Because it has been a staple of the high school classroom, it is nearly impossible to approach The Scarlet Letter with the sort of wonder and respect it deserves. Somber and at times melodramatic, The Scarlet Letter is an altogether quieter book than, say, Moby Dick, which can make it feel tame by comparison. But that is an unfortunate misperception. In this tale of American origins and purposes, Nathaniel Hawthorne found the form that he had sought for so long: a historical tale of “human frailty and sorrow,” tinged with tragedy, rich in ambiguity and symbolism, and supported by a profound understanding of the philosophical undercurrents running beneath the surface of American life—a book that continues to speak with urgency to us today.
The tendency has been to reduce The Scarlet Letter to a morality tale pitting a passionate feminist heroine, Hester Prynne, against the repression and hypocrisy of theocratic Puritanism. This view looks upon the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, with whom Hester committed adultery, to be at worst a cowardly hypocrite and at best a romantic poet trapped in Puritan garb. And it largely ignores Roger Chillingworth, a scholar whose dabblings in the murky zone between science and magic are overlooked in favor of his conventional role as elderly cuckold.
But in the story of Hester Prynne it is possible to see how Hawthorne, a writer with a deeply theological imagination, responded to the cultural conflicts of his time, particularly in the ways that nature and grace had been riven from each other.
In most readings of the novel, Hester’s tale is about liberation: “nature” breaking free from the bonds imposed by “grace,” insofar as grace is defined as a transcendent force of spiritual or civil law. This is made clear in the most startling change that the 1995 film version makes to the novel’s plot. At the end of the film, Hester, her daughter Pearl, and Dimmesdale ride out of town in a carriage whose wheels grind the discarded scarlet letter into the mud. In this vision, Hester becomes Huckleberry Finn, lighting out for the territories, rather than the protagonist of Hawthorne’s novel, who voluntarily chooses to live out her life within the community that once condemned her.
The Scarlet Letter has been misinterpreted for a host of reasons, but perhaps the most salient is that Hawthorne intended it to be misinterpreted. He was aware that, even in the relatively strait-laced world of 1850, Hester would be viewed as the heroine of the novel. But for all the language that conveys her beauty, passion, and independence, there are hints that she is flawed, given to temptations far more insidious than sexual desire.
This is not to suggest that Hawthorne’s indictment of religious fundamentalism isn’t a central part of the story, nor that he lacked sympathy with Hester. But as poisonous as Hawthorne believed Puritan fundamentalism to be, he was equally preoccupied with the rise of modern ideologies. In particular, he became a searching critic of transcendentalism, a form of philosophical and political idealism epitomized by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. These writers inherited the Enlightenment belief in the self-sufficiency of human thought as the organizing principle of society, but they couched their vision in romantic rather than neoclassical terms. Instead of extolling reason, they used words like soul, intuition, and spontaneity.
In his public statements, Hawthorne treats Emerson with deference and lightly veiled irony, but in his notebooks and fiction, the sage of Concord looms as his most significant antagonist. Emerson’s gospel of nature freed from the dead hand of human history is evident in the opening words of “Nature”: “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”
Like the early British romantics, Emerson saw nature as a truer source of wisdom than the biblical revelation that underpinned western civilization. “In the wilderness,” he wrote, “I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages.”
One of the most famous scenes in The Scarlet Letter takes place in the wilderness. Hester takes Pearl into the forest in an attempt to intercept Dimmesdale and tell him of Chillingworth’s plot to uncover him as Pearl’s father. As they set out, they move into “the mystery of the primeval forest,” which Hester feels is an apt metaphor for the “moral wilderness” in which she has wandered for years. When she and Dimmesdale spot each other, they “questioned one another’s actual and bodily existence, and even doubted their own,” looking to one another like ghosts. But as they talk, Hester overcomes Dimmesdale’s moral self-criticism and self-doubt with the single-mindedness of her passion. Having returned to the scene of their lovemaking, they warm to their subject, transforming from ghosts into embodied beings. They agree that Chillingworth’s sin is worse than theirs, because he has attempted to violate “the sanctity of the human heart,” whereas they have not. “What we did,” Hester says, “had a consecration of its own. We felt it so!”
As she makes her declaration, all nature seems to approve the choice: a flood of sunshine illuminates the forest gloom. Hester removes the scarlet letter for the first time and throws it away. Letting her hair down, she removes the last vestige of social restraint.
But just at this moment the action begins to shift. The narrator’s comment on the sunbeam contains a hook: “Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits!” In addition to the reminder that we are in the realm of nature untouched by law or grace, Hawthorne uses the word “spirits” to refer to Hester and Dimmesdale. They are souls as well as bodies.
The next step in the conversation is also perfectly modulated. For just as Hester reveals her womanhood in all its sensuality, she immediately thinks of the fruit of their love, Pearl. Hawthorne reminds us that Pearl is herself the embodiment of their love. And it is Pearl who, for all her wildness, remains adamantine that her mother put the scarlet letter back on. Hester explains to Dimmesdale that it is merely because Pearl has never seen her without the letter, but the perceptive reader senses that something else is going on. In the previous chapter, Pearl created her own letter A out of green things, a symbol of hope that nonetheless acknowledges the “higher truth” that nature has in some mysterious fashion been marred by sin and error.
