NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE AND THE UNQUIET ELEMENT
Richard W. Amero
Thirty years ago readers regarded The House of Seven Gables as Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece. Students discussed its meanings in high school English classes. Today readers put The Scarlet Letter in the number one spot. The reader's increasing awareness of the techniques that go into the making of a novel and of the complications that bring individuals and society into conflict are responsible for their changing preference.
Perhaps, with further changes in understanding. The House of Seven Gables may again revert to first place.
Unlike The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables is a hopeful novel. Hawthorne sees that the villains, Judge Pyncheon and his heirs, are punished and that the victims, Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon, are granted a reprieve. By uniting Holgrave and Phoebe in marriage he provides a way out of a bewildering legacy of hate and destruction. Clifford Pyncheon, the main figure, suffers from the effects of a prolonged imprisonment. Clifford is not a guilty protagonist, like Reverend Hooper, Goodman Brown and Ethan Brand. He is not a person who magnifies his sense of evil because he has been cut off from human contacts. Rather, he desires to reach out to others. He wants to be loved. The most pathetic scene in Hawthorne's writing occurs when Hepzibah and Phoebe keep Clifford from jumping into a crew of men marching past his arched window.
From The House of Seven Gables, The Minister's Black Veil, Young Goodman Brown, and Ethan Brand, critics have evolved a myth of the "good" Nathaniel Hawthorne, who loved people and believed in the sympathies of the universal heart that bind humanity together. In his introduction to Twice-Told Tales, Quentin Anderson referred to Hawthorne as "the only major American writer who celebrates the community as the final arbiter and guardian of our humanity." In American Poets From the Puritans to the Present, Hyatt H. Waggoner found that Hawthorne and John Greenleaf Whittier possessed the same genial and warm human feelings:
"We have stretched ‘the hands of memory forth/To warm them at the wood-fires blaze.' The very intensity of the cold has made it the more necessary to seek and treasure warmth. Nowhere is Whittier closer to Hawthorne than in this expression of one of Hawthorne's commonest themes, in some of Hawthorne's favorite images."
This kindly view of a descendant of Puritans who derived his nourishment from life-giving contact with his fellows has only one fault. It is not true. Melville's, James's, and T. S. Eliot's estimates are closer to the mark. Melville wrote of "the power of blackness" in Hawthorne's fiction. James declared that while Hawthorne derived his sense of sin from history and from his knowledge of psychology, he employed it for literary and artistic purposes. Finally, T. S. Eliot wrote of Hawthorne's "hard coldness." Indeed, the forebearing and negative persons -- Rappaccini, Ethan Brand, Goodman Brown, and Roger Chillingworth -- come nearer to the true Hawthorne than the lover of hearth and family which insinuates itself into the mellow version.
Hawthorne distrusted people as isolated individuals and as members of social groups. Granted, his meanings are often ambiguous. Nonetheless, in his short stories and novels his judgments are clear. Readers are never in doubt as to the identity of heroes and villains.
In My Kinsman Major Molineaux Hawthorne showed how the family and the state could become corrupted by greed and selfishness. In opposition to human crassness and deceit, he described the beauty of the interior of a church in which human beings were absent:
There the moonlight came trembling in, and fell down the deserted pews, and extended along the quiet aisles. A fainter yet more awful radiance was hovering around the pulpit, and one solitary ray had dared to rest upon the open page of the great Bible. Had nature in that deep hour, become a worshiper in the house which man had builded? Or was that heavenly light the visible sanctity of the place, - visible because no earthly and impure feet were within the walls.
The protagonist of Young Goodman Brown deceives himself. Not being able to face his inner weaknesses, he transfers his dark feelings to the outside world. Society mirrors his problems in the sense that social superstitions and social hypocrisy provide the examples which Goodman Brown can use to nourish his hysteria. Goodman Brown suffers from paranoia. There is no objective evidence for the evil he believes to be everywhere.
