The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Between Hawthorne’s earlier and his later productions there is no solution of literary continuity, but only increased growth and grasp. Rappaccini’s Daughter, Young Goodman Brown, Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure, and The Artist of the Beautiful, on the one side, are the promise which is fulfilled in The Scarlet Letter and the House of The Seven Gables, on the other; though we should hardly have understood the promise had not the fulfillment explained it. The shorter pieces have a lyrical quality, but the longer romances express more than a mere combination of lyrics; they have a rich, multifarious life of their own. The material is so wrought as to become incidental to something loftier and greater, for which our previous analysis of the contents of the egg had not prepared us.

The Scarlet Letter was the first, and the tendency of criticism is to pronounce it the most impressive, also, of these ampler productions. It has the charm of unconsciousness; the author did not realize while he worked, that this “most prolix among the tales” was alive with the miraculous vitality of genius. It combines the strength and substance of an oak with the subtle organization of a rose, and is great, not of malice aforethought, but inevitably. It goes to the root of the matter, and reaches some unconventional conclusions, which, however, would scarce be apprehended by one reader in twenty. For the external or literal significance of the story, though in strict correspondence with the spirit, conceals that spirit from the literal eye. The reader may choose his depth according to his inches but only a tall man will touch the bottom.

The punishment of the scarlet letter is a historical fact; and, apart from the symbol thus ready provided to the author’s hand, such a book as The Scarlet Letter would doubtless never have existed. But the symbol gave the touch whereby Hawthorne’s disconnected thoughts on the subject were united and crystallized in organic form. Evidently, likewise, it was a source of inspiration, suggesting new aspects and features of the truth, — a sort of witch-hazel to detect spiritual gold. Some such figurative emblem, introduced in a matter-of-fact way, but gradually invested with supernatural attributes, was one of Hawthorne’s favorite devices in his stories. We may realize its value, in the present case, by imagining the book with the scarlet letter omitted. It is not practically essential to the plot. But the scarlet letter uplifts the theme from the material to the spiritual level. It is the concentration and type of the whole argument. It transmutes the prose into poetry. It serves as a formula for the conveyance of ideas otherwise too subtle for words, as well as to enhance the gloomy picturesqueness of the moral scenery. It burns upon its wearer’s breast, it casts a lurid glow along her pathway, it isolates her among mankind, and is at the same time the mystic talisman to reveal to her the guilt hidden in other hearts. It is the Black Man’s mark, and the first plaything of the infant Pearl. As the story develops, the scarlet letter becomes the dominant figure, — everything is tinged with its sinister glare. By a ghastly miracle its semblance is reproduced upon the breast of the minister, where “God’s eye beheld it! the angels were forever pointing at it! the devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger!” — and at last, to Dimmesdale’s crazed imagination, its spectre appears even in the midnight sky as if heaven itself had caught the contagion of his so zealously hidden sin. So strongly is the scarlet letter rooted in every chapter and almost every sentence of the book that bears its name. And yet it would probably have incommoded the average novelist. The wand of Prospero, so far from aiding the uninititated, trips him up, and scorches his fingers. Between genius and every other attribute of the mind is a difference not of degree, but of kind.

Every story may be viewed under two aspects: as the logical evolution of a conclusion from a premise, and as something colored and modified by the personal qualities of the author. If the latter have genius, his share in the product is comparable to nature’s in a work of human art, — giving it everything except abstract form. But the majority of fiction-mongers are apt to impair rather than enhance the beauty of the abstract form of their conception, — if, indeed, it possess any to begin with. At all events, there is no better method of determining the value of a writer’s part in a given work than to consider the work in what may be termed its prenatal state. How much, for example, of The Scarlet Letter was ready made before Hawthorne touched it? The date is historically fixed at about the middle of the seventeenth century. The stage properties, so to speak, are well adapted to become the furniture and background of a romantic narrative. A gloomy and energetic religious sect, pioneers in a virgin land, with the wolf and the Indian at their doors, but with memories of England in their hearts and English traditions and prejudices in their minds; weak in numbers, but strong in spirit; with no cultivation save that of the Bible and the sword; victims, moreover of a dark and bloody superstition, — such a people and scene give admirable relief and color to a tale of human frailty and sorrow. Amidst such surroundings, then, the figure of a woman stands, with the scarlet letter on her bosom. But here we come to a pause, and must look to the author for the next step.

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