Liberalism: How Hawthorne Joins The Fight Essay, Research Paper
Liberalism, as a political philosophy, can be traced as the foundation to several theories that were circulating the American nation during the mid-nineteenth century. This political ideology embraces a strong repudiation for the laws, customs, and institutions of the time that were believed to foster the subordination of individuality, and is radical to the extent that it challenges the view that only by keeping with tradition will society continue to grow and flourish. In positive correlation with the latter view, the Puritan colonies of this nation and era shared a political prescription for society based on a profound respect for history and tradition. In light of this respect for traditional forces, the Puritan culture advocates several elements of a classically conservative ideology aimed against individualism.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, written and published in 1851, questions the promise of a politick embracing classical conservatism by critically and symbolically weighing the forces of history and tradition against those of individualism and revolution in a compelling advocation of the latter. Hawthorne’s appreciation for a more liberal philosophy as a catalyst for social and political progress is evident throughout The Scarlet Letter, which endorses liberal, individualist thought over a traditional and classically conservative Puritan belief structure. Hawthorne’s success in this endorsement is largely attributable to his powerful and ambiguous use of the symbol as the central vehicle for the novel that is foremost to the entire narrative itself. Hawthorne writes The Scarlet Letter in a fashion that sets the symbol, as an intrinsic part of the narrative, in a superior position to that of the entire narrative. In the process thereof, Hawthorne analogously undermines the basic tenet of classical conservatism—that tenet which is fixated on tradition and holds that the whole of society, past and present, is greater than the sum of any one or more of its parts.
Classical conservatism is philosophically akin to those views, which hold high in their esteem history and tradition as solid foundations for social promise and stability. Edmund Burke, a popular 17th century political theorist spoke favorably on a social and political culture that is subservient to the forces of history and tradition. Burke “?insisted that [individuals share] a naked and shivering human nature [and] need such comfort and supports as can be provided by the established traditions of an old society?”(Bredvold and Ross). For Burke, the preservation of, as well as prolonged respect for and adherence to, those laws, customs, and institutions established in the past is imperative for civil society to exist and endure. Burke is also stern in his classically conservative belief that the governing agent of society and those who are governed must enter into a contract where protection is offered in return for adherence to traditionally established laws and customs, implicit in a society’s institutional framework. Burke asserts that this contract is “?a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection?[and exists]? not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born?”(Burke, 148). In this respect Burke implies a notion that this covenant between the governing and the governed is not something that is merely brought into existence by, nor capable of being abolished by, individual consent. Burke suggests that the whole of the contract is superior to that of the sum of any one or more of its existing parts.
Particularly in the “Custom House” Hawthorne positively correlates this mentality with that of his Puritan forefathers. In commenting on his forefathers Hawthorne writes, “?’What is he’? murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. ‘A writer of story-books!’ ‘What kind of business in life, —what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? Why the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!’ Such are the complaints bandied between my great-grandsires and myself, across the golf of time?”(Hawthorne, 10). Hawthorne’s preceding quotation refers to the reaction that his forefathers would express in light of his decision to abandon a traditional occupation and pursue a career as a writer. This kind of reaction illustrates a belief that in abandoning traditional customs of service to mankind, one inevitably fails to lead a worthy or productive life, and thus support a notion that traditional and historical forces are substantive in the Puritan culture. Furthermore, Hawthorne states “?Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generation, in the same worn out soil?” expressing a belief that the clinging on to roots of the past is not a sufficient way to bring about social and intellectual progress (Hawthorne, 10). Hawthorne’s belief that perhaps a more liberal and individualist approach to society is more conducive to human development is evident through his contention that, “?it may be, however?that the great-grandchildren of the present race may sometime think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days?”(Hawthorne, 34).
Hawthorne’s lack of faith in tradition is the impetus for his desire to advocate liberalism over classical conservatism as a more fruitful way of obtaining social progress for the relatively new American nation. In endorsing individuality and a break from tradition Hawthorne is dismissive of classical conservatism—that ideology which is centered on the preservation of tradition. Hawthorne thus attacks classical conservatism through his novel by undermining this ideology’s most central tenet that expresses a firm belief that the whole of society, both past and present, is superior to the sum of any one or more of its parts. Hawthorne attacks this principle by writing The Scarlet Letter in a fashion that sets the symbol, as an element to his novel, as possessing more power, value, and worth than the entire narrative, which is his completed product.
Hawthorne illustrates that the symbolism in the narrative is superior to the narrative itself in his revelation that a symbol was his prime motivation for writing the novel. The ambiguity and dynamic representation of the novel’s central symbol throughout the narrative also compels the reader to fixate on the symbolism in order to understand and gain appreciation for what the narrative attempts to express. In The Custom House Hawthorne reveals his discovery of a package containing some fabric with a faded letter “A” imprinted on the cloth along with some documents describing the story behind this letter. Hawthorne claims that this discovery is the basis for his novel when he writes, “?In the absorbing contemplation of the scarlet letter, I had hitherto neglected to examine a small role of dingy paper, around which it had been twisted. This now I opened, and had the satisfaction to find, recorded by the old Surveyor’s pen, a reasonably complete explanation of the whole affair?There seemed to be here the groundwork of a tale?”(Hawthorne, 25-26). Hawthorne immediately implies that if it were not for the scarlet letter that he discovers, his narrative would never have been written. In this respect the scarlet letter itself is foremost to the novel, in that the latter is dependent upon the former.
The Scarlet Letter is thus based upon a symbol and Hawthorne stresses the importance and potency of this symbol when it takes on different meanings throughout the course of the novel. When the reader is first introduced to the symbolic scarlet letter Hawthorne invokes a perception that the letter is something ornamental or decorative. This is established when the bystanders of the town state “?it were well if we stripped Madame Hester’s rich gown off her dainty shoulders?” which illustrates that the town bystanders view the symbol as something beautiful and worthy of admiration (Hawthorne, 40). By the end of the twelfth chapter of the novel a letter “A” seen in the sky is interpreted as to mean “Angel.” This adds to the current ambiguity of the symbol, and compels the reader to reconsider its true meaning. Hawthorne also characterizes the symbol as something referring to “Ableness” rather than “Adultery” and states that, “?the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom?”(Hawthorne, 111). The different meanings that the symbol takes on throughout the course of the novel reinforce its significance and coerce the reader to contemplate over the true meaning of the symbol, which largely prevents the reader from only focusing on the narrative as whole.
Throughout The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne consistently emphasizes the importance of the scarlet letter as a symbol in terms of its ambiguity. His revelations in regard to the nature and meaning of the symbol coerce the reader to consistently focus attention on the symbol. Hawthorne also makes evident in The Custom House that the discovery of the symbol is the foundation for his entire narrative. Hawthorne’s advocation of individuality over tradition, which is also manifest in The Custom House, illustrates his support of a more liberal ideology over one of classical conservatism. Hawthorne thus attacks classical conservatism by undermining its central tenet that the whole of society is superior to the sum of one or more of its parts analogously by elevating the importance of one of his narrative’s elements, symbolism, over that of the entire narrative itself