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Puritan justice to wear a scarlet “A.” * His long and devoted preparation is what best explains the sureness of touch, the clarity, force and precision of the work he began in 1849. It is also a key to the style. As many readers have observed, the tight structure and figurative language of the book make it seem more like lyric poetry than most novels. Entering the world of The Scarlet Letter is like walking into a large, many-sided hall of mirrors. It is a bright yet shadowy place where we see every fact in an unending succession of relations to every other fact.

Consider, for example, the landscape and the way it affects every aspect of the story. From the beginning, even before Hawthorne directs our attention to the wilderness that surrounds Boston, he makes its presence felt. We feel it in the grim mood of the crowd waiting at the prison door. To be sure, some of the grimness can be explained in other ways. These people are led by militant Puritans, men of faith who are passionately committed to an experiment in utopian Christian politics. In seventeenth-century Boston the laws are rigorously enforced. The stark authority of the regime is indicated by the prison, scaffold and pillory that dominate the opening scene. And yet there is something besides religious zeal in the atmosphere. On reflection we realize that it has to do with the community's location in space—with geography. Here is a tiny outpost of English society cut off from civilization by the ocean on one side and a vast, unexplored reach of wild nature on the other. What this may portend is quietly suggested by the appearance of a savage at the edge of the crowd. In The Scarlet Letter landscape is no mere backdrop; it is inseparable from policy and action and meaning.

In fact the setting bears directly on the story of Hester Prynne. The forest, plausibly enough, is the place where Hester and Arthur most freely acknowledge their bond. In the woods they momentarily escape the strict Puritan code. Under the circumstances, what more likely spot

* “Endicott and the Red Cross,” the story which contains this germ of the novel, is reprinted on pp. 247-254 of the present edition. Besides the key image, the tale embodies many of Hawthorne's general attitudes toward the Puritans.


can we imagine for a meeting of secret lovers? The forest, then, is identified with love. But it is characteristic of Hawthorne's art that he can turn this fact, at first glance so obvious, so prosaic, into a stunning metaphor. Indeed he turns the whole landscape into a metaphor. We soon find, for example, that the forest is called a "moral wilderness.” What makes this idea so compelling is that Hawthorne has prepared us for it by first showing us the plain fact. It is literally true that in this story the forest is a place where people elude the rules of the community. Hawthorne does not say to the reader, as it were, “let the forest stand for x." The forest means what the forest is: a place where no laws obtain, in short, a moral wilderness. Now if we also happen to know that Hawthorne is working in a distinguished tradition, that Dante, for instance, used the same metaphor, so much the better. The main point is, however, that Hawthorne so constructs the terrain of The Scarlet Letter that the town is a sphere of rigidly enforced law, and the forest of tempting license, and that between the two extremes there is no ground where Hester and Dimmesdale can take their stand.

But the contrast between the town and the forest is only one expression of the root conflict. At the outset Hawthorne introduces an elaborate set of parallel contrasts. He sets off the prison, "black flower of civilized society," with a wild rosebush. In opposition to the authoritarian politics of the iron Puritans, he invokes the name of Anne Hutchinson, the rebellious woman who was banished for heresy during the early years of the colony. (He again links her name with Hester's in Chapter 13.) Each side of the tableau has its appropriate color-black or red; each has a key word—"iron” or "wild.” As we read on, these images recur with ever expanding significance. Arthur wears black and Hester red. In his role as pastor as well as by temperament, Arthur is committed to the iron side, with all that that implies about man's weakness and his inescapable need for restraint, order and institutional control. (Iron, after all, is man-made, cold to the touch, hard, strong, yet subject to rust.) But Hester sees life differently. She values the impulsive, passional and spontaneous. (Roses grow wild; they are delicate, soft, fragrant, thorny; they bloom only for a brief moment.) At bottom the difference comes to this: Hester trusts the heart.

