The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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It is evident, of course, that the fact that a man has suffered injury has nothing to say, one way or the other, as to his personal character; and the only reason why a novelist should represent him as amiable rather than the reverse is (in an instance like the present) that the reader might otherwise, in disliking him, be led to regard too leniently the crime of which he is the victim. Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale, however, are not so presented as to invite such misplaced tenderness on the reader's part; while Chillingworth, on the other hand, though certainly not a lovable, is very far from being an absurd or contemptible, figure. The force, reserve, and dignity of his demeanor win our respect at the outset, and the touches of quiet pathos in his first interview with Hester prepare us to feel a more cordial sentiment. But the purpose of the author is more profound and radical than could be fulfilled by this obvious and superficial way of dealing with the situation. His attitude is not that of a sentimental advocate, but of an impartial investigator; he is studying the nature and effect of sinful passions, and is only incidentally concerned with the particular persons who are the exponents thereof. He therefore declines, as we are not long in finding out, to allow the course of events to be influenced by the supposed moral rights or wrongs of either party. He simply penetrates to the heart of each, and discloses the secrets hidden there,—secrets whose general and permanent vastly outweighs their personal and particular significance. The relation of Chillingworth to the lovers has been pronounced, by an able critic, the most original feature of the book. But it did not so appear to the author's mind. It was a necessary outcome of his plan, and seems more original than the rest only because the pervading originality of the whole happens to be more strikingly visible in Chillingworth than elsewhere. But given Hester and the minister, and the punishment inflicted upon the former, and Chillingworth becomes inevitable. For the controlling purpose of the story, underlying all other purposes, is to exhibit the various ways in which guilt is punished in this world,—whether by society, by the guilty persons themselves, or by interested individuals who take the law into their own hands. The method of society has been exemplified by the affixing of the scarlet letter on Hester's bosom. This is her punishment, the heaviest that man can afflict upon her. But, like all legal punishment, it aims much more at the protection of society than at the reformation of the culprit. Hester is to stand as a warning to others tempted as she was: if she recovers her own salvation in the process, so much the better for her; but, for better or worse, society has ceased to have any concern with her. "We trample you down," society says in effect to those who break its laws, "not by any means in order to save your soul,—for the welfare of that problematical adjunct to your civic personality is a matter of complete indifference to us,—but because, by some act, you have forfeited your claim to our protection, because you are a clog to our prosperity, and because the spectacle of your agony may discourage others of similar unlawful inclinations." But it is obvious, all the while, that the only crime which society recognizes is the crime of being found out, since a society composed of successful hypocrites would much more smoothly fulfill all social requirements than a society of such heterogeneous constituents as (human nature being what it is) necessarily enter into it now. In a word, society, as at present administered, presents the unhandsome spectacle of a majority of successful hypocrites, on one side, contending against a minority of discovered criminals, on the other; and we are reduced to this paradox,—that the salvation of humanity depends primarily on the victory of the criminals over the hypocrites. Of course, this is only another way of saying that hypocrisy is the most destructive to the soul of all sins; and meanwhile we may comfort ourselves with the old proverb that hypocrisy itself is the homage which vice pays to virtue, or, if the inward being of society were in harmony with its outward seeming, heaven would appear on earth.

Hester, then, the social outcast, finds no invitation to repentance in the law that crushes her. The only alternative it offers her is abject self-extinction, or defiance. She chooses the latter: but at this point her course is swayed by a providential circumstance with which society had nothing to do. "Man had marked this woman's sin by a scarlet letter, which had such potent and disastrous efficacy that no human sympathy could reach her, save it were sinful like herself. God, as a direct consequence of the sin which man had thus punished, had given her a lovely child, whose place was on that same dishonored bosom, to connect her parent forever with the race and descent of mortals, and to be finally a blessed soul in heaven." The sacred obligation of maternity -- the more sacred to Hester because it seems the only sacred thing left to her -- restrains her from plunging recklessly into the abyss of sin, towards which her punishment would naturally impel her. "Make my excuse to him, so please you," she says, with a triumphant smile, to old Mistress Hibbins, in response to the latter's invitation to meet the Black Man in the forest. "I must tarry at home and keep watch over my little Pearl. Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Man's book too, and that with mine own blood!" But although she is thus saved from further overt degradation, she is as far from repentance as ever. Standing, as she did, alone with Pearl amidst a hostile world, her life turned, in a great measure, from passion and feeling to thought. She cast away the fragments of a broken chain. The world's law was no law for her mind. She assumed a freedom of speculation which her neighbors, had they known it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter. Shadowy guests entered her lonesome cottage that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door. "There was wild and ghastly scenery all around her, and a home and comfort nowhere. At times, a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl at once to Heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice might provide. The scarlet letter had not done its office."

