21 June 2013
…which is roughly the first third of this short novel about – about what? Religious repression? Hypocrisy? The tyranny of theocratic government? Whatever, Hester Prynne is a woman out of her time, locked in the buttoned-down community of a Boston that is little more than a frontier town ‘on the edge of the western wilderness’ in the 1640s. Hawthorne likes to remind his readers that we’re a long way from home in a Massachusetts that was just coming into being. At one point he refers to the separation of ‘six or seven generations’ between Hester and the women of the mid-19th Century, and sometimes the tone feels self-conscious. He writes as though for a guide-book for his time-travelling readers, and it made me wonder how many Americans had tried writing historical novels before this. (I think James Fenimore Cooper came before Hawthorne.)
I’m finding it something of an oddity. Despite the main theme being the relationship between an ostracised woman and her community, the society itself is presented, with only a few exceptions, as a monolith. We get details, mainly in connection with its treatment of Hester, of its unbending, rule-bound Puritanism. But we rarely get what is always present in the best 19th Century fiction that concerns itself with the individual in society – I’m thinking of George Eliot in Middlemarch or Jane Austen in everything she wrote – the voice of that society presented through the conversations we are allowed to overhear. So far we’ve mainly had only Hester’s crushing sense of being the outsider, recoiling. No relationships have survived the cataclysm of her crime, and what we get are episodes in her life afterwards.
Episodes. That’s exactly what the first four chapters are, given titles that helpfully summarise them. ‘The Prison Door’ establishes the nature of the community which, as we are shortly to hear, has no intention of offering forgiveness to the woman taken in adultery. ‘The Market-Place’ is the scene of her ritual humiliation, made worse because instead of mockery and jeering there is a kind of solemnity she finds hard to counter. (It’s here that we do overhear a couple of snatches of conversation, amongst a group of women who, except for the youngest and kindest, are forthright in their condemnation.) Hester is addressed by two clergymen, who fail to persuade her to name the father of the baby she carries on the platform. And while she is up there, in the chapter called ‘The Recognition’, she sees a man she hasn’t seen since leaving Europe two years before: the old, worn-out academic she married for reasons we don’t yet understand.
This is unexpected, and turns the plot towards melodrama. The man, now calling himself Roger Chillingworth, uses his status as a doctor to speak to her alone in her cell in the next chapter, ‘The Interview’. It is most notable for his villain-like promise to her that he will seek out and find the child’s father, and somehow get him in his power. ‘Thou wilt not reveal his name? Not the less he is mine,’ he says twice in quick succession. This man is an egoist in the most literal sense, constantly referring to himself and his own motives and wishes. He refers to his skills in alchemy, hinting at powers beyond those of most men that will help him find the child’s father….
There’s a hint of the supernatural about this representative of the old World in this New World colony, of old powers. He refers to ‘some lessons of my own, that were as old as Paracelsus.’ (This is in connection with the time he has spent with American Indians, learning some of their knowledge of herbs and simples.) And Hawthorne doesn’t leave aside the supernatural theme here. A couple of chapters further on, ‘Pearl’ describes Hester’s child, growing more and more unmanageable. Something of Hester’s own disturbed spirit during the pregnancy seems to have got into the girl, who is constantly referred to as an ‘elf’ or an ‘imp’. Hawthorne’s dark hints go beyond these conventional enough terms, to the point where Hester imagines that reflected in her eyes ‘she fancied that she beheld, not her own miniature portrait, but another face in the small black mirror of Pearl’s eye. It was a face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice…. It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child.’ There’s a hint that this is the face of the child’s father – but there’s also a hint that Hester imagines the father to be the devil himself. That’s certainly what the rest of the community is beginning to suspect.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I need to rewind. The eponymous ‘scarlet letter’ has been ever-present in the first four chapters, which have covered only a day or two. At first Hester’s ‘fantastical’ embroidery of it seems to be a symbol of her defiance, but it soon becomes exactly what the community wants it to be, a physical, material manifestation of her shame. Hester is too proud to cover it up, but sometimes the looks of observers raise a deep flush to her cheek. Ok. By Chapter 5 (‘Hester at her Needle’) she is out of jail and earning her living as a needlewoman – and Hawthorne begins to add symbolic weight to the community’s clothing in general and the scarlet letter in particular. As the dull-seeming dress of the Puritans reveals subtle vanities which Hester is encouraged to indulge with her superb sewing skill, the scarlet letter on her own outfit begins to take on other meanings, and develops a life of its own.
