Some Views on The Scarlet Letter

Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957): 79 All can be seen as aspects of Hawthorne's mind: "Ch. the probing intellect, D., the moral sensibility, P, the unconscious or demonic poetic faculty. Hester is the fallible human reality . . .plastic, various, inexhaustible, enduring, morally problematic." Also connect with mythic archetypes: Ch. as mad scientist, D. as shining hero or effete New Englander, H. as scarlet woman, Pearl as Red Riding Hood, forest sprite, later as Am. international girl.

Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (1966): Hawthorne projects himself into Bad Father figure of Chillingworth and the Fallen Mother of Hester (492) who like an artist "decorated the symbol of her shame with gorgeous needlework" (493).

Why must Hester's gorgeousness be a trap and love a crime? Another Fall in the New World: when man and woman deceive themselves into believing they can escape the consequences of sin. They plot their flight . . . The promise of Eden Redeemed is illusory. Hawthorne quarrels with the Puritans' zeal, but accepts that Americans can't leave behind the America the Puritans have defined for once and for all. (502) Here passion justifies nothing, while its denial redeems all.

Note the other passionate connection: twixt Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, a dark passion like that linking Claggart and Billy Budd, Simon Legree and Uncle Tom. (503) (Also Ahab and Moby Dick, yes?) They are closer to each other than Hester is to either. We're left with the disturbing paradox: "love may conceal a destructive impulse and work for ill, while hatred may be only a disguised form of love and eventuate in good." (504-5)

Hester is at once female temptress and sullied, secular madonna. At last moment D. finds his way back to her breast. . . . in one of its major aspects it's a portrayal of "the attenuation of sex in America," a paradigm of the fall of love in the new world. From Brobdignagian parents to Lilliputian children. Dimmesdale is diminished, but Hester is "gothic villainness-heroine: a taboo figure, utterly alienated from the world of the unfallen, yet capable of bestowing on that world, in its moments of pain and death, a signal kind of relief." (509-10)

Some Critical Approaches. From Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Ross C. Martin. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1991). (Part of the "Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism" series.)

Psychoanalytic Criticism. Freudian variations: oedipal versions. Dimmesdale as the son with forbidden desire for Hester, the wife/mother. (231) Or, Dimmesdale as the father and Chillingworth as the jealous son, with some disguise.

Joanne Feit Diehl: the novel's subtext is "the search for the lost mother," who's rejected her son. Connection with the death of Hawthorne's mother just before he wrote the book. The scarlet letter as fetish: "The desire for the mother and the censoring power of custom conjoin in Hawthorne's `A,' both in its geometric patterning and in its scarlet threads" (237).

Reader-Response Criticism. What about the narrator, and the implied relation between narrator and reader? David Leverenz: "The Scarlet Letter's strange power over its contemporary readers derives from its unresolved tensions. What starts as a feminist revolt against punitive patriarchal authority ends in a muddle of sympathetic pity for ambiguous victims. Throughout, a gentlemanly moralist frames the story so curiously as to ally his empathies with his inquisitions. Ostensibly he voices Hawthorne's controlling moral surface . . . . Yet his characterizations of Hester and Chillingworth bring out Hawthorne's profoundly contradictory affinities with a rebellious, autonomous female psyche and an intrusive male accuser" (264).

Feminist Criticism. Judith Fryer: "Hawthorne's ambiguity about Hester" is "an attempt to work out his ambiguity toward himself," both "as artist" and "as man" (281). Shari Benstock: For Puritan theocracy "Woman's body serves as the space where social, religious, and cultural values are inscribed . . . . Hester Prynne, however, subverts the Puritan-patriarchal laws of meaning in two ways. First, she embroiders and embellishes the community's representative codes, thereby confusing them. . . . Second, Hester refuses to name her child's father" (289). "Fantasies of the feminine undergird classic Western models of narrative, which the textual feminine--represented in Hawthorne's text by the gilded letter A--elaborates, ornaments, embellishes, and seeks to undermine" (290). (See 292-4 for her account of "fantasies of the feminine.")

Deconstruction. Michael Ragussis: "The tale's center, then, lies less in the crime of sexual transgression than in the crime of silence: to recognize publicly one's kindred is, after all, the moral concomitant to engendering, the means by which the family is defined not merely biologically but morally" (316). "Adultery is a crime against society, but Hester's silence [about Pearl's father] begins to look like a crime against nature. The child engendered by one parent alone and the virgin mother are not members of the human family as we know it" (317).

New Historicism. Sacvan Bercovitch (344-58) reads it as a "subtle and devastating critique of Hester's radicalism," which she must give up for "the consecration of history and community" and does, in the Conclusion. Examining the historical context of both the novel and Hawthorne's own time, Bercovitch sees the book as a deeply conservative reaction to the threat of revolutionary chaos. "To repeat the logic of Hester's vision . . . injustice is to be removed by some `divine operation' that has not yet done its office" (354).