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The Scarlet Letter
A Novel

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Published by Easton Press/CT in 1975
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2008


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Everyone after 158 years knows that the scarlet letter is "A" and that it stands for adultery. But, in an amazing bit of legerdemain, the word adultery is never once mentioned in this book. This bit of sophistry by Hawthorne is consistent with the tenor of the time of the setting of the novel. Adultery was a subject polite people did not discuss openly, but only in veiled references whose import everyone knew. In a James Michener novel, I recall the main character saying that it came time for the characters in a novel to have sex, the author generally covered the incident by writing, "And you can guess what happened next."

In the novel whose eponymous subject is adultery, not only does the word not appear, but the act that the word refers to does not appear either. You as the reader are left to guess what happened between the Rev. Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne. By presupposition, you are left with no doubt that the act was committed, but no data is given how or when or what evidence there was that it was committed. The presence of a baby girl delivered to Hester was taken as enough evidence in the absence of her husband overseas during the year previous to the birth.

Hawthorne talks about his book as if its pages were leaves of a tree scattered upon the wind to be taken up by any passerby and inspected.

[page 3] The truth seems to be, however, that, when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates.

In an amazing metaphor, Hawthorne describes the eagle in the emblem over a government building as a vixen, "a shrewish, quarrelsome woman". If his words rang true to him in 1850, imagine how much more true they ring today.

[page 5] Over the entrance hovers an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw. With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears, by the fierceness of her beak and eye, and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens, careful of their safety, against intruding on the premises which she overshadows with her wings. Nevertheless, vixenly as she looks, many people are seeking, at this very moment, to shelter themselves under the wing of the federal eagle; imagining, I presume, that her bosom has all the softness and snugness of an eiderdown pillow. But she has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and, sooner or later, oftener soon than late, is apt to fling off her nestlings, with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or rankling would from her barbed arrows.

One could look back on the Branch Davidian fire, the events at Ruby Ridge, and the recent events at a Polygamous compound in Texas and garner ample evidence of the truculent and vixen nature of the American Eagle which is emblematic of the evils of a federal bureaucracy whose nature is at times more harmful to the people it is supposed to represent than those aliens who threaten harm to the very people it is supposed to serve.

"A writer of story-books!" Hawthorne imagines one of his ancestors saying to another, adding that he "might as well been a fiddler!" Thus, early on, in "The Custom House" chapter, we learn how little regard his people held for Hawthorne's chosen profession. He muses to himself and us:

[page 10] Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins, that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon, should have borne, as its topmost bough, an idler like myself.

The Custom House officials were charged with inspecting the cargo of the ships coming and going from the harbor. But like the levee officials in their independent fiefdoms of the local levee boards that speckled the New Orleans area pre-Katrina, those Customs officials made a big show of little matters while all the large matters completely eluded them(1). Like the levee boards, they seemed to have spent more time having expensive lunches than doing their inspections. Until something happened.

[page 15] Sagaciously, under their spectacles, did they peep into the holds of vessels! Mighty was their fuss about little matters, and marvelous, sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones to slip between their fingers!

Crudely said, those officials were locking the barn door after the horses had escaped, and while doing the locking praising themselves for the quickness with which they locked the doors!

[page 16] Instead of a reprimand for their previous negligence, the case seemed rather to require an eulogium on their praiseworthy caution, after the mischief had happened; a grateful recognition of the promptitude of their zeal, the moment that there was no longer any remedy.

We saw that happen in New Orleans, including the high praise for the work of the many different levee boards, whose very lack of effective preventative and diagnostic efforts allowed the levees to fail. The common people rose up and made sure that the disparate boards were welded into one effective board. Words have always lacked the efficacy of action in stopping flood waters from breaching levees, as Hawthorne might have written.

Hawthorne seldom wrote in direct simple prose when a long tedious meandering of words could serve the same sententious purpose. Often a single thought could progress and play itself out over two or more pages, often leaving the reader wondering who was the original person referred to when the terminal period of the sentence provides the benison of relief from the tortuous trek. Why say "age brings wisdom", for example, when one can write like Hawthorne:

[page 17] Then, moreover, the white locks of age were sometimes found to be the thatch of an intellectual tenement in good repair.

Hawthorne, or his narrator, at least, was friends with the notables of Concord at the time of this book. Here is a sentence fragment in which he refers to them:

[page 27] After my fellowship of toil and impracticable schemes with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm; after living for three years within the subtile influence of an intellect like Emerson's; after those wild, free days on the Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations, beside our fire of fallen boughs, with Ellery Channing; after talking with Thoreau about pine-trees and Indian relics, in this hermitage at Walden; after growing fastidious by sympathy with the classic refinement of Hillard's culture; after becoming imbued with poetic sentiment at Longfellow's hearthstone, . . .