Such being the result of society's management of the matter, let us see what success attended the efforts of an individual to take the law into his own hands. It is to exemplify this phase of the subject that Roger Chillingworth exists; and his operations are of course directed not against Hester ("I have left thee to the scarlet letter," he says to her. "If that have not avenged me, I can do no more!"), but against her accomplice. This accomplice is unknown; that is, society has not found him out. But he is known to himself, and consequently to Roger Chillingworth, who is a symbol of a morbid and remorseless conscience. Chillingworth has been robbed of his wife. But between that and other kinds of robbery there is this difference,—that he who is robbed wishes not to recover what is lost, but to punish the robber. And his object in inflicting this punishment is not the robber's good, nor the wife's good, nor even the public good; but revenge, pure and simple. The motive or passion which actuates him, is, in short, a wholly selfish one. It was deeply provoked, no doubt; but so, also, in another way, was the crime which it would requite. Unlike the latter, moreover, it involves no risk; on the contrary, it is enforced by the whole weight of social opinion. If the man had really or unselfishly loved his wife, he would not act thus. His wish would be to shield her,—to protect the sanctity of the marriage relation, as typified in her, from further pollution. His hostility to the seducer, even, would be more public than personal,—hatred of the sin, not of the individual; for men support with considerable equanimity the destruction of other men's married happiness. But, by bringing the matter to the personal level, Chillingworth confesses his indifference to any but personal considerations, not to mention his disbelief in God. As regards religion, indeed, he declares himself a fatalist. "My old faith," he says to Hester, "explains all that we do and all that we suffer. By thy first step awry thou didst plant the germ of evil; but since that moment it has all been a dark necessity. Ye that have wronged me are not sinful, save in a kind of typical illusion; neither am I fiend-like, who have snatched a fiend's office from his hands. It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may!" Accordingly, Chillingworth is an image in little of society; and the external difference between his action and that of society is due to unlikeness not of inward motive, but of outward conditions. The revenge of society consists in publishing the sinner's ignominy. But this method would baffle Chillingworth's revenge just where he designed it to be most effective; for, by leaving the sinner with no load of secret guilt in his heart, it is inadvertently merciful in its very unmercifulness. The real agony of sin, as Chillingworth clearly perceived, lies not in its commission, which is always delightful, nor in its open punishment, which is a kind of relief, but in the dread of its discovery. The revenge which he plans, therefore, depends above all things upon keeping his victim's secret. By rejecting all brutal and obvious methods he gains entrance into a much more sensitive region of torture. He will not poison Hester's babe, because he knows that it will live to cause its mother the most poignant pangs she is capable of feeling. He will not sacrifice Hester, because "what could I do better for my object than to let thee live, than to give thee medicines against all harm and peril of life, so that this burning shame may still blaze upon thy bosom?" And, finally, he will not reveal the minister's guilt. "Think not," he says, "that I shall, to my own loss, betray him to the gripe of the law. . . . Let him live! Let him hide himself in outward honor, if he may! Not the less he shall be mine!" And afterwards, when years had vindicated the diabolical accuracy of his judgment, "Better he had died at once!" he exclaims, in horrible triumph. "He fancied himself given over to a fiend, to be tortured with frightful dreams and desperate thoughts, the sting of remorse and despair of pardon, as a foretaste of what awaits him beyond the grave. But it was the constant shadow of my presence, the closest propinquity of the man whom he had most vilely wronged, and who had grown to exist only by this perpetual poison of the direst revenge!" But this carnival of refined cruelty, as is abundantly evident, can be productive of nothing but evil to all concerned; evil to the victim, and still more evil, if possible, to the executioner, who, finding himself transformed by his own practices from a peaceful scholar to a fiend, makes Dimmesdale answerable for the calamity, and proposes to wreak fresh vengeance upon him on that account. And it demonstrates the truth that the only punishment which man is justified in inflicting upon his fellow is the punishment which is incidental to his being restrained from further indulgence in crime. Such restraint acts as a punishment, because the wicked impulse is thereby prevented from realizing itself; but it is intrinsically an act not of revenge, but of love, since the criminal is thereby preserved from increasing his sinful burden by accomplishing in fact what he had purposed in thought. The Puritan system was selfish and brutal, merely; Chillingworth's was satanically malignant; but both alike are impotent to do anything but inflame the evils they pretend to assuage.