Hawthorne isn’t making a big thing of it yet, but he is hinting that these grim-faced, unforgiving people aren’t immune from everyday vices of their own. The men in charge are as conscious of their status as they are of their responsibilities, and their ceremonial dress should be of the highest quality, obviously. Meanwhile, within the strict dress-codes of the women, there is a place for the understated and delicate workmanship of a woman who learnt her skills in Europe. But there are hints of something darker in this chapter: the scarlet letter seems to confer on Hester a kind of second sight. ‘She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts.’ She wonders whether ‘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 besides Hester Prynne’s’. This comes in a long paragraph in which Hawthorne signals very clearly that, indeed, she is right to find it hard to believe ‘that no fellow-mortal was guilty like herself.’ Well.
As we’ve seen, from these delicate, understated beginnings the other-worldliness becomes more overt in Chapter 6, ‘Pearl’. Then so does the symbolism in Chapter 7, ‘The Governor’s Hall’. Pearl is now aged three, and there’s talk of her being taken away from her undoubtedly unfit mother. Hester decides to take the girl to see Bellingham, the governor. For reasons that are never made clear, she dresses Pearl in scarlet, and ‘it irresistibly and inevitably reminded the beholder of the token which Hester Prynne was doomed to wear upon her bosom. It was the scarlet letter in another form: the scarlet letter endowed with life!’ Got that? Then, when they get to the governor’s house, instead of the sober residence we might expect ‘it glittered and sparkled as if diamonds had been flung against it by the double handful. The brilliancy might have be fitted Aladdin’s palace…’ and so on. Understated? Not any more.
Luckily for both Hester and the girl, there happens to be someone present in the house who listens to her side of the case. Visiting Bellingham are not only the two clergymen from the early chapters but also Hester’s husband. And, as we saw in Chapter 3 (?), one of the clergymen is unusually forgiving. He is Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister of her church, and he is able to understand the psychology of her needs. The child, despite being rusty on the Catechism, is clearly ‘meant for a blessing—for the one blessing of her life! It was meant, doubtless, the mother herself hath told us, for a retribution, too.’ Clever, that, throwing the idea of punishment into the mix. Dimmesdale wins the argument, and Hester can keep the child.
But there are some final, extraordinary nods towards the dark side at the end of the chapter. As she leaves, Pearl ‘went capering down the hall so airily, that old Mr. Wilson raised a question whether even her tiptoes touched the floor. “The little baggage hath witchcraft in her, I profess,” said he to Mr. Dimmesdale. “She needs no old woman’s broomstick to fly withal!”’ And, outside, ‘Mistress Hibbins’ calls from a window. She was the sister of the real Governor Bellingham and, as Hawthorne reminds us, she was later executed for witchcraft. She invites Hester to a night-time meeting: ‘There will be a merry company in the forest; and I well-nigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should make one.’
And, reader, Hester tells her that had Bellingham taken Pearl away, she would have attended. As the author solemnly pronounces in the final sentence of the chapter, ‘Even thus early had the child saved her from Satan’s snare.’ Hawthorne was born in Salem, and modern readers are familiar with the goings-on dramatised by Arthur Miller in The Crucible. Witchcraft and the ‘Black Man’ are as real to these people as the daylight world of their little town.
Something that had struck me in the first eight chapters was how Hawthorne’s characterisations and imagery can come close to what you see in mediaeval mystery plays. As you would expect, there’s a greater interest in a plausible psychology in this mid-19th Century novel, but only up to a point. If the mystery plays depended for their effects on recognisable archetypes, well, sometimes there’s more than a hint of that in The Scarlet Letter. And, speaking of archetypes, we seem to get a lurch towards the gothic as Hawthorne turns all his attention on to Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale. In the person of Chillingworth there are dark, hidden purposes, hints of Satanic covenants and an appearance in which, during an accidental meeting, Pearl immediately recognises the ‘Black Man’ she seems to have heard all about. There are also, in both him and Dimmesdale, dark secrets that nobody in the little community can guess at.
