(Originally read and wrote this post August 9th 2008)
Often considered the first true psychological novel of American literature, the text delves deeply into the haunted psyches of the three main characters: Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, and Reverend Dimmesdale, and how one event of adultery plagues them for the rest of their lives.
Hester Prynne living in the puritan community during the mid-1600s commits adultery with an unknown paramour. The community condemns her to wear the scarlet letter as a punishment. Her lawful husband, Roger Chillingworth, arrives from England just in time to find his wife displayed on the scaffold for public chastisement. Roger makes her promise not to reveal his identity to anyone as he goes off to seek revenge against the secret lover who wronged him. Reverend Dimmesdale, the secret lover, tries to go about his life as a prominent member of the town all the while suffering guilt over his secret transgression and hypocrisy. Hester becomes a pariah due to the scarlet letter and gives birth to Peal, a devilish wild child, born from the adulterous affair. The rest of the novel deals with how the events of that single day affect the futures of Roger Chillingworth, Reverend Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and her child, Pearl.
In the modern world it might be hard to sympathize with a society that would condemn Hester Prynne’s crime. Shouldn’t she be able to sleep with who she wishes? One can see the scarlet letter as nothing more than a means of controlling female sexuality and enforcing male dominance. Hester’s isolation because of the scarlet letter leads her to contemplate the nature of her society and articulate blatantly feminist ideas.
“Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind, with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth accepting, even to the happiest among them? . . . As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position. Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated (150).”
In these thoughts, Hester observes that not even the happiest woman would accept their existence if they understood the patriarchal system and how it controls them. Interestingly, she points out that not only men will have to change to achieve equality, but women will too. Indeed, she challenges the idea of essentialism, questioning whether a separate female and male nature actually exists, or if they are really products of habit and custom (which only seems like nature). She ends these thoughts with a metaphor describing the behavior of women as ethereal (light, airy, delicate, refined, heavenly), those qualities we associate with femininity, which will need to be evaporated like the insubstantial cloud that it is when such a change to society takes place. So one think the work is doing is criticizing the nature of society. Society expects you to toe the line and follow its rules and standard, constricting our liberty.
Still, one needs to be careful about overemphasizing Hester’s feminist credentials. Hester expresses genuine guilt over her adultery and not just because society is condemning her. Hawthorne seems to be both condemning society as an institution and its excessive punishment, but the novel also leaves the impression that he believes adultery is morally wrong.
The novel isn’t just about society, though. It is also about our personal decisions. We might say it is a novel that shows what happens to our lives when everybody involved makes the wrong decision. It is implied that Hester engages in the adultery because she falls for Dimmesdale and comes to realize she never loved Roger Chillingworth. If she hadn’t married Roger, a man she doesn’t love, then she could’ve been with Dimmesdale. Instead of forgiveness, Roger chooses revenge against Dimmesdale, which threatens his very soul from a Christian perspective and psychologically transforms him into a monster dedicated solely to that revenge. Reverend Dimmesdale suffers from guilt over his own hypocrisy because he chooses not to reveal himself as Hester’s lover. The point being there are genuine consequences to our bad decisions.
Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy leads him to ask himself how he can possibly save other people’s souls when he himself is stained with so much sin. Eventually he reveals the truth of his own role in the adulterous affair, which unburdens him. He gives a stunning oration that summarizes the main idea of the novel. The scarlet letter is really a way of showing society’s hypocrisy. All people sin like Hester Prynne, most of us just don’t wear it on our chest in scarlet for the whole world to see; this is essentially the meaning of Dimmesdale’s final oration and death. However, the novel underscores this point even earlier when Hester tells us that the scarlet letter gives her the uncanny ability to sense the sins of others. The whole society condemns Hester for her “sin” when they themselves commit tons of unseen sins every day, showing that they are failing as Christians too (judge not lest ye be judged).
While Hawthorne condemns the nature of society, he also rejects a complete return to nature. The wilderness, like in most early American literature, is depicted as a place where evil roams and the devil meets with his followers. The novel makes clear that nature is where evil resides, stemming from Christian assumptions of original sin, yet nature is also a pure state where we start unblemished from the extreme moralism and control of society. I think Hawthorne recognizes both of these positions. Nature is evil, violent, and chaotic, capable of destroying us without society to protect us, but society is moralistic, self-righteous, and hypocritical, and restricts our freedom.