Eventually the purpose of these long, drawn-out reminiscences is revealed when the narrator places his hand on a piece of cloth.

[page 33] This rag of scarlet cloth, for time and wear and a sacrilegious moth had reduced it to little other than a rag, on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A.

It was the selfsame piece of cloth that Hester Prynne had embroidered as a symbol of her infamy. Some of the women thought the cloth and its embroidery were too fine for the adulteress, as if Hester were taking pride in what the magistrates bestowed on her as a punishment.

[page 58] "It were well," mutter the most iron-visaged of the old dames, "if we stripped Madam Hester's rich gown off her dainty shoulders; and as for the red letter, which she hath stitched so curiously, I'll bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one!"

Hester is taken to an interview with the man who was her husband, but whose identity is not known to the town. She refuses his request to identify the man she committed adultery with, and he says that is no matter. The man may not wear a letter like Hester's but he will be able to read it written in his heart. He makes her take an oath to keep his identity secret even as she keeps her paramour's secret.

Hester's only means of support is the same needle that she used to so elaborately embroider her infamous letter. In an ironic twist, the letter on her chest became like the logo on the door of a car delivering pizza's today it advertised her needlework product, and in addition, like the plug extracted from a watermelon, gave a public sample of it to prove its worthiness.

[page 87] She bore on her breast, in the curiously embroidered letter, a specimen of her delicate and imaginative skill, of which the dames of a court might gladly have availed themselves, to add the richer and more spiritual adornment of human ingenuity to their fabrics of silk and gold.

Hester's infamy broke her work in a similar way that those who appear on reality shows on modern TV acquire employment even after displaying their worst aspects in public.

[page 88] By degrees, nor very slowly, her handiwork became what would now be termed the fashion. Whether from commiseration for a woman of so miserable a destiny; or from the morbid curiosity that gives a fictitious value even to common or worthless things; or by whatever other intangible circumstance was then, as now sufficient to bestow, on some persons, what others might seek in vain; or because Hester really filled a gap which must otherwise have remained vacant; it is certain that she had ready and fairly requited employment for as many hours as she saw fit to occupy with her needle.

Her embroidery work developed a cachet that the rich and those in high place earnestly sought. Perhaps it pointed to the evils that such do in the course of their duties. The one place where Hester's work was never sought was to decorate the veil of a bride-to-be.

[page 88] Vanity, it may be, chose to mortify itself, by putting on, for ceremonials of pomp and state, the garments that had been wrought by her sinful hands. Her needlework was seen on the ruff of the Governor; military men wore it on their scarfs, and the minister on his band; it decked the baby's little cap; it was shut up to be mildewed and molder away, in the coffins of the dead. But it is not recorded that, in a single instance, her skill was called in aid to embroider the white veil which was to cover the pure blushes of a bride. The exception indicated the ever-relentless rigor with which society frowned upon her sin.

The children of Salem would taunt Hester with the word symbolized by the large A on her chest, but Hawthorne dared nott spell out the word in his text. Was this because the people of Salem generations before him would have never said the word aloud? Surely they must have if the children were able to shrilly cry out the word as she passed in distance away from them. Even strangers caused her pain without saying anything. Instead of growing callous to the taunts, Hester grew more sensitive.

[page 91] She grew to have a dread of children; for they had imbibed from their parents a vague idea of something horrible in this dreary woman, gliding silently through the town, with never any companion but one only child. There, first allowing her to pass, they pursued her at a distance with shrill cries, and the utterance of a word that had no distinct purport to their own minds, but was none the less terrible to her, as proceeding from lips that babbled it unconsciously. . . . When strangers looked so curiously at the scarlet letter, and none ever failed to do so, they branded it fresh into Hester's soul . . .

The effect that the fiery letter had on Hester was to heighten her sensitivity to the souls of those supposedly upright people that she came into contact in the course of her day. What they hoped to hide from the public was revealed to the very person whose own sin they strove to make obviously public to all. By projecting their hidden sin upon Hester, they had opened a conduit for their individually hidden sins to leak away into Hester's heart.

