Notes on a scarlet letter.
Nathaniel Hawthorne saw himself as a type of priest, I think, as all people of our calling do. I think I’ve figured out why. He was a writer of the cusp time, the time when the novel was moving from literary freak (and a badly regarded, highly criticized genre, much like horror is now, though it serves a purgative purpose, like the goat-songs of the Greeks) into a ‘Respectable’ form that might be regarded as what it was becoming, which was Art.
Funny thing about the letter ‘A’, eh? As hawthorn pointed out himself, the symbol stands for many things, and Artists are creatures of the same shadows that religion dwells under for the ‘rational’ mind. A little on the edge, dangerous. Rather like Adultery in puritan times, no matter the cause. And both Hester and Dimmesdale become Artists, of a kind.
The woman through embroidery which hawthorn points out was the ‘singular outlet for her great passion’ and in the sermons of the man, which we never hear within the text, though we see the effects of his suffering on the parishioners, the painful refinement and clarification of his soul. And then there is Pearl, who only becomes fully herself, and fully human, when the dark truth is brought out into the light.
I loved the way he let the reader watch how God moves beneath the visible surface of the world, using all the emotions which we think foul, including the hatred of the appropriately named Chillsworth, to beautify the world. Even though that beauty came at great cost to the characters themselves.
But even after this analysis, something was bothering me. Hawthorne wanted to be an imagist/symbolist writer, but because he was writing when he did, when novels were considered a little above pornography and even Dickens was thought of with a bit of a grudge (though he tore down that veil a bit) Hawthorne made himself over-focus on cool, ‘rational’ discourse within the text. Those long, sardonic passages about the morals of the time, those justifications which we do not need since the puritans he was describing were not the ‘real’ things but symbols, more real than any of the men who lived. They were the puritans inhabiting not the so-called ‘real world’ but the enclosed and darkened forest of his mind.
In order to be published he had to make his story conform to the morality of the time, which likes our own, is not God’s morality, or the morality of Art, but the comfortable, easy yoke of convention; easily offended, difficult to satisfy, unreal in any art confirming way but terrible (to the artist) when crossed. But this bowing to convention fades in those scenes where he let the symbols stand as things themselves, which is what they always are if we follow Plato and Lewis, hell even Paracelsus, and Christ in his parables; the scenes in the forest, that wonderful night time firestorm prolepsis when the family is united on the scaffolding at night foreshadowing the end, then the writing blazes and is awesome in its depth.
And in the end those are the things from the text which survive. The beating heart, the real blood, the pain which, once transcended, transforms itself to art.