Neither evil nor good are omnipresent. In The Celestial Railroad, Hawthorne made fun of the Unitarians and Transcendentalists of his day. Though Hawthorne was born a Unitarian, he was not a church goer. His knowledge of Puritanism came to him from literary and historical sources. He admired John Bunyan passionately, but there is no evidence in The Celestial Railroad or elsewhere that he believed in Bunyan's theology, or in any theology at all.
The Artist of the Beautiful carries over part of the theme of The Celestial Railroad. Owen Warland, the hero, believes in a transcendental art whose value does not depend on its utilitarian or didactic functions. He produces a mechanical butterfly; then witnesses its destruction at the hands of an uncomprehending child. The prosaic Danforth family, to whom Owen was attracted, and Anne, whom he failed to marry, expose Owen's weaknesses as much as their own. Both sides fail to communicate. Owen spiritualizes matter, but he lacked the feelings of a sexual human being. In spite of his spoof in The Celestial Railroad, Hawthorne in The Artist of the Beautiful showed himself as something of a transcendentalist. He admired the individualistic and antisocial Thoreau, but he was put off by Emerson's pretensions to saintliness.
The humor of The Custom House relieves the somberness of The Scarlet Letter, the novel it introduces. Hawthorne had fun contrasting the prosaic Custom House Inspector with the poetic Collector:
Hawthorne fuses symbol and significance as he counter poses the cowardliness of Reverend Dimmesdale with the courage of Hester Prynne and with their daughter Pearl who acts as a conscience that binds the pair together.But before Mr. Dimmesdale had done speaking, a light gleamed far and wide over all the muffled sky. It was doubtless caused by one of those meteors which the night watcher may so often observe burning out to waste in the vacant regions of the atmosphere. So powerful was its radiance that it thoroughly illuminated the dense medium of cloud, betwixt the sky and earth. The great vault brightened, like the dome of an immense lamp. It showed the familiar scene of the street with the distinctness of midday, but also the awfulness that is imparted to familiar objects by an unaccustomed light. The wooden houses, with their jutting stories and quaint gable-peaks; the doorsteps and thresholds, with the early grass springing up about them; the garden-plots, black with freshly-turned earth; the wheel track, little worn, and, even in the market place, margined with green on either side, - all were visible, but with a singularity of aspect that seemed to give another moral interpretation to the things of this world than they had ever had before. And there stood the minister, with his hand over his heart; and Hester Prynne, with the embroidered letter glimmering on her bosom; and little Pearl, herself a symbol, and the connecting link between these two. They stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendor, as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets, and the daybreak that shall unite all that belong to one another.
Hawthorne disparages himself in The Custom House. But The Custom House is whimsical and The Scarlet Letter is distressingly real. Though Pearl may be pure symbol, Hester, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth exhibit the strains of conflict. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth do not show love for other people. At first self-centered, Hester grows in compassion for people who, like her, have experienced suffering. Overcome by religious scruples and afraid of public disclosure, Dimmesdale stands by as Hester bares the consequences of their attraction. Chillingworth, Hester's aged and wronged husband, employs his analytical mind, to bring about the ruination of Dimmesdale, whom he pretends to befriend. In his stubborn refusal to pardon Dimmesdale, Chillingworth shows how far removed he is from kindly human emotions."Peace, Hester, peace!" replied the old man, with gloomy sternness. "It is not granted me to pardon. I have no such power as thou tellest me of. My old faith, long forgotten, now comes back to me, and explains all that we do, and all we suffer. By thy first step awry, thou didst plant the germ of evil; but, since that moment, it has all been a dark necessity. Ye that wronged me are not sinful, save in a king of typical illusion; neither am I fiend-like, who have snatched a fiend's office from his hands. It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may!"
"I seem to have flung myself - sick, sin-stained, and sorrow-blackened - down upon these forest leaves, and to have risen up all made anew, and with new powers to glorify Him that hath been merciful."
Chillingworth closes in, Dimmesdale realizes he cannot repudiate religious commandments and his own conscience, and he takes the final step toward his redemption.
The confession scene is magnificent. Dimmesdale exposes the letter A on his breast while the people he led refuse to see its subversive import. Crossing the borderline from fantasy to reality, Pearl kisses her father and experiences human grief.
