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Metaphysical Ideas in the Scarlet Letter Author(s): Harry R. Warfel Source: College English, Vol. 24, No. 6 (Mar., 1963), pp.

421-425 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/373879 . Accessed: 25/03/2011 10:14
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was the product of conscious effort by a healthy and alert intelligence. It is with these that I wish to deal briefly in this paper. "The Raven." The continuous comparison of "then and now" indicates how thoroughly the romancer was aware of the persistence of wrong ideas.." and with certain necessary individual differences. Warfel (University of Florida) is now de. By different methods both sought the same kind of answers. A throng stands before a prison. Jr. . Like all well-constructed books The Scarlet Letter states all the fundamental facts in the beginning and then returns to them at the end.Like Billy Budd she suffers unjustly. as such it of literature. For another approach to the similarity between the thought of Hawthorne and Emerson. The third level relatesto the institutions of State and Church. Hawthorne sought the abiding principles by which one's life can be guided. Harry sinful creature to a person of R. The throng alters into veloping "the great heart of mankind". a commentator upon the Having set down new theories in Language: events which transform Hester from a A Science of Human Behavior (1962). . who "wore the blackest shade of Puritanism. so darkened the national visage with it. see B. deity.despised. the group takes on the quality of a Greek chorus. and her sufferingpoints up the need for reform. "The Transcendental Hawthorne" in The Midwest Quarterly. and man. R. The fourth level of the romance relates to Hawthorne's own absolutepresuppositions concerning nature. This image of the wonder and possibly the awe of the populace comes to have great significance in the course of the story. . Emerson maneuvered theological concepts in essays illuminated with images. Hawthorne worked in a sociological laboratory and drew his conclusions from the actions of persons who strayed from the path of virtue and happiness. . that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up. The "joyless deportment"of the first and second generation of citizens. 2 (Summer 1961). 307-323. Her progress in freeing herself from all authority save her own constitutes the main story line. similar principles about the structure noble character. The overridingmeaning of The Scarlet Letter is found in Hawthorne'sconclusions concerning the ideas that were current in 1650 and to some degree in 1850. Metaphysical Ideas in The Scarlet Letter R. As the story proceeds. HARRY WARFEL The Scarlet Letter is an allegory because Hawthorne maneuveredits materials on the four necessary levels of action. In the first sentence these men and women express no opinion. McElderry.METAPHYSICAL IDEAS IN THE SCARLET LETTER 421 constructed according to the imagined pattern with deliberate and methodical skill in the manner best calculated to evoke in the reader the mood from which it grew in the mind of the poet. The first chapter gives the bare data of the situation. In short. Like his Concord neighbor Emerson. She gains freedom as she acquiresan increasing awarenessof the relative weight to be assigned to circumscribingopinions. The basic narrativeis of a woman's enmeshmentin the toils of the law and in the creed of a particularreligion. every other poem Poe wrote. On the second level she becomes a type of all humanbeings who have in some way deviatedfrom the path of normal behavior and fruitlessly have tried to judge themselves as they have been judged by man-made codes.

Society "loves more readily than it hates. "With almost fierce expression" she confronted the assembled men in the knowledge that "she possessed indefeasible rights against the world." In Chapter 1 the fact of physical relatedness is merely stated. he gains the reputation of a saint and she of an angel. in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness. by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character." Thus imaged is the clash between a man-made code of law and the free will of an individual. as is the propinquity of the jail and the cemetery. just as at the end Hawthorne inquires "whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. . may serve "to symbolize some sweet moral blossom. Later Hester clashes with authority in similar fashion in the home of Governor Bellingham. "Never in vain" is an appeal made to it by "a human heart. This village provides a place and time in which to pinpoint these ideas. whether of guilt or sorrow." Weeds and roses. was given his "power" in the final sermon by the people's "profound and continual undertone" of sympathy and forgiveness." Dimmesdale. The rosebush. "although the public is despotic. her name sug- . the prescribed penalty is death. The Beadle represents "the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law. as if by her own free will. punishment and salvation stand close to each other. after his forest is merciful. . kind. not merely to Hester." The oak-timbered." This tale relates to the whole human race. Hence it is necessary to view as a narrative pedal point the announcement that crime is universal and that "it seemed never to have known a youthful era." In the end she held a firm belief that "a new truth would be revealed. The wages of crime is not death. and was ready to defend them to the death. perchance guilty. frequently it awards more than justice. and stepped into the open air. The immense disparity between the possible penalty and the actual sentence is significant. "she repelled him. A crime against state law is being punished. when he laid his hand upon Hester's shoulder. The jail and the cemetery do seem to belong in close proximity. . Although the reference to Anne Hutchinson seems merely a fanciful allusion. "What we did has a consecration of its own." that is." are symbols of a natural growth (called crime by law). telling its secret." says Hawthorne. In Chapter 2 these physical facts begin to operate as ideas. crime and death." Even Roger would have been "pitied and forgiven" if his guilty sorrow had been revealed to the world. This maneuvering of the throng into being an active interpreter of the character's actions suggests that Hawthorne manipulated all the materials in the first chapter so that they can dramatize certain ideas in the context of Boston in 1650. but near the door is the wild rosebush symbolizing "that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind" to "the condemned criminal. and understanding. But in this instance the court has decreed not death but a three hours' exposure to public ignominy on the pillory." To Dimmesdale she said. and hence a question is raised immediately concerning the validity of laws that can be so easily relaxed. iron spike-studded prison gate comes to represent the harsh quality that inheres in old customs.422 COLLEGE ENGLISH gests that the story of Hester also will prove to be that of a "sainted" martyr. at least in the case of Hester. and therefore Anne and Hester. Dimmesdale and Hester are more than forgiven. sorrow-laden. "the black flower of civilization. The weeds growing by the jail. the jail and the church." but. Thus the opening chapter provides a framework of images that can be lifted into the realm of universal meaning." And so Dimmesdale. to provide a basis for an allegory that illuminates "a tale of human frailty and sorrow. to whom this passage relates.

