somebody was fiddler, and, it might be, an Indian powwow or a Lapland wizard
changing hands with us! That is but a trifle, when a woman knows the world" (326). Hawthorne
is both intrigued and fearful of woman's strength and wisdom; what he cautions against on one
hand, he affirms on the other. But he knows that his own power as an artist is dependent on the
fact that his imagination is daring enough to create women as complex as Hester, Pearl, and
Mistress Hibbins.
Irreverence doesn't come easily to Dimmesdale, whom Hawthorne describes as "a true
priest...with the reverential sentiment largely developed," a man with "a deeply religious
temperament" (223). Yet his guilty crime of passion forces him to abandon the straight-and-
narrow path of righteousness for an ordeal of self-torment. Dimmesdale puts even more energy
than Hester into repressing his emotions, resorting to fasts, vigils, and flagellation. But these
masochistic acts only bring his erotic feelings back in a disguised form. He is capable of
penance but not penitence. Unconsciously, he draws upon his submerged passions to energize
his sermons, his secret sufferings adding a poignancy and profundity he had previously lacked.
Perhaps the most irreverent irony in the entire novel is the fact that Dimmesdale becomes,
practically speaking, a better minister as a result of being a worse sinner. His inner agonies of
self-loathing give this "subtle, but remorseful hypocrite" (242) a sympathetic knowledge of the
secret sins of others and a spiritual power superior to other Puritan preachers. If he achieves in
his Election Day sermon the Tongue of Flame, that sign of ultimate eloquence, its source is not
inspiration but sublimation. Because of his secret sinfulness, he gains the public aura of a saint!
Like Hester, Dimmesdale is tempted by irreverent speculation. Chillingworth encourages
this propensity by engaging him in wide-ranging discussions that provide him with "a tremulous
enjoyment." This "freer atmosphere," however, is too cold for comfort, so Dimmesdale
"withdrew again within the limits of what their church defined as orthodox" (224). Nevertheless,
heterodox thoughts occur to Dimmesdale at crucial moments. Standing on the scaffold at
midnight, a "grisly sense of the humorous" goads him to imagine what would happen if "the
whole tribe of decorous personages" that made up his congregation, including "the young virgins
who so idolized their minister," were to find him there in the morning. "The grotesque horror of
this picture" fills him with such perverse mirth that he bursts into "a great peal of laughter" (249).
Not surprisingly, Pearl and her mother then appear to keep him company. Whenever Dimmesdale
is near Hester he is compelled to act irreverently. In the market place and at Governor
Bellingham's mansion, he slants his homily to fit Hester's expectations. In the all-important
forest scene he abdicates his authority and acquiesces in her wish to run away. Upon his return
from the forest, he is almost overwhelmed by irreverent urges to utter "blasphemous
suggestions" to "sanctified" member of his congregation and to whisper "wicked words" to a
"fair and pure" maiden who worshipped him as well as to Puritan children at play (307-8). In
sum, Dimmesdale is transformed by suffering into a sadder but wiser man; he attains unnerving
glimpses at the maze of existence: "Another man had returned out of the forest; a wiser one; with
a knowledge of hidden mysteries which the simplicity of the former never could have reached. A
bitter kind of knowledge that!" (310).
As Mistress Hibbins to Hester, so Chillingworth represents in relation to Dimmesdale the
demonic extreme to which irreverence can go. Roger Chillingworth, as the Elizabethan
connotations of his pseudonym insinuate, does coldly what others do in the heat of passion. A
leech indeed, to accomplish his "intimate revenge" he attaches himself to Dimmesdale and taps
his life's blood. Metaphors of probing and digging reinforce the host/parasite theme, as he
carries out what might be termed the spiritual rape of his victim. Chillingworth seems to
represent what Hawthorne fears he might become: An obsessed artist cut off from all human
feeling. "Were it only for the art's sake," Chillingworth tells himself, "I must search this matter to
the bottom!" (236). Later, when Hester tells him, "You burrow and rankle in his heart!" his reply
is, "What art can do, I have exhausted on him" (265). In the forest scene, when Dimmesdale
realizes the horror of what has happened, he tells Hester, "That old man's revenge has been
blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I
Hester, never did so!" (286). He has committed what Hawthorne labels elsewhere "The
Unpardonable Sin." When Dimmesdale dies at the end Chillingworth is left, as D.H. Lawrence
remarked, "doubly cuckolded" (147). Appropriately enough, once his host is gone, the
parasitical old doctor "positively withered up, shrivelled away, and almost vanished from moral
sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the suns" (341). Although he is presented as a
Gothic villain, driven by the "dark necessity" of his revenge to revere nothing, it is
Chillingworth's compulsion to expose the inner workings of Dimmesdale's heart that enable
Hawthorne to explore the deeper psychology of his key characters. Even cold-blooded
irreverence, it seems, has a contribution to make the intricate scheme of The Scarlet Letter.
Works Cited
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Novels. New York: The Library of America, 1983.
Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Albert & Charles Boni,
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.