Hester’s reasoning places her among the nineteenth century Transcendentalists with whom Hawthorne was associated. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in particular, argued that one should act according to one’s internal values and shun conformity to external authority, avowing in his famous essay, Self-Reliance, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” (p. 15). The notion that religion had dominion over what was virtuous and what was not he singled out for especial disdain, seeing it as blind worship of a dead past that denied true unity with God.
Let us stun and astonish the intruding rabble of men and books and institutions by a simple declaration of the divine fact. Bid them take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within. (p. 38)
In the Bible, possessors of the evil eye are those who do not put their entire faith in God and are thus benighted with an inner darkness. The Book of Matthew states: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:22-3). More popularly, the evil eye is understood to be a curse delivered through a hostile or malicious stare which brings ill fortune and injury. Both strands of meaning apply to Chillingworth.
Though magnetism as a naturally-occurring property of lodestone had been known since ancient times, the ability of electrical currents to generate magnetic fields was a new discovery in Hawthorne’s age. It was discovered accidentally by Hans Christian Ørsted in 1819 and, despite the enthusiastic experimentation of assorted physicists over the ensuing decade, was still only partially understood. Because of this, magnetism features in many nineteenth century texts as a metaphor for occult, unknowable powers.
Learn how to make a simple electromagnet at home.
The number seven is loaded with Biblical significance. To note that God creates the world in seven days, that there are seven deadly sins, that Cain’s killer will suffer vengeance seven times over and that the Pharaoh of Egypt dreams that his land will be blighted by seven years of famine following on from seven years of plenty only begins to scrape the surface. It is also highly prominent in superstition: a person who accidentally smashes a mirror is met with seven years’ bad luck, and a witch’s cat will turn into a witch itself after seven years of service. There is also a strange ancient belief that each person undergoes a complete transformation in appearance and mind once every seven years.
Perhaps we also think once more of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. When his hero Christian sets out from the City of Destruction, he must bear on his back the heavy burden of his sinfulness. The weight of this baggage is so great that it threatens to force him down into hell.
Pearl’s woodland snack could be one of two different plants: both Mitchella repens and Gaultheria procumbens go by the name of partridge berry, can be found in woodland areas and produce edible red fruits. The former is an evergreen vine with dark, glossy leaves and white, trumpet-shaped flowers. Its berries ripen between July and October but, if not scavenged beforehand, will persist into spring. Though they seem rather bland to human tastebuds, they have been used by Native American women to make a medicinal labor-easing tea and serve as a juicy wayside nibble for ramblers.
Gaultheria procumbens, meanwhile, is a low-growing evergreen shrub which produces small bell-shaped flowers. Its bright red fruits ripen in autumn but continue to grow in size over the winter and are at their tastiest after a frost. They have a distinct minty tang and are made into syrup used to flavor chewing gum, ice-cream, tobacco and toothpaste. If you live in North America and have some of these plants growing near to you, why not experiment with their culinary properties? A range of imaginative recipes can be found here.
Dryads are wood nymphs, the beautiful female guardian-spirits of trees. According to some authorities, a dryad’s life is closely bound to the tree in which she is resident: she is born in tandem with it and dies when it dies. Others avow that dryads desert dying trees and relocate to healthy ones, allowing them to live for up to ten thousand years. Oak trees are sacred to dryads and artists often portray them crowned with the leaves of this mighty denizen of the woods.
Fairies were very different entities in pre-Reformation British England and New England. British folktales and literature teem with fairy folk, the pens of literary giants such as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser making these elusive beings visible before the mortal gaze they usually avoided. Here, they are creatures of wonder and enchantment, albeit ones to be treated with caution. For Puritans, however, fairies were the accursed progeny of Satan. With their magical abilities to divine the future, to fly and to cast spells, they were inextricably allied with witches, and indeed having dealings with them was a sure sign of witchcraft.
This metaphor evokes the fashionable craze for Egyptology that gripped the western world during Hawthorne’s time. For centuries, attempts to decipher hieroglyphs had amounted to almost nothing but with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, scholars made vast leaps forward. By 1822, Jean-François Champollion had published the first accurate translation of hieroglyphs and established the grammatical structure that underpinned them. As a result, fascination with all things Egyptian swept the international stage.