For more than three chapters, all the attention is on these two men. In page after page of exposition, Hawthorne describes Chillingworth’s careful insinuation of himself into Dimmesdale’s life. He has immediately gained the reputation as the best doctor the town is ever likely to have (against little competition), and by common consent is seen as the man to treat the unknown and unnamed wasting disease that Dimmesdale is suffering from. He quietly and undemonstratively gets himself into Dimmesdale’s company, is able to show himself to have as much learning as the clergyman… and one thing leads to another. Before the end of Chapter 9 they are living in rooms in the same house. Dimmesdale, who had insisted that he wanted no help from the doctor, finds himself living claustrophobically close to him.
Pearl isn’t wrong in her early description of Chillingworth as ‘the Black Man’. Hawthorne makes it ever more clear that his methods are based precisely on those of the Devil. With whatever insights he has gained through his knowledge of the dark arts, he has recognised that Dimmesdale is the father of the child, and at last, many pages into the process, we overhear their conversations presented as direct speech. The subject that Chillingworth wants to broach is that of the guilty secret – and we see how he introduces it, apparently in all innocence, by showing Dimmesdale some ugly-looking plants supposedly taken from the grave of an unknown man: ‘They grew out of his heart, and typify, it may be, some hideous secret that was buried with him, and which he had done better to confess during his lifetime.’
In dismissing this superstition, as Chillingworth knew he would, Dimmesdale is hooked. While the doctor is all quiet calmness, the clergyman becomes more and more overwrought in his descriptions of men who have made confessions to him. ‘And ever, after such an outpouring, oh, what a relief have I witnessed in those sinful brethren!’ And this is just the start. Hawthorne makes it clear that over months (and, eventually, years) while treating the physical effects of the clergyman’s guilt-induced illness Chillingworth follows a course of torturing him mentally. But – and here’s the point – Dimmesdale doesn’t understand that the ‘fiend’ who makes any peace impossible is the man who seems so benevolent and helpful. Ah.
This carries on, with not much else happening, for seven years. (We work out, eventually, that the process must have started at the time of the novel’s opening. But Hawthorne likes to deal with his characters and threads separately, and he was busy with Hester for the first third of the novel.) Dimmesdale constantly presses his heart at the place which Pearl later notices is in the same position as her mother’s scarlet letter, constantly represses an almost obsessive urge to confess – and the act of repressing it is killing him from the inside. Chillingworth claims that only his treatment of the symptoms has kept him alive but, well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? His second sight, or whatever it is, has allowed him to see what Dimmesdale clutches at on his breast – but Hawthorne keeps the reader guessing.
More than once, Dimmesdale confesses before his congregation that he is a miserable sinner – but he is never specific about the actual sin, so they all decide that it’s his usual saintly disbelief in his own goodness. Eventually it reaches a crisis, on a night that Hawthorne decides to fill with gothic portents. Some of these are in the characters’ imaginations – this author likes to present lurid descriptions of what nightmarish visions inhabit the minds of these superstitious people – but one is there for all to see. At the dead of night Dimmesdale makes his way on to the platform where Hester had been forced to stand, and screams something unintelligible in his guilt. He expects the town to wake, imagines the scene of unwonted disturbance as respectable men and women, half-undressed, come to investigate. And nobody comes. To them, it must have been merely a dream, or – how does it go? – ‘the noise of witches, whose voices, at that period, were often heard to pass over the settlements or lonely cottages, as they rode with Satan through the air.’
Those pesky witches get everywhere, even if – this being the mid-19th Century, after all – we don’t believe in them. But Hawthorne still needs to move things on, so he has several people of Dimmesdale’s acquaintance passing by. His mentor, the older clergyman Mr Wilson, has been present at the death of Governor Winthrop, whoever he is. (This is the first time he’s been mentioned.) And so has Hester, with Pearl. This accidental meeting on the scaffold seems to kick the narrative into a new phase after it’s been stalled for some time. We’re at a point almost exactly half way through the novel, so any number of coincidences are apparently perfectly acceptable if that’s what it takes.
The meeting is a crucial set piece, as various emblematic features are established, or re-established, once and for all. ‘There was witchcraft in little Pearl’s eyes,’ not for the first time, and we see her intuitions at work. She remarks on the way that Dimmesdale always clutches his breast and, by the light of that portentous meteor shower she points at another passer-by, Chillingworth. In the strange light, Dimmesdale hasn’t recognised him, and sees someone who ‘might have passed… for the arch-fiend, standing there with a smile and scowl, to claim his own.’ Pearl, claiming that she does know Chillingworth, tells Dimmesdale. However, although it ‘sounded, indeed, like human language, [it] was only such gibberish as children may be heard amusing themselves with.’
