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Friday, 24 May 2019

The Scarlet Letter: nothing is what it is [updated]

The Scarlet Letter is rich in symbolism. The letter A, of course, is the most important—it is the symbol of sin and shame, the symbol of Hester’s public disgrace and banishment, the symbol of Puritans’ severity and hypocrisy and the lack of sexual freedom in the society, and so on. Linked to the letter A on Hester’s chest is her child Pearl, another token of shame.
I don’t intend to write much about symbols and imagery and Biblical allusions in The Scarlet Letter, but it’s interesting to point out how in the Salem society, almost everything is seen as a symbol, everyone is something else, beyond what they are. 
Take Pearl: 
“Once this freakish, elvish cast came into the child's eyes while Hester was looking at her own image in them, as mothers are fond of doing; and suddenly—for women in solitude, and with troubled hearts, are pestered with unaccountable delusions—she fancied that she beheld, not her own miniature portrait, but another face in the small black mirror of Pearl's eye. It was a face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice, yet bearing the semblance of features that she had known full well, though seldom with a smile, and never with malice in them. It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child, and had just then peeped forth in mockery. Many a time afterwards had Hester been tortured, though less vividly, by the same illusion.” (Ch.6) 
Worse: 
“…She remembered—betwixt a smile and a shudder—the talk of the neighbouring townspeople, who, seeking vainly elsewhere for the child's paternity, and observing some of her odd attributes, had given out that poor little Pearl was a demon offspring: such as, ever since old Catholic times, had occasionally been seen on earth, through the agency of their mother's sin, and to promote some foul and wicked purpose.” (ibid.) 
And when they intend to take Pearl away from Hester: 
“…On the supposition that Pearl, as already hinted, was of demon origin, these good people not unreasonably argued that a Christian interest in the mother's soul required them to remove such a stumbling-block from her path…” (Ch.7) 
Such a simplistic, crazy society. People are either good or evil. 
“A large number—and many of these were persons of such sober sense and practical observation that their opinions would have been valuable in other matters—affirmed that Roger Chillingworth's aspect had undergone a remarkable change while he had dwelt in town, and especially since his abode with Mr. Dimmesdale. At first, his expression had been calm, meditative, scholar-like. Now there was something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed, and which grew still the more obvious to sight the oftener they looked upon him. According to the vulgar idea, the fire in his laboratory had been brought from the lower regions, and was fed with infernal fuel; and so, as might be expected, his visage was getting sooty with the smoke.
To sum up the matter, it grew to be a widely diffused opinion that the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, like many other personages of special sanctity, in all ages of the Christian world, was haunted either by Satan himself or Satan's emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth. This diabolical agent had the Divine permission, for a season, to burrow into the clergyman's intimacy, and plot against his soul.” (Ch.9) 
What about Arthur Dimmesdale? 
“They deemed the young clergyman a miracle of holiness. They fancied him the mouth-piece of Heaven's messages of wisdom, and rebuke, and love. In their eyes, the very ground on which he trod was sanctified. The virgins of his church grew pale around him, victims of a passion so imbued with religious sentiment, that they imagined it to be all religion, and brought it openly, in their white bosoms, as their most acceptable sacrifice before the altar. The aged members of his flock, beholding Mr. Dimmesdale's frame so feeble, while they were themselves so rugged in their infirmity, believed that he would go heavenward before them, and enjoined it upon their children that their old bones should be buried close to their young pastor's holy grave.” (Ch.11) 
It is so ironic that Arthur Dimmesdale is the father of Hester’s child. The clergyman everyone trusts and worships is such a weak, hypocritical, and selfish man. 
Himadri writes: 
“Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is torn with remorse and with guilt. But his guilt is not because he has let Hester alone bear that punishment and the public humiliation that he himself fears so much: it is for the act of adultery itself. And the Scarlet Letter that Hester wears so openly, Dimmesdale wears secretly in his heart. He has, indeed, every reason to feel guilty: but like all weak-willed men, the pain he feels is solely for his own self: at no point does he stop to consider what Hester Prynne may be going through. Nonetheless, the pain he feels is real enough, and what he thinks is sorrow for his sin of illicit sex may well be a displaced sorrow for a greater guilt – the lack of human empathy.” (Argumentativeoldgit
I want to know more about the affair—I want to know about how Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale come to be together and how they feel about each other, simply because their relations are cut off after Hester’s public disgrace and punishment. The affair sadly is not the subject of the book, only the aftermath is.



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The point of The Scarlet Letter is not that these are symbols to be deciphered, but that they are seen as symbols and there is a multiplicity of meaning. 
This is clearest in chapter 12, when Arthur Dimmesdale, immersed in guilt, looks at the sky: 
“We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own eye and heart that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter—the letter A—marked out in lines of dull red light. Not but the meteor may have shown itself at that point, burning duskily through a veil of cloud, but with no such shape as his guilty imagination gave it, or, at least, with so little definiteness, that another's guilt might have seen another symbol in it.” 
In the same chapter, we are told that the letter A in the sky has a different meaning to other people in the town: 
“…remarked the old sexton, grimly smiling. "But did your reverence hear of the portent that was seen last night? a great red letter in the sky—the letter A, which we interpret to stand for Angel. For, as our good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night, it was doubtless held fit that there should be some notice thereof!"” 
Is it not human nature to interpret things to mean what we wish them to mean? 
Even the letter on Hester’s bosom, the most important symbol in the book, changes its meaning over time. The token of shame becomes the symbol of acceptance, endurance, and quiet defiance, and as Hester Prynne refuses to leave the society that has banished her, she does good and becomes accepted if partly, and the letter A takes on other meaning. 
“There glimmered the embroidered letter, with comfort in its unearthly ray. Elsewhere the token of sin, it was the taper of the sick chamber. […] The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her—so much power to do, and power to sympathise—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength.” (Ch.13) 
And: 
“Individuals in private life, meanwhile, had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay, more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since. "Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge?" they would say to strangers. "It is our Hester—the town's own Hester—who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted!" Then, it is true, the propensity of human nature to tell the very worst of itself, when embodied in the person of another, would constrain them to whisper the black scandal of bygone years. It was none the less a fact, however, that in the eyes of the very men who spoke thus, the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun's bosom.” (ibid.) 

This is such a rich book.

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