In likening Pearl to a hieroglyph, not only does Hawthorne make her the living incarnation of the scarlet letter, he also evokes the sacred-profane dichotomy that surrounds it. Egyptian hieroglyphics reveal much about a belief system that would have been deemed heretical by Puritans, but the word hieroglyph itself comes from the Greek term for sacred carving. Thus Pearl becomes the sanctified embodiment of a form of blasphemy.
If you fancy seeing what your own name looks like approximately translated into Egyptian hieroglyphs, click here.
In Dimmesdale’s imagination, the brook is the equivalent of the River Styx which, in Greek mythology, separates the world of the living from the Underworld, or Hades. The Styx is typically accessible only to the recently deceased who must pay the ferry-man, Charon, to row them over to the far side. There, they are met by the three-headed dog Cerberus who guards the gates to Hades and prevents those who enter from ever escaping. Only a handful of mortals have managed to overcome these obstacles.
It is a truism of folklore that, because running water is pure and holy, fairies, demons, witches and their ilk may not cross it. Robert Burns alludes to this in Tam O'Shanter, a riotous poem which tells the tale of the drunken Tam's encounter with a witches' Sabbath in deliciously salty language. When the narrator urges our hero's horse onwards to the bridge where he might escape the hellish mob that pursues him, he reminds him, “There, at them thou tail may toss, A running stream they dare na cross.”
In northern America, the type of housing the Algonquian population preferred took the form of wetus. These easy-to-construct homes were typically made by covering a wooden frame with layers of birchwood and woven mats. They came in several forms — domed, conical and rectangular — and were around eight to ten feet high. Wetus were temporary structures that could be quickly erected in village groups during the communal farming season and wherever easy meat was available during winter when game provided the main source of food. Elsewhere, different types of housing prevailed. These included longhouses, tepees, grass houses, brush-shelters, wattle-and-daub houses and chickees.
Christopher Columbus in 1492, their incursions into this vast country were still relatively modest in the first half of the seventeenth century. Many early settlements had failed; prior to the 1600s, only Spain and Portugal were significant colonial powers. Thereafter, other European nations began to stake out their territories and by the 1640s, Spain had established eight colonies on American soil; Britain and the Netherlands had six each; France had two; and Norway, Portugal and Sweden all held one. With the exception of France’s hold on inland areas of Canada, all these settlements were clustered along the Atlantic seaboard: the forbidding land prevented any ventures deeper into the interior.
These not-entirely-legitimate vessels are the boats of the privateers, whose disreputable trade bloomed in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Privateers were essentially pirates with whom the state colluded. The imperial governments of France, England, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands lacked the money needed to defend their new colonies so would commission pirates to capture enemy ships and settlements, allowing them to keep a handsome portion of the booty in exchange for their services. Business was extremely profitable and many prominent traders, nobles and state officials devoted their assets to funding this arrangement. By the mid seventeenth century, though, it ceased to be tolerated as unsanctioned corruption mushroomed and more and more privateers refused to give any share of the plunder back to their employers.
Bristol is a lively, compact city on the south west coast of England with a history stretching back over a thousand years. Connected to the North Atlantic Ocean by the Severn Estuary, which flows into the Bristol Channel, its fortunes have always been strongly connected with maritime trade. During the seventeenth century, it imported large quantities of sugar from the Caribbean and tobacco from North America.
An election sermon was one delivered to mark the inauguration of a new governor. Governors were elected annually by the minority accorded voting rights: only freemen could participate, and this status was not easily come by. In order to qualify, one had to be an unindentured male, an established church-member and to have undergone a transformative spiritual experience mandated by God and attested to by other church leaders. In keeping with a system that viewed political authority as part of the religious structure, elections were carried out fifty days after Easter until the practice was suspended by Charles II in 1684.
Read an election sermon preached at Boston in 1669 here. In the video, a modern sermon delivered before the 2008 presidential election, in which Barack Obama defeated John McCain, offers some interesting insights into what the original Puritan version was like.
With all this plunging and thrusting through suggestive topography, Dimmesdale's progress takes on a decidedly sexual nature. Part of his excitement, it seems, is erotic, and the “unaccustomed physical energy” he derives from it hints that his illness may be caused by the repression of this side of his nature as much as his guilt or Chillingworth's machinations.