She isn’t going to tell him properly because he won’t promise – wait for it – to stand on the scaffold with her and her mother the next day. I’m not sure of it, but Pearl seems inexorably to be morphing into the personification of Dimmesdale’s conscience. (I’ve only just realised this, despite its having been staring me in the face since I started writing about these chapters.) She’s already the personification of his sin, already – and still – the scarlet letter in human form, there for everybody to see. And over-arching all of it, literally – Hawthorne likes to keep it literal – is that meteor. Dimmesdale thinks it’s his guilty conscience that forms it into a letter ‘A’ in the sky, and that other people would see some other shape. But no. Next day, as he returns a glove that has been found on the scaffold, the sexton remarks that he saw the same letter emblazoned in the sky. Hand clutched to heart, meteor, and now glove: it seems you can hardly move without stumbling over signs of Dimmesdale’s guilt. Which is, of course, exactly how he has been feeling for seven long years.
One last thing. The morning after the gothic terrors of the night, Dimmesdale ‘preached a discourse which was held to be the richest and most powerful, and the most replete with heavenly influences, that had ever proceeded from his lips. Souls, it is said, more souls than one, were brought to the truth by the efficacy of that sermon….’ This brings us right back to those debates in which Chillingworth is sarcastic about the motives of that hypothetical guilty man they are always referring to. We seem to be getting tangible proof that Dimmesdale’s continued silence is doing far more for the common good than would be achieved by any confession. It’s turning into the novel’s central dilemma.
Hawthorne’s plodding exposition and too clearly signalled metaphors are starting to get me down. We’ve had the big seven-year project to put Dimmesdale through a living hell, and we’ve had the set piece of the long night on the platform. Now Hawthorne decides to give us an update, told entirely through his usual expository style, on Hester’s changing status in the town during the same seven years. Reader, she is well liked for her good works, dresses so soberly that nobody would believe there was a passionate bone in her body… but there is, underneath. As for the scarlet letter… that seems to have lost all its shamefulness, now representing something like the cross that a nun would wear. So… hidden passion, and something not to be ashamed of. You got that? That’s Chapter 13.
She has come to understand the consequences for Dimmesdale of Chillingworth’s evil game, and decides to challenge him about it. Chapter 14 is the conversation she has with him, and Hawthorne goes beyond mere signals to the reader – he spells it out for us now – that her estranged husband has morphed into the devil. There are lurid descriptions of him – ‘there came a glare of red light out of his eyes, as if the old man’s soul were on fire and kept on smouldering duskily within his breast’ – mixed with ever more gothic touches made justifiable by being merely imaginary. (I can think of a lot of mid- to late-19th Century authors who offer a frisson of the supernatural in this way.) Hester wonders ‘whether the tender grass of early spring would not be blighted beneath him and show the wavering track of his footsteps, sere and brown….’
Basically, Hester is not the woman who made a promise to him in the first flush of her shame, and she has decided that Dimmesdale needs to know what Chillingworth is doing to him. He says he doesn’t care what she does, so she finds Dimmesdale and tells him. As if. What she really does is mull over the idea for two more chapters, to give Hawthorne the chance to remind us of the symbolic and other significance of the seven-year-old Pearl. She had been sent off to the rock-pools during her mother’s conversation, and Hawthorne had left her playing with her reflection as though she has never seen it before. At the beginning of Chapter 15 she had been ‘seeking a passage for herself into its sphere of impalpable earth and unattainable sky,’ and now there’s an almost throwaway line about the nature of her existence. She finds that ‘either she or the image was unreal’, and moves on to other games.
At one level, obviously, Pearl is the all too real product of a physical relationship between two of the main characters. Hawthorne doesn’t gloss over this fact, but he does add layers of other meaning on top of it. For a long time, in her red outfit, she has been the personification of the scarlet letter itself. Now she is often described in terms of air. She ‘flies’ when she moves, another feature always associated with her, as though Hawthorne wants to deny the baseness of her conception. Or, if not to deny, at least to offer a different slant.