Now of course Hawthorne deliberately enlists us all on Hester's side. Who can resist the dark beauty standing alone with her babe like "the image of Divine Maternity”? Who can say a good word for her self-righteous accusers, or for the craven father of her child? Hawthorne calls forth our warmest impulses-our sympathy for the lonely, our solidarity with the persecuted, our anarchic urge toward fulfillment now; and then, when our gentlest selves have been exposed, he forces us to recognize their fallibility. Having weighted the argument so heavily on the sentimental side, it is no easy task to restore the balance. Whether Hawthorne succeeds is for each reader to judge. But the test is our feeling about what happens to Hester in the end. Can we accept her defeat? If we accept her fate as true (in Hawthorne's phrase) to the laws of the human heart, then he has won his triumph over a seductive but inherently sentimental view of life. Neither Hester nor Dimmesdale has the answer. Without the other each is incomplete. Pearl cannot become fully human until she has a father as well as a mother. Oi, to put it in more abstract terms, Hawthome finally would have us see that as a principle the wild rose is no more adequate than iron.

The action of The Scarlet Letter has the effect of breaking down the terrible dualism with which it begins. For Hawthorne there is a double victory in this process. First, he squares himself with his Puritan ancestors. What he most dislikes about them is the inhuman dogmatism exemplified by the sign Hester is forced to wear: “A” adulteress. As if a human being could be contained in so mechanical an allegory! The moment Hester steps out of prison she begins to demonstrate the preposterousness of the idea. Her needlework already has invested the simple sign with another significance. It is a thing of beauty. Before long it will come to stand for many things, just as all the images take on complicated meanings.

But in 1850 there was no trick to winning a victory over the Puritans. For Hawthorne's contemporaries were, in his opinion, all too willing to dismiss Calvinism, with its

deep suspicion of human motives, and go to the opposite extreme. In their unbounded capacity for self-approval they would wholeheartedly endorse Hester's position. “What we did,” she tells Dimmesdale in the forest, "had a consecration of its own.” This might easily be the voice of nineteenth-century America with its unlimited confidence in man, nature and itself. To have her way Hester is perfectly willing to disregard all that men have inherited from the past-religion, tradition, law, and society. She believes in the new beginning. Right here Hawthorne takes the measure of his own age. For all her heroic self-reliance, or rather because of it, Hester destroys the object of her love.

It is not necessary to say a great deal about Chillingworth, who represents a third point of view. Hawthorne does not ask us to give him much sympathy. He stands for the detached scientific intelligence, an ideal that he betrays in his obsession with revenge. This cold blooded man is a stock character, a villain out of the Faust myth who anticipates the heartless psychiatrist of current lore. If his presence does not offend our common sense it is because we realize that Hawthorne does not try for lifelikeness in any of his characters. The Scarlet Letter is not a realistic novel. Even little Pearl, who sometimes seems more like a clockwork doll than a child, finally makes sense in psychological terms. Hawthorne is not attempting to create a mirror image of actuality. The Scarlet Letter is a romance, a highly stylized symbolic fable, and only in its moral significance is it firmly linked with the world we inhabit.

Unlike novels in the realistic tradition, The Scarlet Letter has a moral. It is curious that so few readers discover it. At the end of Chapter 1 Hawthorne tells us to look for it. He plucks a rose and presents it to us as if, he says, to symbolize a moral blossom to be found in the story. In the final chapter he fulfills his promise. Reflecting on the implications of the tale, he spells out the lesson in the simplest language. Perhaps that is the difficulty. The language is so simple, the author so outspoken, and the meaning so plain that we scarcely recognize the moral—much less its profundity.

One final word. When Hawthorne finished The Scarlet Letter he realized that it was too long to include in a volume of tales as he had planned. But it was not quite long enough to stand alone. Hence the introductory chapter, “The Custom House.” This elegant essay, a charming specimen of its kind, does help some readers cross the bridge into Hawthorne's fictional world. But it is not an integral part of the story, and the impatient reader may begin immediately with the novel and save the other for his leisure.

Amherst College
Amherst, Mass.

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