[page 92, 93] Her imagination was somewhat affected, and, had she been of a softer moral and intellectual fibre, would have been still more so, by the strange and solitary anguish of her life. Walking to and fro, with those lonely footsteps, in the little world with which she was outwardly connected, it now and then appeared to Hester, if altogether fancy, it was nevertheless too potent to be resisted, she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts. She was terror-stricken by the revelations that were thus made. What were they? Could they be other than the insidious whispers of the bad angel, who would fain have persuaded the struggling woman, as yet only half his victim, that the outward guise of purity was but a lie, and that, if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom beside Hester Prynne's? Or, must she receive those intimations so obscure, yet so distinct as truth? In all her miserable experience, there was nothing else so awful and so loathsome as this sense. It perplexed, as well as shocked her, by the irreverent inopportuneness of the occasions that brought it into vivid action. Sometimes the red infamy upon her breast would give a sympathetic throb, as she passed near a venerable minister or magistrate, the model of piety and justice, to whom that age of antique reverence looked up, as to a mortal man in fellowship with angels. "What evil thing is at hand?". would Hester say to herself. Lifting her reluctant eyes, there would be nothing human within the scope of view, save the form of this earthly saint! Again, a mystic sisterhood would contumaciously assert itself, as she met the sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the rumor of all tongues, had kept cold snow within her bosom throughout life. That unsunned snow in the matron's bosom, and the burning shame on Hester Prynne's, -what had the two in common? Or, once more, the electric thrill would give her warning, "Behold, Hester, here is a companion!" and, looking up, she would detect the eyes of a young maiden glancing at the scarlet letter, shyly and aside, and quickly averted with a faint, chill crimson in her cheeks; as if her purity were somewhat sullied by that momentary glance. a Fiend, whose talisman was that fatal symbol, wouldst thou leave nothing, whether in youth or age, for this poor sinner to revere? - such loss of faith is ever one of the saddest results of sin.

In addition, the lower class of the town started a rumor that the letter A glowed red as she walked abroad at night. This is a glowing example of how metaphor can often cross over into reality in the form of mythic stories.

[page 93] The vulgar, who, in those dreary old times, were always contributing a grotesque horror to what interested their imaginations, had a story about the scarlet letter which we might readily work up into a terrific legend. They averred, that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight, whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night-time. And we must needs say, it seared Hester's bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit.

In this next passage Hawthorne refers to the legends of Cadmus and Jason who each strew dragons' teeth on the ground and had full-grown warriors spring from each tooth which they had to then slay to succeed in their tasks. Hester's daughter Pearl had no playmates except those of her imagination, and those she tackled as ferociously as Cadmus and Jason their dragon teeth warriors.

[page 101] . . . Pearl, in the dearth of human playmates, was thrown more upon the visionary throng which she created. The singularity lay in the hostile feelings with which the child regarded all these offspring of her own heart and mind. She never created a friend, but seemed always to be sowing broadcast the dragon's teeth, whence sprung a harvest of armed enemies, against whom she rushed to battle.

Lest any one of my good readers presume that the coffee table book is an invention of our century, let them rest assured that they were present even in Hawthorne's time and before.

[page 111] Here, on the cushion, lay a folio tome, probably of the Chronicles of England, or other such substantial literature; even as, in our on days, we scatter gilded volumes on the center-table, to be turned over the casual guest.

Pearl's role in Hester's life is symbolized in this next passage. Pearl is identified as the very living scarlet letter, an ever-present symbol of Hester's infamous deed. Hester is driven to cry out these words to those officials who were threatening to taken Pearl away and place her in an orphanage.

[page 120] "God gave me the child!" cried she. "He gave her in requital of all things else, which ye had taken from me. She is my happiness! she is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a million-fold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall not take her! I will die first!"

This plea placed the ministers in a dilemma. They could not take Pearl without condemning Hester to death -- which deed was not allowed as a penalty for adultery unless it was actually known that her husband was alive, and that was not known by them. In fact, Hester knew her husband was alive, but had taken an oath under duress by him to keep that fact secret.

Her husband, under the assumed name of the physician, Roger Chillingworth, is besetting the minister, Dimmesdale, with questions about his weakened nature. The minister replies that he has told him all, but the physician claims that is not the case. "No! not to thee! not to an earthly physician!" Dimmesdale cries and frantically runs from the room. Thus does the minister reveal to the physician in process exactly that which he strove to keep hidden in content.

[page 146, 147] "It is as well to have made this step," said Roger Chillingworth to himself, looking after the minister with a grave smile. "There is nothing lost. We shall be friends again anon. But, 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!"

