The Scarlet Letter Essay, Research Paper
History and Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne envisioned The Scarlet Letter as a short story to be published in
a collection, but it outgrew that purpose. Most critics accept Hawthorne’s definition of it
as a romance rather than as a novel. It usually appears with an introductory
autobiographical essay, “The Custom House”, in which Hawthorne describes working in
his ancestral village, Salem, Massachusetts, as a customs officer. Hawthorne describes
coming across certain documents in the customs house that provide him with the basis for The Scarlet Letter. But this essay fictionalizes the origins of the story in that it offers proofs of he authenticity of a narrative therein contained. Following other literary examples in early American literature, like Washington Irving’s History of New York, Hawthorne masks his literary invention by making it seem historical (Cassil 490). He calls his motivation for writing the essay “a desire to put himself in his true position as editor, or very little more.” This editorial positioning indicates his interest in creating an aura of authenticity and historical importance for his narrative (Abott 137).
Not surprisingly, therefore, much criticism of The Scarlet Letter focuses on its relation
to history. Many critics have investigated the Puritan laws governing adultery and
searched for an historical Hester Prynne. Other critics have used clues within the tale to
specify its context. For example, when Dimmesdale climbs on the scaffold at midnight,
Hester and Pearl have been watching at the governor’s deathbed. Robert Corrigan
associates this with the death of Governor Winthrop on March 26, 1649, and notices that
“celestial disturbances were actually recorded after his death” (78). Similarly, Election Day, on which Dimmesdale’s sermon commemorates the inauguration of a new Governor,
can be located historically on May 2, 1649. To notice these dates, however, is to notice that Hawthorne takes liberties with them. (The Minister’s Vigil chapter takes place in early
May, not March, and so on.) His role in composing The Scarlet Letter far exceeds that of
a mere editor. The tale is an invention, and Hawthorne’s use of disparate historical details
should be understood not only as significant, but also as symbolic.
Hawthorne’s interest in the history of the colonies and his Puritan ancestors was deep
and genuine, but complicated. He was interested in not just documenting, but creating an
authentic past (Chorley 324). In “The Custom House” and elsewhere in his writing, Hawthorne imagines an ancestral guilt that he inherits; he takes shame upon himself for their sakes. (One of his ancestors, John Hathorne, ruled for executions during the Salem witch trials.) At still another level, Hawthorne invites the reader to relate The Scarlet Letter to contemporary politics of the 1840s. The past is not dead, it lives on in the custom house, and other contemporary political institutions. He writes The Scarlet Letter after having lost his administrative position, as a self-proclaimed politically dead man. Hawthorne insists that the nation both enables and impedes the lives of its constituents and the telling of its histories.
In the novel’s opening pages, the reader waits with the crowd for Hester to emerge from the prison. He overhears snatches of conversation among the women of the crowd, who express little sympathy for Hester and even wish for a harsher sentence. The narrator
interrupts these bitter sentiments, which match the prison’s gloomy front, and contrasts
them with a wild rosebush that blooms by the prison door. He hopes this rosebush may
serve to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found by the reader of this tale
of human frailty and sorrow (Kingsley 55). Explicitly, then, Hawthorne identifies The
Scarlet Letter as a moral parable, which offers its readers a sweet and moral lesson. This lesson emerges from the faults made by the Puritans’ early experiment in society, which the narrator consistently uses irony to deflate (James 126) . He comments, for example, that whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness the founding Pilgrims had envisioned, a cemetery and a prison both became necessary institutions. He aims his irony not at the fact that the need for a prison arose, but at the naive fantasy that it could have been otherwise (Ingham 111). As he does in The Blithedale Romance (1852), Hawthorne deflates the tradition of American dreams of Utopia and new social orders. In The Scarlet Letter, the fault shared by the Puritan settlers, the women outside the prison, and Arthur Dimmesdale most of all, is pious hypocrisy: they naively imagine that sin, or human frailty and sorrow, can be avoided through denial and pretense (Symons 634). Chillingworth, using an assumed name and hiding his intent of revenge, becomes an increasingly diabolical villain by his own duplicity. At the other end of the spectrum, Hester Prynne, because she wears a sign of shame on the surface of her clothing, cannot pretend innocence; consequently she has a greater potential for salvation and peace (Tuckerman 205).
For Hawthorne, his Puritan ancestors and the society they built seemed to forget the
wisdom of the great Puritan poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost (Abott 137). Hawthorne repeatedly invokes Paradise Lost in order to reassert its vision of mankind as fallen, and its “poetic dramatization of Adam and Eve’s fall and expulsion from Eden” (139). Fallen, with the world all before them, they gain the potential for ultimate redemption. So Hester, let out of prison, with the world before her, seems to have a better chance of redemption than her hypocritical neighbors.