To get to this point, he has Pearl making her own ‘A’, from seaweed, and as Chapter 15 goes on she becomes obsessed with the original version worn by her mother. This leads to conversations in which Pearl asks about its meaning, which has Hester not being open with her daughter for the first time ever, and to all kind of musings on how she should regard her daughter. Should she tell her after all? ‘If little Pearl were entertained with faith and trust, as a spirit messenger no less than an earthly child, might it not be her errand to soothe away the sorrow that lay cold in her mother’s heart, and converted it into a tomb?’ Hold on to that idea of Pearl as a spirit, because I’m sure Hawthorne will.
The chapter ends with another question she has been asking. It shows how the child is able, as if by magic, to make a link between her mother and Dimmesdale. ‘Mother!—Mother!—Why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?’ – that is, at the precise place on his breast where Hester has her scarlet letter. It is as though Hawthorne is determined to keep this character, identified all those chapters ago as an ‘elf’, as somehow not on the same plane of existence as the rest.
Chapter 16 doesn’t quite get Hester into Dimmesdale’s company for the all-important conversation. But it does get her into the local forest with its babbling brook, so there are plenty of metaphor opportunities. The hemmed-in footpath, to Hester’s mind, ‘imaged not amiss the moral wilderness in which she had so long been wandering.’ Yep. Meanwhile Pearl notices the sunshine straining to get through the forest cover: ‘Mother, the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom.’ Ok. In fact, Hester imagines that Pearl is absorbing the light, contributing to a ‘never failing vivacity of spirits’ in the girl that she finds almost uncanny. As for the brook… Pearl is like it – ‘the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as mysterious’ – but she isn’t: ‘she danced and sparkled, and prattled airily….’ Airily.
One last thing. Pearl is interested in the Black Man, keeps asking Hester about Her dealings with him – and wonders whether Dimmesdale has signed his name in his big metal book. She notices a lot, Pearl.
Have I had enough of this book? Yes, I think I have… but I’ve only got four chapters to read after these so I’ll carry on. It’s the least subtle novel I’ve come across in a long time (although Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which I re-read recently, runs it close). At first I took it that Hawthorne’s serious moral agenda made necessary a particularly schematic approach. This is when I compared his characterisation to what might be found in mystery plays, with archetypes acting out a sequence of inevitable moves. Now I think he’s just not very good at providing most of the things we expect from a novel. Consistent characterisation? Nope. An interesting plot, coming about as the result of behaviour we might recognise as psychologically plausible? Clearly not. Instead, pages of exposition intended to explain and justify actions that are frankly bizarre.
For instance, in Chapter 20 we have just been presented with Dimmesdale’s transformation from a deeply contemplative and thoroughly well respected Christian intellectual into a playful cynic who has difficulty keeping his subversive anti-clerical thoughts to himself. This is instantaneous, based on what Hawthorne describes as a weakness in him brought about by his years of presenting a public face that hides his true nature. He suffers from ‘a subtle disease that had long since begun to eat into the real substance of his character. No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.’ This is typical of Hawthorne in explanatory mode, and I never find it convincing. But I’ll come back to Chapter 20 later, because there are the three chapters in the forest to mention first.
Hawthorne has already spent some time (much of it in the highly expository Chapter 13) letting us know that Hester’s sequestered life has led to seven years of philosophical musings that would shock the correct, upstanding Puritan community she no longer really belongs to. So she is able to bring a weight of argument to her encounter with Dimmesdale that blows his objections away. The end. During Chapter 17 she convinces him not only of Chillingworth’s evil purpose but that the only way forward for them is to turn their backs on New England and return to a Europe that knows nothing of them.
This is the beginning not only of Dimmesdale’s transformation but, apparently, of Hester’s. She unclasps and throws down the scarlet letter, and a weight seems to fall from her. I’ll let you imagine the hyperbole Hawthorne wreaks form this little episode as he comes next to her 17th Century equivalent of the hijab. She casts it aside to reveal her hair, ‘dark and rich’, which leads to a panegyric to the ‘richness of her beauty’. And, just to confirm how wonderful everything is, the scene is bathed in what gives Chapter 18 its title: ‘A Flood of Sunshine’.