Harold Bloom writes that Pearl, the daughter born from the adultery and intimately tied to the scarlet letter—even to the point of worshipping it—is the text’s “primary knower.” She represents wild nature—a passionate creature born from a passionate sin—uncontrollable, elfin, devilish, playful, and rebellious. “She ran and looked the wild Indian in the face; and he grew conscious of a nature wilder than his own” (219). Besides the stereotypical racism of Hawthorne’s wild Indian on display in this passage, we witness here Hawthorne attempting to get at the wild core of Pearl’s character who many think is the daughter of the devil. Her curiosity in the scene with the Indian mimics the original sin; for in Christian theology it was really curiosity that caused our downfall. It is curiosity that continually gets us into trouble. With that said, I think Bloom overstates the positive depiction of Pearl; I am not so sure that Hawthorne wanted to depict Pearl as some paradigm of virtue or necessarily a desirable character whose behavior ought to be imitated. Her wildness not only symbolizes the passion of her sinful birth, but also that the character literally exists as a pariah outside of the rules of puritan society, shunned, and therefore never indoctrinated by the puritan rules and doctrines. She shuns the rules so much that at times she completely ignores her mother, paying her no heed, even disobeying her.
One particularly interesting scene shows Pearl staring at her own reflection in the water whom she believes to be a real person, which serves as a clear allusion to the Narcissist myth from Greek mythology about the boy with the same name who falls in love with his own reflection. I think this reference suggests quite bluntly that Pearl is narcissistic; there is a cruel selfishness to her that I think Hawthorne is depicting as a bad quality. The girl never bends her own will to ease her mother’s burdens. At times, she is as much a burden to her mother as the scarlet letter itself. Unbending Pearl cannot function in society; the novel associates her with nature, even pure human nature, which is curious, imaginative, playful, and selfish, but consequently is also narcissistic and lacks any sense of reality or caring about the burdens of others. Harold Bloom may be right about Pearl’s intense curiosity and her uncanny ability to see into people’s souls, but such abilities come at a price. For example, she sees right into the hypocrisy of Reverend Dimmesdale, rejecting his kiss in the woods where no one can see, but claiming she would only accept his kiss out in public where everyone can view it and thus know his secret. She might have a kind of psychological wisdom and insight, but she lacks erudition (book learning) and street smarts (practical societal knowledge of functioning in society).
Pearl shows no interest in these other sorts of knowledge, rejecting the minister’s questions when tested about her knowledge of G-d, paying homage to the claim that so much of our knowledge is socially constructed and reflects our societal values. However, the price for this lack of practical societal knowledge is she has no idea that her own reflection isn’t a real person; she has no common sense. Pearl is trapped in the illusions created by her own imagination. The riddle-like responses to her mother, the eerie games she plays in the woods, makes her come off as downright creepy; Hawthorne writes her in such a way that she comes off as wise and insane, a normal child would not talk like that–it is far too easy to judge the Puritan society as superstitious for believing Pearl might be the daughter of the devil, however, their superstitious instincts are a roundabout way of noting she acts abnormally. Pearl represents the closest example we have to a person born outside of society, a creature of the wilderness.
In the end, the death of her father, Dimmesdale, after he confesses his sins and dies, lead to Pearl changing.
“[A]s her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it” (229).
One cannot exist outside society, but must learn to live within it and find their freedom, happiness, and identity there. Pearl overcomes her narcissistic self and grows into a young woman, providing the future happiness and hope that her father, Reverend Dimmesdale, and mother, Hester Prynne, can never hope to find poisoned by their “original sin.” Society is to be criticized for its harshness, but a complete abandonment of it and return to nature isn’t the answer either for Hawthorne. In this book Hawthorne not only reminds us of the cruelties of society, but likewise the necessity of it.
“Introduction.” Modern Critical Interpretations: the Scarlet Letter. Ed. Harold Bloom