Both Chillingworth, a maladjusted and hateful man, and Hester, a radical and a likable woman, are foiled. Psychology and history close in on them. The prospect of escaping from the intolerant confines of a theocratic society with which Hester tempted Dimmesdale in the forest is not to be. In an aside of staggering significance, Hawthorne upholds the implacability of moral law.
And be the stern and sad truth spoken that the breach which guilt has once made into the human soul is never, in this moral state, repaired. It may be watched and guarded; so that the enemy shall not force his way into the citadel, and might even, in his subsequent assaults, select some other avenue, in preference to that where he had formally succeeded. But there is still the ruined wall, and, near it, the stealthy tread of the foe that would win over again his unforgotten triumph.
By using the word "guilt" instead of "sin," Hawthorne spans the ages from Saint Augustine to Sigmund Freud, for man treasures and will not easily relinquish his remorse. An unpurged and brooding neurotic like Dimmesdale knows he is not the man he aspires to be. This inner process of self-evasion fascinates Chillingworth, Dimmesdale's tormentor, who, in compulsive fashion, loves the man he hates.
Hester is stronger than her frail lover or her hate-tormented husband. She accepts her punishment even though she is aware of the spitefulness of her persecutors. Like clear-sighted and courageous women in the plays of Henrik Ibsen, Hester is cramped by her prejudicial surroundings. But her spirit is not crushed. Her love for Dimmesdale and for her child does not waver. She cherished the child produced by her union with Dimmesdale to such an extent that she would have gone into the forest and signed the Black Man's book if civic authorities took her away.
The letter "A" that Hester wears as a mark of her shame becomes transformed in the course of the novel as people's attitudes toward her change. She is branded as an "adulteress," then she is described as "able," and finally is viewed as an "angel." The transmutations change the mark of shame into a badge of distinction.
When Hester emerges from her prison cell with her baby in her arms at the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne compares mother and baby to the Madonna and child. Hawthorne named the illegitimate baby "Pearl," a name associated in medieval symbolism with purity and associated with the rose, another symbol of divine love and forgiveness. In Pearl, an allegory written in the fourteenth century, the soul of Pearl instructs her grieving father on the path to salvation. In like manner, Hawthorne's Pearl enables Hester and Dimmesdale to find relief from their oppressive earthly predicaments.
Pearl, the innocent child of Hester's and Dimmesdale's union, become a free agent when she inherits Chillingworth's wealth. She and her mother leave for the genial climate of Europe. Pearl will blossom forth later as Daisy Miller in Henry James's short story of the same name, the American heiress of all the ages. After some years away, Hester returns to Boston to resume a penitence she does not feel. She is tied to her past by the demands of her compassionate nature and not by the precepts of a threatened society. She continues to support others in their sufferings. Despite her seeming conformity to the codes of her society, Hester has seen through the taboos and superstitions that plague her neighbors. She knows that a time will come when
a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.
But what of Nathaniel Hawthorne? If he did not believe in man's goodness, or the value of his institutions, why do readers search out his meanings? The answer may be that Hawthorne was a craftsman whose narratives rarely get lost or stray from their central themes. .
Above all, Nathaniel Hawthorne had intuitions into the deepest recesses of man's psychology. He realized that suppressed thoughts and desires will inevitably explode. Despite his distrust of reformers, Hawthorne fashioned a microcosm, in which individual and communal judgments clashed. By entering Hawthorne's reconstruction of colonial Boston readers participate in Hester's and Dimmesdale's doubts and sorrows. In empathizing with the griefs of these people, readers deepen their compassion for a man and a woman who could not abide by the beliefs of an orthodox majority. Hawthorne enlarged his readers' appreciation of people who assert their right to live life according to their own standards of morality without regard to religious and social prohibitions. Nathaniel Hawthorne will never shake the world, but he criticized those who do.
The moral of The Scarlet Letter is that the human heart is not evil and one should be true to one's best instincts. March 29, 1972.