Hawthorne’s allusions to Paradise Lost also provide him a way of introducing the
question of sexuality and woman as the site of temptation and sin. Hester Prynne
repeatedly feels herself to be responsible for the sins of both Dimmesdale and
Chillingworth. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth each reinforce this interpretation. The
narrator dramatizes the self-serving structure of their accusations, and calls it into
question. The irony of Dimmesdale’s initial visit to Hester illustrates this:
“Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for [thy fellow-sinner]; for,
believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand
there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a
guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him yea,
compel him, as it were to add hypocrisy to sin?” (Hawthorne 20).
Dimmesdale, as he stands at a literally high place, transfers his own responsibility to
acknowledge his part in the crime to Hester. Hester serves both Dimmesdale and
Chillingworth, and indeed the whole community, as a scapegoat (James 88). “The rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic in her nature, which implies sexuality, is something that the community simultaneously desires and disavows” (Corrigan 123). They ostracize her, but continue to consume her needlework, surreptitiously borrowing from the exotic principle she seems to symbolize.
In this way, Hawthorne directs his irony at Puritan hypocrisy. However, he softens the
didacticism of his tale with the other means he uses: imagery and symbolism (Chorley 323). As david Ingham states, “Again, the rosebush should symbolize some sweet moral blossom— the key word is symbolize” (346). The novel’s most important symbol, the name-giving scarlet letter A, takes on several different meanings. To the townspeople, the letter has the effect of a spell, taking Hester out of the ordinary relations with humanity,
and in closing her in a sphere by herself (Tuckerman 207). The spell of this scarlet letter is akin to that of The Scarlet Letter, the book itself. Like the community of Boston, the
reader is invited to enter a separate sphere, where both imagination and moral growth can occur. As Hawthorne describes it in “The Custom House”, modern life (of the 1840s) has a dulling effect on the mind and the spirit. In his fiction, he wants to create a richer and more challenging world. Just as the meaning of Hester’s A gradually expands for the townspeople, meaning not just Adultery but also Able, and perhaps Angel, The Scarlet Letter has an ambiguity that opens possibilities of meaning for its readers (Cassil 513). Readers continue to speculate on what the A additionally suggests: Arthur (Dimmesdale), Ambiguity, America, and so on.
The ambiguity of Hester’s scarlet letter A has been used as a textbook case to illustrate
the difference between two kinds of imagery in writing: allegory and symbolism. Allegory,
in which the name of a character or a thing directly indicates its meaning, can be seen in
Hawthorne’s early story “Young Goodman Brown”, about a young, good man. Symbolism, on the other hand, requires more interpretation; the A, for instance, suggests many possibilities which are in themselves contradictory (adultery versus angel). Most critics understand symbolism as a more sophisticated technique, and see it as more rewarding for the reader, who must enter into the text in order to tease out its possible meanings (James 113). In The Scarlet Letter, this act of interpretation outside the text mirrors what happens in the story itself.
The narrator of The Scarlet Letter continually provides more than one interpretation
of events. When the strange light shines in the sky during The Minister’s Vigil, it makes all
visible, but with a singularity of aspect that seems to give another moral interpretation to
the things of this world than they had ever borne before. The narrator only reports a light.
He suggests that Dimmesdale reads it as a giant A his own secret sin writ large in the
heavens because of his highly disordered mental state. But this account is in turn
undermined when the sexton and the townsfolk also read a large A in the sky, which they
interpret to stand for angel.
These moments suggest that part of the appeal of The Scarlet Letter is the act of
reading itself. Hawthorne dramatizes the effect of reading most clearly through Pearl. Up
until a certain point, she is more a symbol than a character. The narrator comments, as
Pearl dances by, “It was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with
life” (Symons 634). But at a particular moment, Pearl ceases to be a symbol, an it, and becomes human. That moment occurs on the scaffold, when she kisses her father; his grief transforms her, by calling upon all her sympathies. This moment illustrates the moral effect that aesthetic philosophers of the nineteenth century believed literature and art could have on their audiences (Abott 143). Hawthorne, by inscribing such a moment, puts forth high aesthetic claims for his work. The fact that Pearl here the figure for an ideal reader is feminine may suggest that Hawthorne has a feminine audience in mind. Occasionally, Hawthorne seems to voice a certain anxiety about the fact that aesthetic appreciation is seldom seen in the masculine character after childhood or early youth, and whether or not writing might have a disturbingly feminizing effect on writers and readers. On the other hand, work as a customs officer poses a threat to self reliance and manly character a threat Hawthorne escapes by returning to writing. In any case, the scene of Pearl’s transformation, as the text’s central moment of redemption and resolution, emphasizes the importance of the emotions in a richly lived and moral life (Kingsley 33). In this way,
Hawthorne seems to bring two opposites together. Pearl, as a younger, virginal version of her mother, neutralizes the threat Hester initially posed. Hawthorne brings the possibility of sensual and feeling feminine character back into the realm of moral life by using important historical similarities and expanding them to fit his characters and theme.