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The Scarlet Letterby Nathaniel Hawthorne
Introduction by Kathryn Harrison
Why should the fate of a fictional seventeenth-century adulteress named Hester Prynne concern us? After all, we live in an age when marriage is understood more as a lifestyle choice than as a sacrament and children are routinely conceived not only out of wedlock but out of body. When grandmothers can give birth to their own grandchildren and paternity can remain forever invisible, hidden behind the bar code of a sperm bank deposit, isn't the notion of a public outcry against adultery a bit quaint, even irrelevant? Isn't Hester Prynne--the invention of a writer notoriously preoccupied with guilt--merely a historical curiosity?
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was lady-like, too. . . . And never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like . . . than as she issued from the prison. . . . But the point which drew all eyes, and as it were, transfigured the wearer,--so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time,--was that Scarlet Letter, so fantastically embroidered on her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.
Hester might be forgotten, were she not unforgettable. She might, like countless real-life unwed mothers, have simply suffered and vanished, were she no more than an unwed mother. After all, Hester's crime is irrelevant. She survives in the reader's imagination because of her punishment and what she makes of it: a spell that removes her from "the ordinary relations with humanity," from the realm where her story begins.
The plot of The Scarlet Letter is that which typically proceeds from a lovers' triangle. Having escaped a confining marriage to an older man whose intellect has eclipsed his soul, Hester Prynne falls into the ready arms of a man whose soul has burned away his reason, only to discover that fate is, indeed, biology. Despite the courage of her convictions, despite an evolved understanding that what she "did had a consecration of its own," Hester's freedom, both sexual and societal, ends with pregnancy. After bearing her child within the comparatively forgiving shelter of a prison, she is released into the murderously intolerant community of Salem, Massachusetts, populated by Puritans, politicians, witches--each group defined and afflicted by its own set of judgments. Hester is condemned by the townspeople, her estranged husband consumed by jealousy, her lover sacrificed to guilt and self-recrimination. As we see, human experience guarantees suffering, but of particular kinds--to each his own torment.
Nathaniel Hawthorne called The Scarlet Letter a romance, identifying (in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables) the genre as one that offers more "latitude" than the novel, which he defined as preoccupied with "fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary." In contrast to more realistic forms, the romance is free to map an eccentric interior landscape: the brilliant and revelatory terrain of the unconscious, where truth is gauged not by probability but by depth of feeling. With Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth, readers follow Hester Prynne into a dreamscape where names are clues (dim, chilling), where a witch lives in the governor's mansion and men who hide their sins will find them writ upon the sky--a primeval land whose sun shines not so much to warm as to illuminate.
To what end? What will we see by its preternatural light? Nothing less than the triumph of a pure heart, convention and conformity overcome by passion and exploration, shame and secrecy banished by honesty and confession, the spirit outliving the letter of the law, the radical assault of the New Testament on the Old. Utopia? In the second sentence of The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne uses the word, holds it up like a sign in ironic reference to such a place, to the intrinsic human desire to start over, to make the world anew and better, to honor the life we are given rather than once again fail that promise. Instead of "a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical," a society in its moral infancy and thus dependent on literalness, on patriarchy, couldn't we hope to evolve into a people who can gracefully manage our own interior lives? Couldn't we, perhaps, take Hester Prynne as our model?
The central figure of the romance is immediately identified by the "mystic symbol"; and, in case readers are so dull as to somehow miss Hester's significance, Nathaniel Hawthorne does two astonishing things when introducing us to his heroine. He costumes a sexual deviant as the Virgin, an "image of Divine Maternity," and he tells us that the scarlet letter A on Hester's breast, the representation of her sin, has transfigured the woman who wears it. Of course the very purpose of her punishment, the pilgrim fathers might have asserted, was to change Hester Prynne, to remake the sinner into "a living sermon against sin." But beware: once humans take judgment, the prerogative of the divine, into their fallible mortal hands, they rend the veil between natural and supernatural. In the novels and short stories of Hawthorne, a writer as preoccupied with enchantments as Poe and as obsessed with culpability as Dostoyevsky, verities have a tendency to shape-shift. Or, to put it another way, in the land of romance, existing as it does on the savage and wonder-filled frontier of the unconscious, revelation is yet possible. No sooner is Hester given her stigma than she uses her feminine skill to make it into a stigmata, illuminating her blood-red stain with gold thread "fantastically embroidered." Glinting from the courthouse steps, raised like an icon above the crowd, her breast resembles nothing so much as that of the rent heart of Jesus projecting rays of righteousness.
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