The scarlet letter’s significance oscillates throughout the novel, betokening now sin, now mercy and virtue. In this, it acts as a microcosm of the whole text, in which moral sympathies are established and then inverted. Furthermore, it’s a direct contradiction to Puritan belief, which held all signs to be immutable. This found its apotheosis in the concept of predestination, according to which all events were determined a priori by God.
In this instance, the scarlet letter's transformation once more allies Hester with the Virgin Mary. According to medieval chroniclers, a miraculous statue of Mary with her son on her lap and a burning taper in her hand was found on the banks of the River Teifi. Several attempts were made to move it to the parish church but on each occasion it mysteriously returned to the spot at which it had been found. Nor would the candle be extinguished: it apparently burned continuously for a full nine years. This legend gave birth to a lasting association of tapers with Mary's role as the bringer of the light of Christ and embodied the undimming purity conferred by her virginity. Mary of the Taper was the divinity to whom Catholics prayed for protection and recovery from illness. Puritans, of course, viewed the cult of the Virgin Mary as abominable idolatry: Hawthorne is drawing a sly parallel between their rejection of the mother of Christ, supposed to have conceived in a state of grace, and that of Hester, the adulteress, and in doing so calls into question Puritan conceptions of sin and purity.
The crucifix, a representation of the Christian cross suspended from a black cord, is a standard part of a Roman Catholic nun’s habit. As well as representing her consecrated state, it also serves as a talisman protecting the wearer from malign influences. Folklore tells that it has the power to cure the sick and cause demons to disappear. Unsurprisingly, the Puritans regarded the cross as a profane papist gewgaw and expunged it from their worship.
With shifts in social consciousness produced by expansionism and growing conflict between the rulers and the ruled, the early seventeenth century witnessed a volley of military and proletarian revolts. During Russia’s Time of Troubles, the Bolotnikov uprising saw an army of feudal underlings, peasants, runaways and vagabonds attempt to overthrow the ruling classes and establish a new social order. In France, there was the Revolt of Languedoc in 1632, in which the lower classes, enraged by extortionate taxation, joined in Gaston d’Orleans' and Henri II de Montmorency's doomed bid to overthrow Cardinal Richelieu. This was followed in 1636 by the Croquants' revolt, a reaction against the doubling of taxation supposed to fund a war against Spain. In Naples, illiterate fisherman Masaniello led an extraordinary rebellion against King Philip III that led to the brief establishment of the Neapolitan Republic from October 1647 to April 1648.
The mid seventeenth century marked the beginning of the European Enlightenment, a wide-ranging cultural and intellectual movement which emphasized rationality and reason over faith and tradition. It touched every area of life, from religion to politics, economics to social structures. The Enlightenment brought with it the scientific method and a lifting of restrictions imposed by the state and the church on education, personal liberty, free speech and trade. America too experienced its own Enlightenment, but this would not take place until the mid to late eighteenth century.
Is Hawthorne here thinking of his friend, Margaret Fuller? The prominent and highly intelligent women’s rights activist, whose Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) garnered her the title of America’s first major feminist, was frequently referred to as a “prophetess” by her contemporaries. In looking towards a future when women would achieve equality with men through intellectual and spiritual advancement, the reclamation of their self-reliance and the retraction of male dominance, Fuller herself invokes a prophetess: “And will she not soon appear? The woman who shall vindicate their birthright for all women; who shall teach them what to claim, and how to use what they obtain?” (p. 168). Such parallels, together with the fact that she had recently caused a great scandal by giving birth to an illegitimate child, have caused many critics to speculate that Hawthorne drew on Margaret Fuller for his portrayal of Hester.