Things pick up about this time. The minister steals out deep in the night to stand upon the scaffold where his companion in adultery, Hester, stood alone and bore the stares of the crowd seven years previously. He screams out loud as if letting all of the pain he had held within himself. Hester who had been at the death-bed of the Governor was abroad that night and heard the minister's cry. He calls to her and Pearl to stand on the scaffold with him so that the three of them could be together now as they had not earlier. He pledges that they will be together again in the light of day and no sooner than he says that as a meteor flashes across the sky. The meteor lit up the sky like a gigantic "A" and created an eerie scene of portentous meaning.

[page 164, 165] And there stood the minister, with his hand over his heart; and Hester Prynne, with the embroidered letter glimmering on her boson; and little Pearl, herself a symbol, and the connecting link between those two. They stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendor, as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets, and the daybreak that shall unite all who belong to one another.

Hester confronts Chillingworth and they reach an impasse with each other, but one that allows her to operate in freedom as far as the minister with whom she hopes to unite. In his final words to Hester we detect that a karmic balancing between the two has occurred when he says, "It is our fate." Fate, rightly understood, is a "dark necessity", the blooming of the "black flower" which we cannot see directly, but only catch a whiff of its fragrance in the passing winds of our fortunes.

[page 186] "Peace, Hester, peace!" replied the old man, with gloomy sternness. "It is not granted to me to pardon. I have no such power as thou tellest me of. My old faith, long forgotten, comes back to me, and explains all that we do, and all 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! Now go thy ways, and deal as thou wilt with yonder man."

Hester and Pearl accost the minister in the forest and he rebuffs her by saying, "Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your boson! Mine burns in secret!" She tells him that his friend and confidant, Roger Chillingworth, is her former husband and his worst enemy. They resolve to leave for the Old World together on the next ship to start their life anew.

The Puritans of New England allowed themselves one holiday a year and it was on this day that Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister, was to give his Election Sermon. After his meeting with Hester and Pearl, the minister returned to his quarters and threw all his sermon pages into the fire and with a fire burning in his heart began anew.

[page 240, 241] Thus the night flew away, as it if it were a winged steed, and he careering on it; morning came, and peeped, blushing through the curtains; and at last sunrise threw a golden beam into the study and laid it right across the minister's bedazzled eyes. There he was, with the pen still between his fingers, and a vast, immeasurable tract of written space behind him!"

On the holiday, the parade begins with the most important people and goes on down the ranks. About the four statesmen, Bradstreet, Endicott, Dudley, and Bellingham, Hawthorne writes:

[page 254] They had fortitude and self-reliance, and, in time of difficulty or peril, stood up for the welfare of the state like a line of cliffs against a tempestuous tide.

I find it interesting to note that the above metaphor using a cliff notes its steadfastness against raging tides, just as Cliff Notes hold out against the raging tide of ignorance for college students of our time.

Hawthorne reflects that the Indians in the crowd during the procession stared at the scarlet letter on Hester's breast for another reason, dramatically the opposite of the townspeople.

[page 262, 263] Even the Indians were affected by a sort of cold shadow of the white man's curiosity, and, gliding through the crowd, fastened their snake-like black eyes on Hester's bosom; conceiving, perhaps, that the wearer of this brilliantly embroidered badge must needs be a personage of high dignity among her people.

The minister Dimmesdale reveals the secret of his relationship with Hester Prynne as her lover and father of the girl, Pearl, and then he says goodbye to Hester and dies upon the scaffolding in full view of the town. He has spared Hester of her execution upon the scaffolding and in effect received the execution upon himself. Within a year, Roger Chillingworth's health declined and after his death, his will bequeathed a large amount of property to Pearl, making her the richest heiress of her day in New England.

The little girl who sowed dragons' teeth with her imagination and fought them to the death, was now victor over the dragon of poverty. But she and her mother disappeared to another part of the world and only much later did Hester return, alone. Hester took up her cottage and lived alone, comforting those who came to her for advice, until that day when she came to buried. The site was next to Dimmesdale's and yet one tombstone, a simple slab of slate, stood for them both: "On a Field, Sable, the Letter A, Gules(2)."


---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. When the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina (2005) were pushed up against these levees, they collapsed, and sent almost half of the city under waters from a foot to over ten feet deep. After the storm a unified levee board was fashioned which included actual engineers who would ensure the levees' ability to withstand future flood waters.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


Footnote 2. Gules represents the color red, which on an engraved escutcheon is indicated by vertical lines. Hester's tombstone carried her letter carved in granite with vertical lines to represent its color. It had become her coat of arms.

Return to text directly before Footnote 2.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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