Thus it comes to pass that after "seven years," or any greater or less lapse of time, the culprits are just as remote from true repentance as they were at the moment of commiting their sin. Society and the individual have both demonstrated their incapacity to deal with the great problem of human error. Neither suppression nor torture is of any avail. The devil is always anxious to be enlisted against himself, but his reasons are tolerably transparent. When, at length, Hester and Dimmesdale meet again, they are ripe to fall more deeply and irrevocably than before. The woman faces the prospect boldly, thinking more of her lover than of herself; he trembles in his flesh, but is willing in his heart; but there is no sincere hesitation on either side. One hour of genuine remorse would have given them insight to perceive that no such shallow device as flight could bring them peace; for it would have shown them that the source of their misery was not the persecution suffered from without, but the inward violation committed by themselves. Chillingworth comprehends the situation perfectly, and quietly makes his preparations, not to obstruct their escape, but to accompany it. This is the most hideous episode in the story, and well represents the bottomless slough of iniquity which awaits the deliberate choice of evil. And it elevates Chillingworth into the bad eminence of chief criminal of the three. Not only is his actual wickedness greater, but the extenuation is less. The lovers might plead their love, but he only his hate. They can ask each other's forgiveness and implore God's mercy, when, in that final death scene of "triumphant ignoniminy," they make the utmost atonement in their power; but for Chillingworth, the merciless and unforgiving, there can be no forgiveness and no mercy. "When, in short, there was no more devil's work for him to do, it only remained for the unhumanized mortal to betake himself whither his master would find him tasks enough, and pay him his wages duly."

This interpretation of his character may profitably be pondered by the student of the human soul. From the fate of Hester and Dimmesdale we may learn that it avails not the sinner to live a life of saintly deeds and aims, but to be true; not to scourge himself, to wear sackcloth, or to redeem other souls, but openly to accept his shame. The poison of sin is not so much in the sin itself as in the concealment; for all men are sinners, but he who conceals his sin pretends a superhuman holiness. To acknowledge our sins before God, in the ordinary sense of the phrase, is a phrase, and no more, unproductive of absolution. But to acknowledge our sins before men is, in very truth, to acknowledge them before God; for the appeal is made to the human conscience, and the human conscience is the miraculous presence of God in human nature, and from such acknowledgment absolution is not remote. The reason is that such acknowledgment surrenders all that is most dear to the unregenerate heart, and thereby involves a humiliation or annihilation of evil pride which eradicates sinful appetite. All sin is based on selfishness; but the supreme abdication of self, postulated by voluntary and unreserved self-revelation, leaves no further basis for sin to build on. The man who has never been guilty of actual sin is peculiar rather than fortunate; but in all events he has no cause to pride himself on the immunity, which indicates at best that he has been spared adequate temptation. The sins forbidden in the decalogue are fatal only after the sinner has deliberately said, "Evil, be thou my good!" or, in the sublime figure of the Scripture, has blasphemed the Holy Ghost. Hester and Dimmesdale, in the story, stop short of taking this step, but Chillingworth actually begins by taking it. It is the unpardonable sin, not because God is wanting in mercy towards it, but because its very nature is to cause its perpetrator to withdraw himself from all mercy. He hugs it to himself as a virtue, as the virtue of virtues; and the more lost he becomes, the more virtuous does he fancy himself to be. It consists, broadly speaking, in disowning one's human brotherhood and laying claim (on whatever pretext) to personal and peculiar favor at God's hands. Such a person will contemplate with complacency the damnation of all the rest of mankind, so that his own hold upon the divine approbation be secure. In his earlier pieces (notably in The Man of Adamant, and Ethan Brand), Hawthorne has more than once touched upon this subject, but in the story Roger Chillingworth he gives it a larger development.

Chillingworth starts with the notion that he has a right to inflict vengeance. It is a very common notion; many respectable persons possess it; indeed, it is not only compatible with social respectability, but is favorable to it. But vengeance, when prosecuted with the deliberation and circumspection observed by Chillingworth, has this singular quality,—that it gives free indulgence to the most cruel and infernal passions of which the human heart is capable, unmodified by any fear of social odium; though here, and throughout, a marked distinction should be made between the idea of society as at present organized and that of mankind or humanity; the former being a purely artificial parody and perversion of the divinely beneficent order of which we already catch occasional glimpses in the latter. This peculiarity of vengeance first stupefies the voice of conscience in the perpetrator, and thereafter has him in complete subjection, and can lead him through the depths of the bottomless pit without his once suspecting that he is out of arm's reach of the archangels. Roger Chillingworth is a good citizen, his private and public reputation are spotless, he is on the best of terms with the governor and the clergy, and his intellectual ability and scientific attainments beget him general respect and admiration. No social test can be applied to him from which he will not emerge unscathed. His hypocrisy is without flaw; it deceives even himself. He is the complete type of the man of the world, the social ideal,—courteous, quiet, well informed, imperturbable. Nevertheless, his moral nature is a poisonous and irreclaimable wilderness, in which blooms not a single flower of heavenly parentage. For he has put his devilish lust of vengeance in the place of God, and day by day he worships it, and performs its bidding. Well might Dimmesdale exclaim, "There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man's revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart." Yet society has no stigma to fix upon his breast.