Here, Hawthorne uses Hester’s introspections as a proxy for his misgivings about Margaret Fuller’s visions for the emancipation of the female sex. Though, as The Scarlet Letter shows, he was deeply sympathetic to the plight of a woman who did not conform to patriarchal expectations, he was unsettled by Fuller’s attacks on the foundations of these norms. She argued that “Male and female..are perpetually passing into one another... There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman… [Nature] sends women to battle, and sets Hercules spinning; she enables women to bear immense burdens, cold, and frost; she enables the man, who feels maternal love, to nourish his infant like a mother” (p. 108). Hawthorne is not the misogynist some have painted him but the idea of gender as a mobile quality was deeply troubling to him. His works repeatedly evince a romantic attachment to a delicate, ethereal “femininity” and his private writings are rather harsh about Fuller’s lack of this property. However, in aligning Hester’s situation with that of a prominent and highly respected nineteenth century feminist, he equates Puritan oppression with the restrictions of patriarchal Victorian society as a means of critiquing the latter. As so often in Hawthorne, progressive idealism and sentimental conservatism run in tandem.
Adding to the pantheon of fairy folk to whom Pearl has already been compared, she now takes on the form of one of the elusive, mysterious water nymphs with which myth is so replete. These beings are typically depicted as alluring girls or young women who entice humans to join them in their watery homes. They are usually joyful creatures, fond of singing and dancing and, like Pearl, are impervious to insult and emotional pain. However, it is well to be wary of them: the Ancient Greeks warned against gazing upon your reflection in the water as the nymphs would pull it — and thereby your soul — down amongst them, leaving your body to perish.
A well-known attribute of the devil: he has been portrayed as a red-eyed demon in Christian art since the eleventh century. Folklore commonly gives him this characteristic in his manifestation as a phantom black dog, a fearsome being that guards the mouth of hell. Interestingly, this was one of his favorite guises for visiting witches, and their animal familiars are often identified as black dogs, too.
This striking exclamation carries echoes of the Creation as relayed in the Book of Genesis:
And God made..every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind… And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion..over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:25-6)
Chillingworth, who has indeed created Dimmesdale as he currently is, has thus usurped God. This act once more allies him with Satan who, as Lucifer, attempted to overthrow the Lord of Heaven and install himself in his place.
All three of these plants are associated with witchcraft. Bound together with human or animal fat, each was an essential ingredient in the magical flying ointment witches rubbed on their bodies before taking to the skies to attend their Sabbaths. All too have hallucinatory properties which would have aided the perception that this was actually happening. In particular, deadly nightshade can confer the sensation of spiraling into the sky or of metamorphosing into an animal, as well as producing powerful sexual hallucinations. This plant is sacred to witch-goddess Hecate and is said to be tended by the devil, while henbane is known colloquially as the “devil’s eye.” Dogwood, meanwhile, populates a haunted copse in Virgil’s Aeneid: when the hero Aeneas breaks off a branch to adorn an altar, it drips black blood.
You can find a selection of recipes for flying ointment here, though you are strongly advised not to brew up any of these toxic concoctions!
Once more Hawthorne is likening Chillingworth to Lucifer. In his first incarnation, Satan was the highest of the angels but was marred by a fatal arrogance that led him to try to vanquish God. For this sin, he and the army he had raised were expelled from heaven and cast down to hell. As Lucifer, he is portrayed as a beautiful young man, differing from the other angels only in the black bat-like wings that betoken his sinful nature. Once installed as the ruler of hell, however, he begins to take on different characteristics. Christian art typically ascribes to him a bestial appearance, replete with tail, horns and cloven feet; sometimes his black wings remain to signify the state from which he has fallen.
Despite their name, horseshoe crabs are in fact more closely related to spiders and scorpions than crabs. With their hard domed shells, they are remarkably primordial-looking creatures, reflecting the fact that they roamed the earth 100 million years before dinosaurs. A long, sword-like tail protrudes from the horseshoe crab’s rear end: this is not a weapon but serves as a rudder in water and a means by which the crab can right itself if it happens to get turned upside down while on land. The Atlantic variety, limulus polyphemus, can be found from Maine down to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, taking up residence in shallow ocean waters where the waves are shallow and the shores sandy.