So everything’s fine, yes? As if. Hester, with no apparent thought, calls for Pearl. The little girl has a fit of hysterics in reaction to her mother’s completely alien appearance. Her finger, pointing at the space where the scarlet letter should be, is reflected by the little pool across which she stands. (Hawthorne must like this image, because he painstakingly describes how the reflection repeats everything Pearl does.) Not only is Pearl not satisfied until the scarlet letter and Hester’s Puritan cap are back in place; she is highly suspicious of Dimmesdale. She repeats her suggestion that he has made a bargain with the devil, tells him that she expects him to continue to touch his heart in his usual way – it makes you want to tell Hawthorne that he doesn’t have to keep making the same points, over and over – but she does, eventually, suffer him to kiss her on the forehead. And guess what? She immediately washes the spot clean….
As in the chapters during which Pearl was first properly introduced to us, Hawthorne is making her carry more symbolic weight, I would say, than is sustainable. She behaves like a brat, and Hawthorne always allows this to be seen as the inevitable outcome of the illicit passion of her conception. Her appearance, he also reminds us, makes her ‘the living hieroglyphic, in which was revealed the secret they so darkly sought to hide.’ Added to that, she’s wild: the forest creatures ‘recognised a kindred wilderness’ in her and gather round her like the ones in Disney’s Snow White – even, according to one report Hawthorne dreams up, a wolf. She is presented as not quite of this earth – just before Hester calls her she is ‘now like a real child, now like a child’s spirit’ – and, most crucially, as the voice of some higher power than whatever it is that Dimmesdale and her mother are capable of. As Hester succumbs to the child’s demand to replace the scarlet letter, ‘there was a sense of inevitable doom upon her as she thus received back this deadly symbol from the hand of fate.’ So, not a badly-behaved little girl, then. Fate.
But at least there’s consistency in the characterisation of little Pearl. What Hawthorne now has to do is persuade the reader of a credibility-stretching change in the personality of Dimmesdale, and the opening of Chapter 20 consists of several paragraphs of his trademark exposition. This is feasible, it is, the author seems to be pleading, and I find it terribly wearing. And not at all convincing. Dimmesdale is guilty of a single sin in the eyes of the overbearing moral environment of his time, but it has not stopped him for a single moment being a perfect moral guide in his community. Now, Hester has presented him with an opportunity to put his life of self-torture behind him but only, according to the same imperious morality, if he commits the further sin of escaping to Europe with her. In the seclusion of the morally ambiguous forest, he has decided to do it. Ok.
I find Hawthorne’s moral stance deeply ambivalent. It is only according to the devil-obsessed Puritanism of this 17th Century world that the sex Dimmesdale had with Hester is a damnable crime. Whatever Hawthorne’s mid-19th Century views might have been, I’m sure he would expect his readers to pity rather than condemn his characters. The inconsistency I’m detecting seems to derive from the lack of a plausible personal psychology for Dimmesdale. He is being presented as a coward, for whom the sudden release of years of torture presents the temptation to throw away a lifetime of belief. ‘It was the exhilarating effect—upon a prisoner just escaped from the dungeon of his own heart—of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of an unredeemed, unchristianised, lawless region.’ What? What? Just like that, the release of his metaphorical shackles have made him drunk with the idea of untrammelled freedom. And I don’t believe a word of it.
On his return to his monkish room, he finds the text of an important public sermon he is to preach in three days’ time. (This is luckily just before the sailing of a ship now in harbour, on which Hester has cleverly booked a passage for them both.) Now the text means nothing to him. He flings it in the fire, and spends a whole night writing in an ‘ecstasy’ of inspiration…. Hawthorne has already warned us of disasters to follow, so who knows what subversive things he’s going to present to the assembled elders of the town?
We’ll have to wait and see.
Chapters 21-24 – to the end
There are two kinds of apotheosis in these chapters. One is what I suppose we should have been expecting from the start, Dimmesdale’s extraordinary confession on the scaffold of shame. The crowd wouldn’t have been surprised ‘had he ascended before their eyes, waxing dimmer and brighter, and fading at last into the light of heaven!’ (I should explain that this is just before he confesses.) The other is the apotheosis of Hawthorne’s ‘Tell, don’t show’ style of narration. This comes during Dimmesdale’s sermon, the one he works through the night in order to create, and the one that we’ve been waiting for since the end of Chapter 20.