Dimmesdale’s perceptions echo Washington Irving’s 1819 short story, ‘Rip Van Winkle.’ In this famous tale, the eponymous protagonist helps a man dressed in old-fashioned attire carry a keg up a mountain to a mysterious hollow where silent, bearded men play ninepins. Having helped himself to their liquor, Rip falls asleep and when he awakes, finds his gun rusted and his beard a foot long. When he retraces his steps back to his village, he finds that it is populated by people unknown to him. In what he took for the events of a day, many years have passed and the Revolutionary War has changed the shape of his home forever.
The communion supper is another name for the Eucharist, a Christian sacrament that enacts Jesus' instructions to the apostles at the Last Supper:
Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matthew 26:26-8).
At Holy Communion, worshippers receive consecrated wine and bread (in the form of the communion wafer) as a signification of divine grace. Controversy, however, has raged around differing perceptions of what actually takes place here. To Catholics, who hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the bread and wine are literally the body and blood of Christ. Puritans, on the other hand, believe that Christ’s presence in these sacraments is of a spiritual nature. Their communions downplayed the sacrificial, and indeed cannibalistic, elements of the ritual, suggesting that it is perhaps these things which Dimmesdale has to prevent himself from speaking out loud.
That the soul is eternal is a major creed governing Puritan thought: if it were not so, there would be no afterlife, and thus no salvation or retribution. To deny the soul’s immortality, therefore, is to effectively deny God. The reaffirmation of this holy truth was a popular theme for Puritan writers, including Richard Baxter (author of Of the Immortality of Man’s Soul (1682)) and Richard Sibbes (The Saints Hiding-Place in the Evil Day (a.1635)). In general, the Bible backs their views, but if Dimmesdale wanted to base an argument that the soul is not immortal on scripture, he could have turned to Ezekiel 18:4: “the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”
The lily is a traditional symbol of purity and virginity. In the Bible, it figures as an embodiment of the Promised Land (“I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon,” Hosea 14:5). It is also an emblem of the perfection of God’s creation and his care in providing for all his creatures (“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these,” Luke 12:27). For Catholics, the flower embodies the divine qualities of the Virgin Mary: the stem is her unbending faith in God, the petals her virginity, the scent her divine nature and the leaves her humility.
Amongst her other, less wholesome claims to fame, Anne Turner was known as the inventor of a type of starch used to impart a yellow tint to the ruffs and cuffs of the fashionably attired. She cooked up this saffron-based preparation on her own kitchen stove and its quality was so high that soon she was running an extremely lucrative monopoly catering to the ladies of court. After she was publically hung in 1615 for her involvement in the Overbury affair wearing a ruff dyed with her own starch, the craze came to an abrupt end.
Moses is revered as a leading prophet by all Abrahamic faiths. He led the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, and was the recipient of the Ten Commandments which are the foundation of Christian practice. After forty years of wandering in the desert, Moses died within sight of the Promised Land.
Other well-known biblical prophets include Jonah, who foretold the destruction of Ninevah and lived for three days and three nights in a whale’s belly; John the Baptist, who prophesied the coming of Christ and whose severed head was presented to Salome; and Daniel, the interpreter of dreams. There’s a full list here.
Because of the political upheavals then taking place in England, this isn’t the simple affirmation of the value of prayer it might initially seem. The New England settlements shared the currency of their colonial rulers and so their coins bore the mint-mark of the English monarch. However, when this scene takes place — just before the election of May 2nd 1649 — there was no monarch at all, Charles I having recently been executed for pursuing his own selfish ends at the expense of his country. The narrative present marks the beginning the decade-long impasse known as the Interregnum in which England was a de facto republic, and it is this which Chillingworth calls “the New Jerusalem.” He is therefore slyly insinuating that Dimmesdale’s prayers, like a coin bearing the stamp of the disgraced and decapitated king, are empty mockeries.
This simile refers to Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek myth. Pegasus was the progeny of Poseidon, the god of the Sea, and the gorgon Medusa, from whose severed neck he sprang. A friend of the Muses, he is associated with wisdom, poetry and literary inspiration. After assisting the hero Bellerophon in his victorious battle against the fire-breathing Chimera, Pegasus ascends to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, where he is stabled by Zeus and entrusted with the responsibility of carrying his thunderbolts. On his death, Zeus transforms Pegasus into a constellation, giving him permanent residence in the night sky.