Hawthorne, however, with characteristic charity, forbears to claim a verdict even against his reprobate. "To all," he says, "we would fain be merciful;" and he goes so far as to put forth a speculation as to whether "hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom." But hatred grows from self-love; and if love and self-love be not opposites, then neither are light and darkness, or good and evil. It is doubtless true, on the other hand, that we can never be justified in treating the most iniquitous persons as identical with their iniquity, although, in discussing them, it may not always be possible to make the verbal discrimination. In real life there will always be saving clauses, mitigating circumstances, and special conditions whereby the naked crudity of the abstract presentment is modified, as soil and vegetation soften the hard contour of rocks, or as the atmosphere diffuses light and tempers darkness.

Nor would I wish to appear as superserviceably detecting theories in the mellow substance of Hawthorne's artistic conceptions. He himself felt a repugnance to theories, and in general confined himself to suggestions and intimations; he knew how apt truth is to escape from the severity of a "logical deduction." Probably, moreover, he was uniformly innocent of any didactic purpose in sitting down to write. He imagined a moral situation, with characters to fit it, and then allowed the theme to grow in such form as its innate force directed, enriching its roots and decorating its boughs with the accumulated wealth of his experience and meditation. In an ordinary novel of episode this system might be an unsafe one to pursue, there being no essential law of development for such things: they are constructed, but do not grow; and if the constructive skill be deficient, there is nothing else to keep them symmetrical. The tree or the flower has only to be planted aright, and wisely watched and tended, and it will make good its own excuse for being; but the house or the ship depends absolutely on the builder. The reason is, of course, that the former, unlike the latter, have a life and a design in themselves. And this, it seems to me, is the difference between stories in Hawthorne's vein and other stories. He is the most modern of writers; he has divined the new birth of literature, which is still unsuspected by most of us, to judge by the present indications. Hitherto, in fiction, we have been content to imitate life, but such imitation has been carried as near to perfection as, perhaps, is profitable. The next step is a great one, but it cannot be shunned, unless we would return upon our tracks, and vamp up afresh the costumes of the past. And what is this new step?

It is not easy to put the definition in words; and certainly it is not intended that we should turn to and write like Hawthorne. But what lies beyond or above an imitation of life? Nothing more nor less, it must be confessed, than life itself. This is a hard saying, but I know not how we are to escape giving ear to it; doubtless, however, a majority of persons will decline to believe, on any terms or in any sense, that a novel or story can ever be exalted from an imitation of life into life itself. And yet Shakespeare's plays are more than imitations of life; and so, it appears to me, is a story like The Scarlet Letter. The plays live, the story is alive. A soul is in it; it is conceived on the spiritual plane. The soul assumes a body, like other souls, and this body may be seen and handled; but the body exists because the soul, beforehand, is, and the latter is independent of the former. How this life may be imparted is another question; but, unquestionably, the process can be no easy one. He who gives life can have no life to give save his own. It is not a matter of note-books, of observation, of learning, of cleverness. The workshop from which issue works that live is a very interior chamber indeed; and only those who have entered it, perhaps not even they, can reveal its secrets.

Discreet readers will not construe me too literally when I venture the opinion that the day of dead or galvanized fiction is coming to an end. Let the circulating libraries have no misgivings; nothing is more certain than that, for many a day and year to come, their shelves will groan, as of yore, with admirable examples of the class alluded to. Moreover, Shakespeare lived a long while ago, and Homer and Moses longer yet; so that it might seem as if the threatened danger were safely astern of us, not to mention that, just at present, there seems to be a more than ordinary quantity of cunningly wrought waxen images on hand. As against those arguments and indications, it can only be urged that the progress of the human race probably implies much more than electricity and steering-balloons would prepare us for; and that the true conquest of matter by mind, being a religious rather than a scientific transaction is likely to be felt, obscurely and vaguely, long before it can be definitely comprehended and acknowledged.

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