" A cerns the conflict between an individual crime against a cruel human law had and the state. "We ological context. Dimmesdale. . His a mystery of joy. Crime is an event which is related recent immigrant. rose image of the novel deed with a supernatural stigma was unis also carried out systematicallyto the warranted. the rules of be. Yet he spoke in such a have yet to learn again. demanding why they were so to be judged by any code other than that of human necessity. Thus at ter with eyes accustomed to a different the conclusion of the tale "people social system. . right . passion. and." havior that were binding on all others. came to Hester's cottage. yet this lonely woman was sermon. and anguish. entirely apart from its indis. went home "with a wretched." says Hawway that "the sermon had a meaningfor thorne. must always effect he stated that the government of create a sunshine. a clothe his remarksin a conventionalthe.The Reverend John Wilson. the darkNew England was falsely oriented. . therefore. he saw nothing bad in the brought all their sorrow and perplexi. two institutions must be separated. is sure that these two sorwasted." The preachers misled by Roger because of inadequate intervene in the legal punishment of social arrangements for women. a end." It seems clear.could pity and be kind. .man-made and erroneous code. to step unfair statute led to her suffering. and joy. more especially. be.images of love.that is found in Nature. Bellingham's bond-servant." This view is in line with Hester's opinion that "the tinguishable words. says Hawment for her crime. therefore. "a token that the deep heart of Nature without fear or scruple. . . He brought through dusky grief. "the forgotten art of gaiety [Hester]. . . and wrote a new one in which "backed by the sympathies of Nature." remembered that all nature knew Hesthrew away the original Election Day ter's shame." At her marriage she had been were almost identical.ness and brooding quality of nature yield cause its authority was maintained by under the influence of right thought to unjust and unequally administeredreg. but the ethereal 1650 and 1850 under comparison. Women. that Haw. misplaced. and meddle with a question of this level. Thus ulations.and he medium of joy. the investment of that The weeds vs. the narrative con. church image leads HawSo quixotic an arrangement. deservedto be destroyed. gaiety. . Hester to add a theological punishment." The weeds. been committed. though she accepted the fact of punish. . .principles.angel and apostle of the coming revethorne was universalizingthe social ar." The jail vs.-in the quotes Scripture to lacerate Hester and continually recurringtrials of wounded.and prejudices. In "The world's law was no law for her the Boston of 1650 "religion and law mind. "Love . or erring rowful partners in a social crime are not and sinful passion.Other does Hawthorne explain the statement persons of "free will" like the Indians of Chapter 1 that the wild rosebush is and marinersoccasionally "transgressed." he foretells "a high and glorious destiny" The mystery of the brook "had become for the people of New England. In and freedom.human guilt. . she knew that an thorne. ." for common men seven-year-old habit made it necessary have been oppressed with the "joyless for him to speak cryptically and to deportment" enjoined by Puritanism.red cloth. Chillingworth's re- .lation" must be "wise moreover. wronged.METAPHYSICAL IDEAS IN THE SCARLET LETTER 423 meeting with Hester. At forth . not rangements of mankind. although he ties. "had no ." In nature are sunshine contrasted Old and New England. viewed the scarlet letto the area of human fallibility. Chillingworth.as Hester thorne to draw the conclusion that the saw." In this context it must be total change of dynasty and moralcode.therefore.

