I confess to having a link – an extremely tenuous one, I admit – to the author of The Scarlet Letter. Sarah Averill Wildes, my eighth great-aunt, was hanged on Gallows Hill in Salem, Massachusetts, on the 19th of July, 1692. Her crime, they said, was witchcraft. One of the men who sent her there was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ancestor, Justice Hathorne … the only judge who never repented of his actions. Hawthorne, the writer, is said to have changed the spelling of his name to distance himself from his notorious relative; I have long wanted to write about mine.
In his introduction, Hawthorne jokes that his Puritan ancestors would have found little to commend regarding his choice of occupation:
“No aim that I have ever cherished, would they recognize as laudable; no success of mine … would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively disgraceful. ‘What is he?’ murmurs one grey shadow of my forefathers to the other. ‘A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life, – what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation, – may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!'”
All joking aside, there’s no doubt that Hawthorne was haunted by the shadow of his Puritan forebearers. You could say, in fact, that The Scarlet Letter was his rejoinder to the rigid, joyless conformity his ancestors preached, and frequently practiced.
The story is set in Boston in the 1640s, during the time when the colony was a Puritan settlement. Hester Prynne is a young married woman who has had an affair with a man she refuses to name, and has given birth to a child – a daughter whom she calls Pearl. In a patriarchal society such as this, adultery is a sin – more than that, it’s a crime, and is punishable, in some cases, by death. In Hester’s case, the judges have shown leniency: after spending some time in jail, she’s taken out to the scaffold in the market square, along with her baby daughter, to be publicly humiliated. But the punishment doesn’t end there: for the rest of her life, she will wear the letter “A”, woven in scarlet and embroidered on her chest.
While she stands there, the object of censure of every man, woman, and child, she recognizes a figure in the crowd – an elderly stranger, standing near the back, small, slightly deformed, with one shoulder higher than the other. This, she realizes, is her missing husband, who sent her on ahead to America a few years back and was thought to be lost at sea. Now he has turned up, just in time to witness her mortification. He signals to her to show no sign of recognition – he does not want to be known as the cuckolded husband of an adulteress.
It becomes apparent, early on, that the man Hester will not name is the popular young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, saintly and scholarly and wracked with guilt. Without admitting his part in the crime, he as much as begs Hester to reveal his name to the people. She refuses to do so and he lacks the courage to do it himself. While Hester bears her outward mark of punishment on her breast, Dimmesdale carries his inside – his growing guilt and agony takes its toll on his health, to the point where his followers fear for his life.
One man has guessed his secret, and spends years plotting his revenge. Hester’s estranged husband, who now calls himself Roger Chillingworth – a cold name if ever there was one – sets himself up as a physician and works his way into Dimmesdale’s confidence. While appearing to be trying to cure him, Chllingworth is actually bent on prying the truth out of the younger man. What he will do with that confession, if he receives it, is unclear. What is clear, however, is that his obsession with Dimmesdale has turned him into something of a monster; by the end of the book, Roger Chillingworth is a fiend, carrying out the work of the devil.
Hester is a strong and resilient character, but somewhat flat, I think. She’s simply too good to be very interesting. Instead of leaving the community, which she certainly could do, she chooses to stay, living in a small cottage on the outskirts with her daughter and supporting them with her needlework. She becomes something of a saint, making clothing for the poor, turning the other cheek when she’s reviled and rebuffed. While she’s to be commended for the stoicism with which she accepts her punishment, it’s hard to believe that such a saintly woman would have had illicit sex in the first place.
Her one retort to her critics is little Pearl, a lively and energetic spark who embodies everything the Puritans are not. Hester clothes her in scarlet dresses which she has elegantly embroidered with the same gold thread she used to outline the letter she wears. In her outspoken, and sometimes outlandish behaviour, Pearl is the embodiment of Hester’s crime – and a living rebuke to those who judge her for it.
But it’s the young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, who takes up most of the story. Over a period of seven years we observe his struggle to come to terms with what he has done – to expiate himself in the eyes of his Lord. He believes himself to be a hypocrite, walking among his congregation as a kind of saint while harbouring an untold sin within his heart. His inability to reveal his secret is, quite literally, killing him. He grows weaker and more and more frail, in both mind and body.
We don’t talk much about sin these days. We prefer to speak in terms of “human failings”, “character flaws” and the like. Which may or may not be a good thing. The notion of sin has become rather outdated except by evangelical fundamentalists predicting the end of the world. Whether you believe in it or not, its nature, as demonstrated in the novel, is complex – who, in the end, are the sinners? Hawthorne suggests that the real sinners are the ones who point fingers – those who sit in judgment and cast the first stone. It is not, as the Puritans believed, the sin itself that destroys the individual, but the condemnation and censure that we bring to it.
Eventually, Dimmesdale, almost annihilated by his secret, chooses to make it public. Standing on the scaffold in the market square, Hester on one side and Pearl on the other, he confesses that he, too, is a sinner. He bares his chest to reveal – what? We’re never sure. A stigma of some kind, similar to Hester’s scarlet letter. Was it self-inflicted? Did Chillingworth, devil that he is, concoct some kind of poison to create it? Or is it merely the outward, visible manifestation of the man’s inner torment?
Having – finally – proclaimed himself a sinner, the minister falls to his knees and dies. His arch enemy and fellow victim, Roger Chillingworth, having no reason to live now that Dimmesdale is gone, dies shortly afterwards, leaving a large sum of money to Pearl. Hester and her daughter leave the colony, but Hester returns, years later, when Pearl is grown and married:
“Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence.”
It may be outdated to say it, but I think there’s a kind of beauty in that.