At its heart, The Scarlet Letter is an intense meditation on a single object: the letter A itself. As the events of the novel weave themselves around this ambiguous figure, Hawthorne holds it up to the light, examines it from different angles, spins it on its axis and turns it inside out. He teases out myriad meanings from a character that, as the first letter of the alphabet, is the origin of all meaning. With this highly poetic and original approach, he conjures a spell around the reader that is at once claustrophobically obsessional and liberatingly expansive.
The letter is, of course, pinned to the bosom of Hester Prynne as a punishment for adultery, and superficially the novel explores the harsh rule imposed by the Puritans of seventeenth century Boston, particularly on women. With his ancestors playing no small part in the worst cruelties meted out, the era frequently served as the stage on which Hawthorne enacted his dramas of sin, ancestral guilt and possible redemption. He recreates the period with painstakingly researched detail, making the past seem a palpable present and interrogating its social, moral and religious mores with a deft touch characterized by empathy, penetrating insight and flourishes of ironic self-referentiality. This historic realism is paired with the tropes of Puritan superstition, and Hawthorne peoples his world with forest-dwelling sprites, miraculous apparitions and witches who cavort with the devil.
Hawthorne’s critique of old Boston is squarely aimed at the hypocrisies and repressive norms of his own time. Though he was only marginally involved in the Transcendentalist movement, its ideas concerning the importance of self-determination and equality between men and women color the text. Hester, whose acceptance of the punishment heaped upon her does not prevent her from criticizing the assumptions underpinning it, anticipates a coming age in which “the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew.” In this, she is very much a nineteenth century woman, in the mold of Margaret Fuller. By linking the Puritan past with his own present, Hawthorne demonstrates that the strictures of the former have barely loosened over the passing centuries. Yet he remains ambivalent about the possibility of change: it is Hester’s sin which, in placing her at a remove from society, gives her the ability to discern its flaws; but it also denies her the moral power to correct them.
This type of ambiguity runs through much of the novel as Hawthorne establishes, and then problematizes, the reader’s sympathies. Dimmesdale is at once a victim, limited by his inability to live truthfully, and a hypocrite who refuses to take responsibility for his own actions; he is the holy man of the cloth and the demon lover. Chillingworth is the satanic persecutor who, likened to the prophet Nathan, is also the emissary of God’s wrath. Hawthorne’s eye for the paradoxes of the human heart, though, is keenest in his exploration of sin and redemption. Hester, who is elsewhere characterized as the Whore of Babylon and the Virgin Mary, can also be seen as a latter-day Eve, expelled from society for her transgression of supposedly divine mandates. Like Eve, her wrongdoing is accompanied by a new wisdom, allowing her to look into the hearts of others and to know that they, too, are implicated in her guilt. Since this is an inevitable condition of humanity’s fallen state she comes to see that the punishments dispensed by Puritan society represent a greater crime than that which she has committed, and is therefore unable to repent. Perversely, it is this inability that ensures her redemption: the empathy it gives her with her fellow sinners, and the help she is able to dispense to them, is what elevates her from adulteress to angel.
“Adulteress” and “Angel” are just two of the meanings ascribed to the scarlet letter. As a badge of shame it curtails Hester’s freedom yet, as an advertisement for her skills as a seamstress, it allows her to support herself and live an independent life. It is a protective talisman, a guiding light to the sick, a passport to a secret underworld and, finally, an armorial signifier of rank. These shifts in meaning do not spring from the letter itself but are rather the result of a collusion between author, characters and reader. In this sense, Hawthorne’s scarlet letter represents literary creation as a synthesis of the efforts of all these parties rather than the work of the author alone. Ultimately, then, it is the emblem of the new kind of fiction which this enduringly powerful novel, a keystone of American literature, helped to establish.
“Alive with the miraculous vitality of genius. It combines the strength and substance of an oak with the subtle organization of a rose.” — Julian Hawthorne in The Atlantic, 1st April, 1886.
“A work of rare, we may say of fearful power.” — Orestes Brownson in Brownson’s Quarterly Review, October, 1850.
“The Scarlet Letter has the beauty and harmony of all original and complete conceptions… One can often return to it; it supports familiarity and has the inexhaustible charm and mystery of great works of art.” — Henry James in Hawthorne, 1879.
“Why has our author selected such a theme?... Is it... because a running undertide of filth has become as requisite to a romance, as death in the fifth act to a tragedy?... The Scarlet Letter has already done not a little to degrade our literature, and to encourage social licentiousness.” — Arthur Cleveland Coxe in The Church Review, January, 1851.