Five-fingers, like sea-star, is another name for a starfish. This well-known marine animal comes in an array of colors and forms, with North America’s most populous variety, the common starfish, radiating five spiny, tentacle-like arms from its central core. They are extremely robust and, if one happens to lose an arm, is able to grow it back. They’re also highly efficient predators, though their table manner is one of the most repulsive in the animal kingdom: alighting on an appetizing clam, oyster or other shellfish, the starfish will use its powerful muscles to lever it open, extrude its stomach from the mouth in the centre of its body, insert it into the shell and dissolve its prey into a digestible gloop.
Technically known as zostera marina, eel-grass is a flowering sea-plant with vivid, ribbon-like leaves. Growing up to four feet long, it likes shallow water around bays and estuaries and reproduces so prolifically that it often forms dense sea meadows. These provide invaluable shelter for a host of marine life, including starfish, anemones, sea urchins, crabs, numerous fish and birds, and even mammals such as seals.
Whereas scarlet figures passion and sexuality and is a biblical cipher for sin, the color green has a much more positive register of associations. It stands for hope, nature, youth and freshness. In the Bible, it is linked with blessed forms of sexual love (the Song of Solomon sees the narrator woo his darling with the line, “Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green” (1:16)). Pearl’s recreation of the scarlet letter in this color is at once an unkind taunt to her mother that reinforces its censorious role and a transformative act that reverses its meaning.
Once more, Pearl reveals her sprite-like nature, this time claiming kinship with the aurae, the Greek nymphs of the breezes. These wild, elusive creatures appear fleetingly in legend as swift-winged beings, as incapable of emotional hurt as the rest of nymph-kind and indeed as Pearl herself. Their parentage is rather ambiguous: some claim they are the offspring of the cardinal winds, Boreas (the wintery north wind), Zephyrus (the spring-bearing west wind), Eurus (the unlucky east wind) and Notus (the scorching south wind). Others say they were fathered by Oceanus, the divine embodiment of the world ocean which girdles the planet, and are sister to the Oceanides and Naiads.
John Eliot (1604-90), originally from Hertfordshire, England, was part of the 1630 expedition to Boston and served as a minister at the First Church at Roxbury. One of the guiding forces leading to the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the desire to spread the word of God to non-Christian societies. Early settlers were too occupied in battling against the American wilderness to engage in missionary activity, but Eliot applied himself to it in earnest. He patiently taught himself Algonquian from captives seized during the Pequot War, enabling him to preach to Native American tribespeople in their own language. Though he lamented that many showed only superficial interest, he was successful in converting significant numbers, including Waban, the first Native American Christian and later a close friend of Eliot’s. The converts divorced themselves from their “pagan” backgrounds and set up villages known as “Praying Towns” where they could devote themselves to the study of Christian theology and establish laws based on Scripture. Eliot was once more instrumental in these efforts, painstakingly translating the Bible into Algonquian and publishing his work in 1663 as Up-Biblum God. His work earned him the sobriquet “the apostle to the Indians.”
Scrofula is a form of tuberculosis which affects the lymph nodes in the neck, causing them to swell into painless but extremely unsightly abscesses that grow steadily over time, rupturing the skin. It is perhaps from the appearance of these lesions that scrofula gets its name — the word means “little pigs” in Latin. It is also known as “the King’s Evil,” owing to an ancient belief that it could be cured by the touch of the reigning monarch. Despite what Hawthorne says here, scrofula is not genetically inherited but results from breathing in air contaminated by microbacteria. Children are especially prone to it.
Violets are delicate, shade-loving plants with bluish-purple flowers and heart-shaped leaves. For the ancient Greeks, they were a symbol of love and fertility and were often incorporated into love potions. Folklore associates them with shyness and modesty, giving rise to the expression “shrinking violet.”
Putting forth their star-shaped flowers in March and April, wood-anemones are a herald of spring, forming carpets of nodding white heads in ancient woodland glades. Their name comes from the Greek word for wind (ánemos), owing to an old superstition that they wouldn’t open until the wind blew.
Columbines come in a vast number of colors so it is significant that those which Pearl picks match the letter her mother wears, especially in light of the fact that they serve both as symbols of cuckoldry and of fidelity.
The repetition of the word chill conjures up an association with Chillingworth, making him a phantom presence inhabiting the bodies of his victims.