Hester has become a disciple of Emerson. What she says in the forest is what Emerson says in “Self-Reliance”: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.” Hester wants the private truth of the passion she and Dimmesdale shared to be true for all. Because the world seems to resist her, her only alternative seems to be escape.
In joining with the spirit of the emancipated intellect, Hester assumes “a freedom of speculation.” But the positive aspect of this freedom—the need to reconstitute society in a way that is more just to women—is shadowed by a darker problem. In withdrawing from society, Hester moves away from her embodied nature and becomes an abstracted intellect, ironically becoming like her estranged husband.
Emerson separated nature and grace in a way that mirrored what the Puritans had done before him. As Hawthorne makes clear, the Puritans look upon nature as not only wild and heathen but inherently evil. In denying the natural world the goodness that enables it to become the sacramental bearer of grace, the Puritans fell into the ancient gnostic heresy, which sees the created order as evil, trapping the pure spirit in matter. Alienation from nature led them to elevate industry as the highest civic virtue, paving the way for the rise of pragmatism as a powerful force in American thought and culture.
According to the critic Marion Montgomery, Emerson shared with the Puritans a type of “inverted Platonism”: the belief that the world is the shadow of the mind. Emerson, according to Montgomery, “transfers Calvinistic election from the province of God to that of Nature.” Dispensing with evil, the past, and human institutions, the Emersonian “great man” divinizes himself. But to maintain his divinity, the “great man” must abandon passive faith and engage in a constant round of activity and domination. In this sense, Melville’s Ahab is a better portrait of the Emersonian superman-gone-bad than the parasitical Chillingworth. But there can be little doubt that Hawthorne sees Chillingworth, a Faustian figure who has sold his soul to reductionistic scientism, as the kind of monster that the mild-mannered Emerson would unleash on the world.
Hawthorne sensed that the Puritans and transcendentalists split nature from grace. Did he also have an inkling that both schools of thought would feed directly into the frenetic pace of modern life, our worship of technology, our desire to manipulate the environment, our preoccupation with moralistic, ideological posturing, our temptation to idolize the great man as conqueror or redeemer?
More to the point at hand, why does Hawthorne tempt us to misinterpret his story and side with the Hester Prynne of the forest scene, the Emersonian heroine who would liberate nature from the clutches of grace? Perhaps it is because, as R.W.B. Lewis writes in The American Adam, the constant pattern of Hawthorne’s novels is one of attempted escape and the absolute necessity of return. But return does not necessarily mean capitulation, the triumph of the social order over the individual. The Scarlet Lettermakes it clear that social and ecclesiastical institutions can and will become repressive and unimaginative. What Hawthorne opposes to this is not rebellion or revolution, but art, penance, and sacrifice.
Even while Hester is dreaming about becoming the prophetess of a new social order, she is experiencing an inward change, and she is already bringing about change in her society, albeit in a quieter way. Her needlework is described in terms that suggest consummate artistry. Her “rich, voluptuous” nature becomes incarnate in handkerchiefs, collars, baby clothes. It shows up in the least likely of places: scarves worn by soldiers, the ruff of the governor himself. Domestic though this form of artistry may seem, it nonetheless becomes a pervasive influence, in daily contact with human flesh.
Then there is penance. When Hester meets Dimmesdale in the forest she tries to assuage the guilt that gnaws at his heart. She tells him that he has exorcized it through good works. But Dimmesdale points out that for all his works, nothing has changed within his soul. So long as his sin is concealed, he is unable to achieve the spirit of penitence. His death on the scaffold, after his public confession and embrace of Hester and Pearl, takes place in accord with the Puritan tradition he represents.
Hester’s way will not be so conventional. The model she decides to follow is not the single moment of conversion, so beloved of our American religious culture, but a lifetime of quiet sacrifice. By choosing to remain in the community and wear the scarlet letter, she does not merely capitulate to society; rather, she brings about change in the only way lasting change can ever be achieved: in her daily, ordinary encounters with others. She will not be self-reliant but will exist in a web of mutual interdependence. “Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence.”
In Hester’s return, her refusal to escape from the flawed community she inhabits, and her infusion of beauty into the mundane, she weaves nature and grace back into the seamless garment they were always intended to be.
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Gregory Wolfe is the founder and editor of Image—one of America’s leading literary journals. He also edits a literary imprint, Slant Books, through Wipf & Stock Publishers. In the fall of 2018, Wolfe will serve as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Visiting Scholar in Catholic Studies at Loyola University, Chicago. He was the founding director of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program, where he continues to teach. Wolfe’s writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, First Things, Commonweal, and America. His books include Beauty Will Save the World, Intruding Upon the Timeless, and The Operation of Grace. Follow him on Twitter: @Gregory_Wolfe.
This essay appeared originally in Image issue 96. It is reproduced here in its entirety by permission of its author.