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 the 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.
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 Dædalian 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.
Standing as the incarnation, instead of the victim, of a sin, Pearl affords a unique opportunity for throwing light upon the inner nature of the sin itself. In availing himself of it, Hawthorne touches ground which, perhaps, he would not have ventured on, had he not first safeguarded himself against exaggeration and impiety by making his analysis accord (so to speak) with the definition of a child's personality. Pearl, as we are frequently reminded, is the scarlet letter made alive, capable of being loved, and so endowed with a manifold power of retribution for sin. The principle of her being is the freedom of a broken law; she is developed, “a lovely and immortal flower, out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion,” yet, herself, as irresponsible and independent as if distinctions of right and wrong did not exist to her. Like nature and animals, she is anterior to moral law; but, unlike them, she is human, too. She exhibits an unfailing vigor and vivacity of spirits joined to a precocious and almost preternatural intelligence, especially with reference to her mother's shameful badge. To this her interest constantly reverts, and always with a “peculiar smile and odd expression of the eyes,” they almost suggesting acquaintance on her part with “the secret spell of her existence.” The wayward, mirthful mockery with which the small creature always approaches this hateful theme, as if she deemed it a species of ghastly jest, is a terribly significant touch, and would almost warrant a confirmation of the mother's fear that she had brought a fiend into the world. Yet, physically, Pearl is “worthy to have been left in Eden, to be the plaything of the angels,” and her aspect—as must needs be the case with a child who symbolized a sin that finds its way into all regions of human society—“was imbued with the spell of infinite variety: in this one child there were many children, comprehending the full scope between the wild-flower prettiness of a peasant baby and the pomp, in little, of an infant princess.” The plan of her nature, though possibly possessing an order of its own, was incompatible with the scheme of the rest of the universe; in other words, the child could never, apparently, come into harmony with her surroundings, unless the ruling destiny of the world should, from divine, become diabolic. “I have no Heavenly Father!” she exclaims, touching the scarlet letter on her mother's bosom with her small forefinger: and how, indeed, could the result of an evil deed be good? There is “fire in her and throughout her,” as befits “the unpremeditated offshoot of a passionate moment,” and it is a fire that seems to have in it at least as much of an infernal as of a heavenly ardor; and in her grim little philosophy, the scarlet emblem is the heritage of the maturity of all her sex. “Will it not come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?” And yet she is a guiltless child, with all a child's freshness and spontaneity.
This contrast, or, perhaps it is more correct to say, mingling, of the opposite poles of being, sin and innocence, in Pearl's nature is an extraordinary achievement; enabling us, as it does, to recognize the intrinsic ugliness of sin. Pearl is like a beautiful but poisonous flower, rejoicing in its poison, and receiving it as the vital element of life. But the beauty makes the ugliness only the more impressive, because we feel it to be a magical or phantasmal beauty, enticing like the apples of Sodom, but full of bitterness within. It is the beauty which sin wears to the eyes of the tempted, — a beauty, therefore, which has no real existence, but is attributed by the insanity of lust. Now, if Pearl were a woman, this strong external charm of hers would perplex the reader, in much the same way that the allurements of sin bewilder its votaries. The difficulty is to distinguish between what is really and permanently good and what only appears so while the spell lasts. Pearl being a child, however, no such uncertainty can occur. She has not, as yet, what can in strictness be termed a character; she is without experience, and therefore devoid of either good or evil principles; she possesses a nature, and nothing more. The affection which she excites, consequently, is immediately perceived to be due neither to her beauty not to her intellectual acuteness; still less to the evil effluence which exhales from these, and is characteristic of them. These things all stand on one side; and the innocent, irresponsible infant soul stands on the other. Each defines and emphasizes the other: so that so far from one being led to confuse them, so far from being in danger of loving evil because we love Pearl, we love her just in proportion to our abhorrence of the evil which empoisons her manifestations. The same discrimination could not be so sharply made (if, indeed, it could be made at all) in the case of a Pearl who, under unchanged conditions, had attained maturity. For her character would then be formed, and the evil which came to her by inheritance would so have tinged and moulded her natural traits that we should inevitably draw in the poison and the perfume at a single breath, — ascribe to evil the charm which derives from good, and pollute good with the lurid hues of evil. The history of the race abundantly demonstrates that a chief cause of moral perversity and false principle has been our assumption of absolute proprietorship in either the good or the evil of our actions. Pearl, still in the instinctive stage of development, shows us the way out of this labyrinth. As the pure sunlight vivifies noxious as well as beneficent forms of existence, so the evil proclivities of the child's nature are energized, though not constituted, by the divine source of her being.
