Yet for all its gloom and whisper of abominations, The Scarlet letter is among those great tales in which the spectrum of meanings runs unbroken from the clearest daylight into vibrations beyond either visions or rational interpretation. Those who wish to may take it as a historical novel, particularly successful because Hawthorne’s predilection for allegory coincides with the tendency of his Puritan protagonists to live their lives allegorically.
It has been taken as a moral sermon, warning against deceit as as adultery. And, though the term fits awkwardly , it is a novel of protest.Hawthorne was never a liberal, either in the estimation of his transcendental friends or by our lights. He was nevertheless appalled by the bigotries of early American life and the deplorable position of colonial women. Hester Prynne is at least nobler than the code by which she is condemned, and we are told, “The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman indeed…lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy…”
To point out that The Scarlet Letter is also a psychological novel obliges one to remark at once that it does not yield very gratefully to Freudian analysis or other currently available methodologies. It waits as patiently as nature for analysts to find the law of its still cryptic utterances- waits perhaps to be read as a deeply disguised self-portrait.
Of nature, Hawthorne says in one of his finest stories, The Birthmark, “our greatest creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but results.” The same must be said of the literary artist’s imagination.
In every masterpiece we ought to suspect self-portraiture of one type or another. If we cannot yet compose a coherent image of the true man from The Scarlet Letter, we can hardly help being tantalized by fragmentary correspondences. For instance, Hawthorne sometimes notes, and more frequently gives active tokens of, the divisions in himself. “A cloudy veil stretches over the abyss of my nature… I have, however, no love of secrecy and darkness.” Again and again he reverts to the theme of conflict between head and heart, a conflict whose elements are personified in The Scarlet Letter by the two antithetic male characters bound to a single destiny by having shared the body of one woman.
Hawthorne was born to venerate and mistrust women above all other beings. A perfunctory glance at his biography will show how much of his life was lived within what he moght call “the female sphere.” Was it not from his own deepest experience with marriage-sweet tempered monogamist though he was- that he glimpsed the echoing doubleness of woman, that he saw the shame inextricably involved in Hester Prynne’s nobility?
His other novels, the short stories and sketches, and the unevenly marvelous notebooks he kept throughout his life are foothills around The Scarlet Letter. The artist’s career and his personal tribulations only revealed their meaning after that book’s publication. But to look back, as we, of course, are privileged to do, from beyond this peak is to see that even the circumstances and place of his birth were part of the lucky design culminating in his great novel .
The Salem in which he was born in 1804 was no longer one of the great seaports of the earth. Full of legends and history, it was falling into a dream of old witchcraft and colonial heroism. Here was a town and time for old wives’ tales so often repeated that they had become half fabulous. Hawthorne’s first years were spent in the poor fringe of great Salem families, so that he would overhear the agitation of power without direct involvement in them. His father, a sea captain and son of sea captains, died on a voyage to Surinam when Hawthorne was four, leaving him to grow up in a house of women.
Rich uncles sent him to Bowdoin College, where he met the friends who were later to shape his life by their political and intellectual support. Longfellow was among his classmates. So was Franklin Pierce, who became the fourteenth president of the United States. Among the most tedious productions to come from Hawthorne’s pen was a campaign biography of Pierce, in exchange for which Hawthorne was given the post of american consul in Liverpool after the 1852 election.