Friday, May 16, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love 'The Scarlet Letter'

Well, I've come around, but it's not because of any identification with Hester Prynne or Reverend Dimmesdale--it's because of a dizziness of meaning, a multiplicity of interpretation, that Hawthorne sews into the fiber of his novel.

The most interesting and difficult scene in The Scarlet Letter involves the interpretation of symbols. Meteors, Hawthorne tells us, were considered "revelations from a supernatural source," but he cautions us that such revelations are necessarily given to the community rather than to the individual:
But what shall we say, when an individual discovers a revelation, addressed to himself alone, on the same vast sheet of record! In such a case, it could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a man, rendered morbidly self-contemplative by long, intense, and secret pain, had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul's history and fate.
The narrator here critiques what Robertson McQuilkin calls the "existential hermeneutic"--the application of all texts to one's personal history--but does Hawthorne? The description he gives above echoes Poe's morbid characters--Egeus or Roderick Usher or Auguste Dupin--whom I've elsewhere argued are Kierkegaardian prophets, possessors of a subjective "acute religious sensibility." Would Hawthorne disagree?

Here's a more concrete question. The entire community sees an "A" in the clouds from a meteor one night. Dimmesdale, who has fathered a child out of wedlock and kept it a secret for seven years, sees "adulterer." Everyone else sees "angel," in the wake of the death of Governor Winthrop, who after all is now an angel (I'm not sure what theologians these folks read). Anyway, here are the options, as I see them:

(a) Dimmesdale, who himself has an acute religious sensibility, interprets correctly, and the rest of the community, who after all do not know the facts, are wrong; God is out to get Dimmesdale;
(b) The narrator's voice is Hawthorne's, and so only the community has the authority to interpret revelations; God is not out to get Dimmesdale;
(c) Both interpretations are valid, since religious signs are by nature shifting and subjective; in this case it is Dimmesdale's conscience that is out to get him, although God likely works through that conscience;
(d) There is no God or He is silent, and Hawthorne mocks all attempts at finding meaning in natural phenomena.

It's an important question because the novel is in some sense about signs, the most prominent being the "A" that gives it its title. The letter is meant to stand for ignominany, which it does, but only for awhile; after a few years have gone by,
The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her,--so much power to do, and power to sympathize,--that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength.
Later, the transformation is even more radical: "The scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness."

In fact, even the characters themselves become signs ripe for reading--Hester Prynne is sin for the townspeople and freedom for the reader; Dimmesdale is holiness and guilt; Chillingsworth is evil and monomania (pretty much for the townspeople and for us). Hawthorne even calls Pearl a "symbol" and a "hieroglyphic." The Scarlet Letter is a novel of signifiers, and we're led to believe that they are easily interpreted--almost allegorical. That's why the book is assigned in high schools, and that's why I hated it. But every step of the way, Hawthorne confounds our interpretations--he multiplies and destroys signifieds, but leaves the signifiers in tact. He presents us with a world of signifiers with infinite signifieds, the type of world Barthes and Derrida would praise more than a century later. And he does so in antiquated and conventional language and under the guise of morality--a kindhearted old man gently telling us that there's no such thing as meaning.

Color me impressed.


amadeo-armand said...

I really have been reading all of your posts, just none of them have sucked me in until now. I loved /The Scarlet Letter/ immensely (hmm...did I spell that correctly?) in HS. After the introduction, which I found to be suffocatingly pointless, I fell in love with the characters (Esp. Hester). Easy for a teenage girl to identify with a woman who is outcast, and easy for a teenage girl to be inspired by the outcast becoming part of the community.

Michial said...

I'd actually argue that the plot itself is pointless, and I still hate Hawthorne's writing style and ESPECIALLY the way Pearl talks. But that one chapter really makes the novel worthwhile for me.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

The letter is meant to stand for ignominany, which it does, but only for awhile;

Is that when ignominious people have a hootenanny?

Also, in what respect is a giant Latin-script letter appearing in the sky over North America a natural phenomenon? Visible perhaps, but in Indiana at least, the sky is not an alphabetic communicator.

Michial said...

Hawthorne implies that there's just a streak of light up there and that everyone SEES an A.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Perhaps the narrator is just being Scroogie.

Meredith said...

You love "The Scarlet Letter," eh?

Huh. People do change after all.