It would be interesting (parenthetically) to draw a parallel between Pearl and Beatrice, in Rappaccini's Daughter. Both are studies in the same direction, though from different standpoints. Beatrice is nourished upon poisonous plants, until she becomes herself poisonous. Pearl, in the mysterious prenatal world, imbibes the poison of her parents' guilt. But, in either instance, behind this imported evil stands the personal soul: and the question is, Shall the soul become the victim of its involuntary circumstances? Hawthorne, in both cases, inclines to the brighter alternative. But the problem of Beatrice is more complicated than that of Pearl. She was not born in guilt; but she was brought up (to translate the symbolism) amidst guilty associations, so that they had come to be the very breath of her life. They turn out powerless, however, to vitiate her heart, and she is able to exclaim, at last, to her enraged lover, “Was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?” Although, for inscrutable purposes, God may see fit to incarnate us in evil, our souls shall not thereby suffer corruption; possibly, indeed, such evil incarnation may draw off harmlessly, because unconsciously, some deadlier evil lurking in the spirit, which would else have destroyed both soul and body. Pearl, on the other hand, has an unexceptionable moral environment: her evil is not, like Beatrice's, imbibed from without, but is manifested from within; and if “what cometh out of the mouth defileth a man,” her predicament would seem hopeless. But, in truth, Pearl's demon was summoned into existence, not by her own acts, but by the act of others; and, unless with her own conscious consent, it cannot pollute her. Meanwhile, with that profound instinct of self-justification which antedates both reason and conscience in the human soul, the child is impelled on all occasions to assert and vindicate her cause, — the cause of the scarlet letter. She will not consent to have it hidden or disavowed. She mocks and persecutes her mother, so long as the latter would disguise from her the true significance of the badge. When Hester casts it away, she stamps and cries with passion and will not be pacified till it is replaced. She distrusts the minister, save when, as in his plea for Hester in the governor's hall and his midnight vigil on the scaffold, he approaches an acknowledgment of his true position. His promise to appear with her mother and herself “at the great Judgment Day” excites her scorn. “Thou wast not bold, thou wast not true!” she cries. “Thou wouldst not promise to take my hand and mother's hand, to-morrow noontide!” — and she washes from her forehead the kiss he gives her during the interview in the forest. In a word, she will have truth in all things: without truth nothing is good; nor, with truth, can anything be evil. In the deepest sense, this is not only true, but it is the truth of the book. The perfectibility of man being infinite, the best man and the worst man alike must fall infinitely short of perfection: but every one can account honestly for such talents as he has; and it is always the motive, never the achievement, the sincerity, not the sound, that Divine Justice regards. A Thug, who should devoutly believe in the holiness of his mission, would fare better than an evangelist, who should lead a thousand souls to salvation, not for God's glory, but for his own. So when little Pearl would frankly unfold the banner of the scarlet letter, and openly fight beneath it, we feel that God will give her victory, not over her apparent enemies, but over herself.
She is so much alive as to live independently of her actual appearances in the story. The imagination which there bodies her forth has done its work so well as to have imparted somewhat of its own power to the reader; and we can picture Pearl in other scenes and at other epochs in her career, and can even argue of her fate, had the conditions been different for her. Suppose, for example, that Hester and the minister had made good their escape from Boston, or that the latter's confession had been delayed until Pearl had passed the age of puberty. In either of these or a dozen other possible alternatives, the progress of her growth would have had a new and important interest, conducting to fresh regions of speculation. But Hawthorne never allows the claims of a part to override the whole; the artist in him would permit nothing out of its due proportion; and Pearl, for all her untamable vitality, is kept strictly to her place and function in the story. Where she speaks one word for her personal, she speaks two for her representative, character. There seems to be no partiality on the author's part; nor, on the other hand, is there any indifference. The same quiet light of charity irradiates each figure in the tale; and he neither makes a pet of Pearl, nor a scapegoat of Roger Chillingworth.
Dramatically, the last-named personage plays perhaps the most important part of the four; he communicates to the plot whatever movement it exhibits. But what renders him chiefly remarkable is the fact that, although he stands as the injured husband, and therefore with the first claim to our sympathy and kindness, he in reality obtains neither, but appears more devoid of attraction than any other character in the tale. This would seem an unconventional and rather venturesome proceeding; for the average mind, in modern English fiction, finds itself under moral obligations to use every precaution, lest the reader fall into some mistake as to the legitimate objects of favor and of reprobation. Continental novelists, to be sure, have a sort of perverse pleasure in defying Anglo-Saxon taste in this particular, and do not shrink from making the lawful partner of the erring wife either odious or ridiculous. But it will be profitable to inquire in what respect the American romancer follows or diverges from these two methods of treatment.
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 committing 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 super-serviceably 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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