The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The truth is that the situation selected by Hawthorne has more scope and depth than the one which he passed over. It is with the subjective consequences of a sinner's act that our understanding of him begins. The murderer's blow tells us nothing of his character; but in his remorse or exultation over his deed his secret is revealed to us. So Hawthorne fixes the starting-point of his romance at Hester's prison-door, rather than at any earlier epoch of her career, because the narrative can thence, as it were, move both ways at once; all essentials of the past can be gathered up as wanted, and the reminiscences and self-knowledge of the characters can supplement the author's analysis. The story rounds itself out at once, catching light and casting shadow; and Hester's previous life seems familiar to us the moment she takes her stand upon the scaffold,—for, in the case of an experience such as hers, a bare hint tells the whole sad story. So long as women are frail and men selfish, the prologue of The Scarlet Letter will not need to be written; it is known a thousand times already. But what is to follow is not known; no newspapers publish it, no whisper of it passes from mouth to mouth, nor is it cried on the housetops. Yet is there great need that it should be taught, for such teaching serves a practical moral use. All have felt the allurement of temptation, but few realize the sequel of yielding to it. This sequel is exhaustively analyzed in the romance, and hence the profound and permanent interest of the story. No sinner so eccentric but may find here the statement of his personal problem. Such an achievement avouches a lofty reach of art. The form has not the carpenter's symmetry of a French drama, but the spontaneous, living symmetry of a tree or flower, unfolding from the force within. We are drawn to regard, not the outline, but the substance, which claims affinity with the inmost recesses of our own nature; so that The Scarlet Letter is a self-revelation to whomsoever takes it up.

In a story of this calibre a complex of incidents would be superfluous. The use of incidents in fiction is twofold,—to develop the characters and to keep awake the reader's attention. But the personages of this tale are not technically developed; they are gradually made transparent as they stand, until we see them through and through. And what we thus behold is less individual peculiarities than traits and devices of our general human nature, under the stress of the given conditions. The individuals are there, and could at need be particularlized sharply enough; but that part of them which we are concerned with lies so far beneath the surface as inevitably to exhibit more of general than of personal characteristics. The individual veils the general to the extent of his individuality; and since the effect of "incident" is to emphasize individuality, the best value of The Scarlet Letter had it been based on incident, would have been impaired. As to postponing the reader's drowsiness, -- victims of the Inquisition have slumbered upon the rack; and people who have been kept too long awake over the sprightly subtleties of Zola, or the Daedalian involutions of Mrs. Henry Wood, have doubtless yawned over the revelation of Dimmesdale's soul, and grown heavy-eyed at the spectacle of Pearl's elfish waywardness.

Dimmesdale is, artistically, a corollary of Hester; and yet the average writer would not be apt to hit upon him as a probable seducer. The community in which he abides certainly shows a commendable lack of suspicion towards him: even old Mistress Hibbins whose scent for moral carrion was as keen as that of a modern society journal, can scarcely credit her own conviction. "What mortal imagination could conceive it!" whispers the old lady to Hester, as the minister passes in the procession. "Many a church member saw I, walking behind the music, who has danced in the same measure with me, when somebody was the fiddler! That is but a trifle, when a woman knows the world. But this minister!" It is, of course, this very refinement that makes him the more available for the ends of the story. A gross, sensual man would render the whole drama gross and obvious. But Dimmesdale's social position, as well as his personal character, seems to raise him above the possibility of such a lapse. This is essential to the scope of the treatment, which, dealing with the spiritual aspects of the crime, requires characters of spiritual proclivities. Hester's lover, then, shall be a minister, for the priest of that day "stood at the head of the social system;" and, moreover,—a main object of the story being to show that no sacred vows nor sublime aspirations can relieve mortal man from the common human liability to guilt,—Dimmesdale himself must commit the most fatal of the sins against which the priest is supposed to provide protection; nay, he is the actual spiritual adviser of her whom he ruins. Young and comely he must be, for the sake of the artistic harmony; but his physical organization is delicate, he is morbidly conscientious and "the Creator never made another being so sensitive as this."

Highly intellectual he is, too, though, as the author finely discriminates, not too broadly so. "In no state of society would he have been what is called a man of liberal views; it would always be essential to his peace to feel the pressure of a faith about him." Nor has he ever "gone through an experience calculated to lead him beyond the scope of generally received laws, although, in a single instance, he had so fearfully transgressed one of the most sacred of them." It is by such subtle but important reservations that the author's mastery of the character is revealed: they would have escaped the average mind, which would thereby have been perplexed to show why Dimmesdale did not follow Hester's example, and seek relief by speculatively questioning the validity of all social institutions. Nor would this average mind have been likely to perceive the weak point in such a character,—"that violence of passion, which, intermixed with more shapes than one, with his higher, purer, softer qualities, was, in fact, the portion of him which the devil claimed, and through which he sought to win the rest." It is upon this flaw that Chillingworth puts his finger. "See now how passion takes hold upon this man, and hurrieth him out of himself! As with one passion, so with another! He hath done a wild thing ere now, this pious Master Dimmesdale, in the hot passion of his heart!" For the rest, save in one conspicuous instance, the minister plays Prometheus to the vulture Chillingworth. As Hester suffers public exposure and frank ignominy, so he is wrapped in secret torments; and either mode of punishment is shown to be powerless for good. "Nervous sensibility and a vast power of self-restraint" are leading features in the young man's character, and these, combined with his refined selfishness, are what render him defenseless against Chillingworth. Dimmesdale cares more for his social reputation than for anything else. His self-respect, his peace, his love, his soul,—all may go: only let his reputation remain! And yet it is that selfsame false reputation that daily causes him the keenest anguish of all.

Pearl, however, is the true creation of the book: every touch upon her portrait is a touch of genius, and her very conception is an inspiration. Yet the average mind would have found her an encumbrance. Every pretext would have been improved to send her out of the room, as it were, and to restrict her utterances, when she must appear, to monosyllables or sentimental commonplaces. Not only is she free from repression of this kind, but she avouches herself the most vivid and active figure in the story. Instead of keeping pathetically in the background, as a guiltless unfortunate whose life was blighted before it began, this strange little being, with laughing defiance of precedent and propriety, takes the reins in her own childish hands, and dominates every one with whom she comes in contact. This is an idea which it was left to Hawthorne to originate: ancient nor modern fiction supplies a parallel to Pearl. "In giving her existence, a great law had been broken. . . . The mother's impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the rays of its moral life. . . . Above all, the warfare of Hester's spirit, at that epoch, was perpetuated in Pearl." The mother "felt like one who has evoked a spirit, but, by some irregularity in the process of conjuration, has failed to win the master-word that should control this new and incomprehensible intelligence." Pearl instinctively comprehends her position as a born outcast from the world of christened infants, and requites their scorn and contumely with the bitterest hatred,—a passion of enmity which she had "inherited by inalienable right, out of Hester's heart." In her childish plays, her ever-creative spirit communicated itself, with a wild energy and fertility of invention, to a thousand unlikeliest objects; but—and here again the mother felt in her own heart the cause—Pearl "never created a friend; she seemed always to be sowing broadcast the dragon's teeth, whence sprang a harvest of armed enemies, against whom she rushed to battle." And this strange genesis of hers, placing her in a sphere of her own, gave also a phantom-like quality to the impression she produced on Hester: just as a unique event, especially an unpremeditated crime, seems unreal and dream-like in the retrospect. Yet Pearl was, all the while, the most unrelentingly real fact of her mother's ruined life.

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