or rather. if not your worst. Hawthorne says. Pearl is a child of God." In conclusion it may be stated that Hawthorne believed in Deity and accepted the wisdom of spiritualizing life in a universal manner. the diseases of the physical frame are tinged with the peculiarities of these. He has freedom of choice." Good deeds. personal satisfaction. like the frozen calmness of a dead woman's features. In the end Hester comes to reject the validity of dogmatic theology even as she denies the right of the State to punish actions that belong in the sphere of the heart and arise from the laws of nature. No reliance can be placed in the assertion that supernatural intervention guides the affairs of men (of. he therefore invited and accepted the punishment doled out to him. and so are all other people. and had departed out of the world with which she still seemed to mingle. possibly revolutions. Dimmesdale. The institution of . lies in an inscrutable decree of God. Man's salvation rests not in an escape from the punishments promised by theology but from those which he inflicts upon himself. bring rewards of honorable reputation. and Pearl achieve an equivalent of Calvinist grace by their ultimate fidelity to their own higher intuitions. whose lifelong duty is to make wise choices between the twin forces of right and wrong that tug at him during his earthly journey. yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred. and Hester is deeply concerned to watch Pearl's unfolding to see whether the demonic or angelic quality will emerge uppermost. in respect to any claim of sympathy. Concealment. Systems of religion and systems of government alike are the products of ancient tradition. though they cannot erase a blemish. Both worry about these matters. Each individual enters the world as an innocent being. In rejecting Puritanism. And in this spirit Hawthorne reaches his ultimate generalization: "Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world." this axiom is correct only as a metaphor. are necessary to renovate them. Hawthorne espouses a humanism." The novel is largely a working out of the effect upon Hester and Dimmesdale of the concepts of sin which have been fostered in them by Calvinism. and to this extent any alienation from society is a death. Changes. Truth is of the human heart. "Wherever there is a heart and an intellect. just as they were most harshly punished inwardly and outwardly as a result of their failure to conform to their own human standards. and joy. owing this dreary resemblance to the fact that Hester was actually dead. This rejection of current manmade law seems to be a fundamental conclusion of Hawthorne. any evil deed. deforms the body and the psyche." The jail thus symbolizes social death even as the cemetery shows forth physical death.424 COLLEGE ENGLISH "the great heart of the world" alone is to be trusted. Chillingworth knew the evil course upon which he embarked. Hester. is not wise. The origin of mankind. therefore. A stern necessity invests each evil deed with the character of doom. Hawthorne's comment upon the "highly disordered mental state" of any man who reads the flash of a meteor as "a fitting page for his soul's history and fate"). fusal to ask the Church or the State to intervene in punishing Dimmesdale arises from his view that "Heaven's own method of retribution" lies within the mind of each person and not in "the gripe of human law. and is the more acceptable when intuitions correspond with the principles discernible in nature's joyous moods. her "face became like a mask. Crime. it destroyes the criminal's kinship with his fellows. At the height of Hester's selfinflicted sorrow. Despite the fact of mankind's age-old belief that "The wages of sin is death.

deception. a magician. Nearly everyone in Mark Twain's books. has to be the Lady Gwendolen.MARK TWAIN AND MYSTERY OF IDENTITY 425 Hawthorne also believed that each individual has within himself the standards of right and wrong as a result of his God-given constitution. his ability to work and endure. This brings us to the central problem of identity. The first step in this direction must be taken by the individual. The classes man has set up and rigidified by custom and prerogative go against nature and result in false identifications. The quest for identity is central to both his writing and his personality. is no better than the boy . The mystery of identity therefore becomes a matter of seeking out the true character beneath Bradford Smith is the author of twenty the social disguise. Danof A Roxana can change the two babies Yankees Paradise. and the State and Church have no right to probe into this innermost heart of a person. Huck's king and duke make a mockery of the whole sham and pretense of royalty. shorn of his fine clothes. Her every act thereafter strengthened her capacity to be herself and to stand up for her rights. Colonel Mulberry Sellers pretends to be a successful businessman and political power instead of the conspicuous failure he is. is playing a part. King Arthur (in A Connecticut Yankee) without his royal accoutrements cannot be recognized as a king. The Yankee proves this by becoming The Boss-superior of kings and knights and of the wastrels and crooks spawned by poverty and the class system. The renovation of society. Hawthorne said. is not only equal to kings but superior to them. Like Emerson. The devices that recur in his stories-disguise. A king is not a king unless he possesses the innate traits that prove him." Mark Twain and the Mystery of Identity BRADFORDSMITH whose rags he wears. Porin and gerousFreedom. Hester did not hide the symbol with her hand when she first stood on the pillory. Good men and bad are found in all walks of life. trait of India which appeared this fall (1962). to humor her father. "Trust thyself. consciously or unconsciously. therefore. booksincluding Bradford Plymouth. shorn of his identity as surely as of his royal clothes. Disguise is often a way of exposing either the "real" identity or the essential mystery of all identity. Miles Herndon gracefully pretends to believe in the royalty of his little pauper. Sally Sellers. The Yankee plays at being a knight. while Tom Canty quickly takes on kingly qualities and is soon able to rule as well as Edward. The common man with his sufferings. about so that her Chambers becomes the The key to Mark Twain's mind is the concept of identity. Man errs when he tries to hide his true quality. In every one of his important books it is the identity of the individual on which his attention focuses. self-deception and make-believe-all grow out of this concern with identity. a ruler. Its importance in his works can be traced to its importance in his life. He merely makes himself ridiculous when he tries to be the king he really is (his father having just died). And on the mystery of identity. In The Prince and the Pauper Prince Edward. So he wanders through his own kingdom. must move in the direction of freeing the individual from institutions so that he may make the most of himself.

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