The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Between Hawthorne's earlier and his later productions there is no solution of literary continuity, but only increased growth and grasp. Rappaccini's Daughter, Young Goodman Brown, Peter Goldthwaite's Treasure, and The Artist of the Beautiful, on the one side, are the promise which is fulfilled in The Scarlet Letter and the House of The Seven Gables, on the other; though we should hardly have understood the promise had not the fulfillment explained it. The shorter pieces have a lyrical quality, but the longer romances express more than a mere combination of lyrics; they have a rich, multifarious life of their own. The material is so wrought as to become incidental to something loftier and greater, for which our previous analysis of the contents of the egg had not prepared us.

The Scarlet Letter was the first, and the tendency of criticism is to pronounce it the most impressive, also, of these ampler productions. It has the charm of unconsciousness; the author did not realize while he worked, that this "most prolix among tales" was alive with the miraculous vitality of genius. It combines the strength and substance of an oak with the subtle organization of a rose, and is great, not of malice aforethought, but inevitably. It goes to the root of the matter, and reaches some unconventional conclusions, which, however, would scarce be apprehended by one reader in twenty. For the external or literal significance of the story, though in strict correspondence with the spirit, conceals that spirit from the literal eye. The reader may choose his depth according to his inches but only a tall man will touch the bottom.

The punishment of the scarlet letter is a historical fact; and, apart from the symbol thus ready provided to the author's hand, such a book as The Scarlet Letter would doubtless never have existed. But the symbol gave the touch whereby Hawthorne's disconnected thoughts on the subject were united and crystallized in organic form. Evidently, likewise, it was a source of inspiration, suggesting new aspects and features of the truth,—a sort of witch-hazel to detect spiritual gold. Some such figurative emblem, introduced in a matter-of-fact way, but gradually invested with supernatural attributes, was one of Hawthorne's favorite devices in his stories. We may realize its value, in the present case, by imagining the book with the scarlet letter omitted. It is not practically essential to the plot. But the scarlet letter uplifts the theme from the material to the spiritual level. It is the concentration and type of the whole argument. It transmutes the prose into poetry. It serves as a formula for the conveyance of ideas otherwise too subtle for words, as well as to enhance the gloomy picturesqueness of the moral scenery. It burns upon its wearer's breast, it casts a lurid glow along her pathway, it isolates her among mankind, and is at the same time the mystic talisman to reveal to her the guilt hidden in other hearts. It is the Black Man's mark, and the first plaything of the infant Pearl. As the story develops, the scarlet letter becomes the dominant figure,—everything is tinged with its sinister glare. By a ghastly miracle its semblance is reproduced upon the breast of the minister, where "God's eye beheld it! the angels were forever pointing at it! the devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger!"—and at last, to Dimmesdale's crazed imagination, its spectre appears even in the midnight sky as if heaven itself had caught the contagion of his so zealously hidden sin. So strongly is the scarlet letter rooted in every chapter and almost every sentence of the book that bears its name. And yet it would probably have incommoded the average novelist. The wand of Prospero, so far from aiding the uninititated, trips him up, and scorches his fingers. Between genius and every other attribute of the mind is a difference not of degree, but of kind.

Every story may be viewed under two aspects: as the logical evolution of a conclusion from a premise, and as something colored and modified by the personal qualities of the author. If the latter have genius, his share in the product is comparable to nature's in a work of human art,—giving it everything except abstract form. But the majority of fiction-mongers are apt to impair rather than enhance the beauty of the abstract form of their conception, -- if, indeed, it possess any to begin with. At all events, there is no better method of determining the value of a writer's part in a given work than to consider the work in what may be termed its prenatal state. How much, for example, of The Scarlet Letter was ready made before Hawthorne touched it? The date is historically fixed at about the middle of the seventeenth century. The stage properties, so to speak, are well adapted to become the furniture and background of a romantic narrative. A gloomy and energetic religious sect, pioneers in a virgin land, with the wolf and the Indian at their doors, but with memories of England in their hearts and English traditions and prejudices in their minds; weak in numbers, but strong in spirit; with no cultivation save that of the Bible and the sword; victims, moreover of a dark and bloody superstition,—such a people and scene give admirable relief and color to a tale of human frailty and sorrow. Amidst such surroundings, then, the figure of a woman stands, with the scarlet letter on her bosom. But here we come to a pause, and must look to the author for the next step.

For where shall the story begin? A "twenty-number" novel, of the Dickens or Thackeray type, would start with Hester's girlhood, and the bulk of the narrative would treat of the genesis and accomplishment of the crime. Nor are hints wanting that this phase of the theme had been canvassed in Hawthorne's mind. We have glimpses of the heroine in the antique gentility of her English home; we see the bald brow and reverend beard of her father, and her mother's expression of heedful and anxious love; we behold the girl's own face, glowing with youthful beauty. She meets the pale, elderly scholar, with his dim yet penetrating eyes, and the marriage, loveless on her part and folly on his, takes place; but they saw not the bale-fire of the scarlet letter blazing at the end of their path. The ill-assorted pair make their first home in Amsterdam; but at length, tidings of the Puritan colony in Massachusetts reaching them, they prepare to emigrate thither. But Prynne, himself delaying to adjust certain affairs, sends his young, beautiful, wealthy wife in advance to assume her station in the pioneer settlement. In the wild, free air of that new world her spirits kindled, and many unsuspected tendencies of her impulsive and passionate nature were revealed to her. The "rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristics" of her temperament, her ardent love of beauty, her strong intellectual fibre, and her native energy and capacity,—such elements needed a strong and wise hand to curb and guide them, scarcely disguised as they were by the light and graceful foliage of her innocent, womanly charm. Being left, however, for two years "to her own misguidance," her husband had little cause to wonder, when, on emerging from the forest, the first object to meet his eyes was Hester Prynne, "standing up, a statue of ignominy, before the people." She "doubtless was strongly tempted to her fall;" and though the author leaves the matter there, so far as any explicit statement is concerned, it is manifest that, had he written out what was already pictured before his imagination, the few pregnant hints scattered through the volume would have been developed into as circumstantial and laborious a narrative as any the most deliberate English or French novelist could desire.

For his forbearance he has received much praise from well-meaning critics, who seem to think that he was restrained by considerations of morality or propriety. This appears a little strained. As an artist and as a man of a certain temperament, Hawthorne treated that side of the subject which seemed to him the more powerful and interesting. But a writer who works with deep insight and truthful purpose can never be guilty of a lack of decency. Indecency is a creation, not of God or of nature, but of the indecent. And whoever takes it for granted that indecency is necessarily involved in telling the story of an illicit passion has studied human nature and good literature to poor purpose.

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