Reader, we don’t hear a word of it. Instead, we get a description of Hester’s reaction to the ‘music’ of the sound of his voice, that she can just make out through the church walls. And, later, we get the amazement of the congregation: against all expectations, the poor man has found enough energy to deliver the best sermon they have ever heard. They muse on the ideas ‘which the preacher had converted into words of flame, and had burdened with the rich fragrance of his thought.’ This overwrought language is Hawthorne’s way of letting us know that, boy, we should have been there. It’s a pity that he makes no attempt to take us, and I hope he felt sheepish about writing it.
Before this, in Chapters 21-22, Hawthorne takes us back to the market-place of the early chapters. It is uncharacteristically busy, because this is election time, and we’re back in that time-traveller mode we’re familiar with by now. As before, Hawthorne likes to remind us how strange the past is, and he brings in plenty of local colour. We have trappers in their deerskins, sailors in their outlandish clothes and adornments and local Indians looking on with bemused interest. We have Pearl forced into yet another role, offering a kind of commentary on the scene through her questions and observations.
People we vaguely know come on to this little stage, and the mystery-play impression becomes strong again with the entrance of the notorious Mistress Hibbins to have a word with Hester. Like Pearl, Hawthorne has endowed her with the gift of second sight, and with the habit of telling what she sees. She recognises a fellow-traveller in Dimmesdale, talks about his recent visit to the forest as though he has been meeting the devil himself there. Which, according to the strict moral regime of the little community, he has. Hawthorne isn’t asking us to look for psychological realism here, because she is part of a chorus, a figure to remind us of the mind-set the main characters are having to work within. Another figure on-stage is Roger Chillingworth, now a chief representative of Satanic evil. To her horror, Hester finds out from the sea-captain that he has booked a passage on the same ship to Europe. But, like us, he doesn’t know that Dimmesdale has a plan of his own….
His walk from the church becomes part of a triumphant parade. Everyone has been struck by the way that he seems to have reversed the debilitating decline of the past seven years, but Hawthorne has already been dropping dark hints concerning those men who ‘possess this occasional power of mighty effort, into which they throw the life of many days and then are lifeless for as many more.’ Get that. Lifeless. Like so much in this novel, the exact nature of the malaise affecting Dimmesdale has always been sketchy, but we are being prepared for the final showdown. Chilligworth, aghast, can only look on like the thwarted figure of Satan on a stage, as Dimmesdale climbs up to the scaffold and prepares to tell all.
Which is what he does, but not until he’s revealed what Chillingworth has known about for more than half the novel. On his chest is – what, exactly? Later, Hawthorne suggests that opinions are divided – he likes to keep up the pretence of this being a historical narrative – but, basically, it’s the scarlet letter presented as an open wound. Dimmesdale calls Hester and Pearl to him, and tells the crowd that he should have been on the scaffold seven years ago. It’s a highly ambiguous resolution which, in his final speech before he dies, he calls a ‘triumphant ignominy’. I think that’s exactly right. According to the mores of the time he is guilty of the blackest sin, warranting an eternity of damnation. But the devil-like Chillingworth knows he’s lost his man: ‘“Thou hast escaped me!” he repeated more than once. “Thou hast escaped me!”’
And that’s it, except for the final chapter that ties up the loose ends. Chillingworth, a dried-up old man, dies within a year. Then, hedging the story about with hints and insinuations, Hawthorne lets us know that Hester and Pearl go to Europe. Pearl, having offered Dimmesdale a kiss on the scaffold, is destined to ‘grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.’ She marries and has at least one child, but not before Hester returns to Boston, takes up her old drab clothes and scarlet letter again, and lives out her life there. When she dies she is buried close to Dimmesdale, and they share a single tombstone in spite of the decorous space between them. The last line of the novel is Hawthorne’s description, in proud heraldic terms befitting the genuine love they felt for each other, of its simple inscription: ‘On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.’
There’s a certain irony about reading this novel in the secular 21st Century. Hawthorne was looking back to the mores of the United States’ earliest settlers, and in his own analysis 19th Century America owed its strict moral conventions to this superstitious, judgmental society. He wanted to show that his contemporaries were still held in shackles forged back then, and that these needed to be re-examined…. Perhaps even now, on that side of the Atlantic, there is enough of an underbelly of Christian fundamentalism to make the 160-year-old message of this novel seem urgent. But for me Hawthorne’s sad, overwrought account of the anguish that religious fundamentalism can bring is pushing at an open door. The earnestness of his argument pleads for something which, to many modern readers, has seemed like simple common sense for a very long time indeed.