A Study of Hawthorne, by G. P. Lathrop

Chapter 7

The Scarlet Letter.


The literary result of the four years which Hawthorne now, after long absence, spent in his native town, was the first romance which gave him world-wide fame. But the intention of beginning to write soon was not easy of fulfilment in the new surroundings.

“Literature, its exertions and objects, were now of little moment in my regard,” he says, in “The Custom–House.” “I cared not at this period for books; they were apart from me. . . . A gift, a faculty, if it had not departed, was suspended and inanimate within me.”

Readers of that charming sketch will remember the account of the author’s finding a veritable Puritan scarlet letter in an unfinished upper room of the public building in which he labored at this time, and how he was urged by the ghost of a former surveyor, who had written an account of the badge and its wearer, to make the matter public. The discovery of these materials is narrated with such reassuring accuracy, that probably a large number of people still suppose this to have been the origin of “The Scarlet Letter.” But there is no knowledge among those immediately connected with Hawthorne of any actual relic having been found; nor, of course, is it likely that anything besides the manuscript memorandum should have been preserved. But I do not know that he saw even this. The papers of Mr. Poe were probably a pure invention of the author’s.

A strange coincidence came to light the year after the publication of the romance. A letter from Leutze, the painter, was printed in the Art Union Bulletin, running thus:—

“I was struck, when some years ago in the Schwarzwald (in an old castle), with one picture in the portrait-gallery; it has haunted me ever since. It was not the beauty or finish that charmed me; it was something strange in the figures, the immense contrast between the child and what was supposed to be her gouvernante in the garb of some severe order; the child, a girl, was said to be the ancestress of the family, a princess of some foreign land. No sooner had I read ‘The Scarlet Letter’ than it burst clearly upon me that the picture could represent no one else than Hester Prynne and little Pearl. I hurried to see it again, and found my suppositions corroborated, for the formerly inexplicable embroidery on the breast of the woman, which I supposed was the token of her order, assumed the form of the letter; and though partially hidden by the locks of the girl and the flowers in her hair, I set to work upon it at once, and made as close a copy of it, with all its quaintness, as was possible to me, which I shall send you soon. How Hester Prynne ever came to be painted, I can’t imagine; it must certainly have been a freak of little Pearl. Strange enough, the castle is named Perlenburg, the Castle of Pearls, or Pearl Castle, as you please.”

A more extraordinary incident in its way than this discovery, if it be trustworthy, could hardly be conceived; but I am not aware that it has been verified.

The germ of the story in Hawthorne’s mind is given below. The name Pearl, it will be remembered, occurs in the Note–Books, as an original and isolated suggestion “for a girl, in a story.”

In “Endicott and the Red Cross,” one of the twice-told series printed many years before, there is a description of “a young woman, with no mean share of beauty, whose doom it was to wear the letter A on the breast of her gown, in the eyes of all the world and her own children. Sporting with her infamy, the lost and desperate creature had embroidered the fatal token in scarlet cloth, with golden thread and the nicest art of needlework.” A friend asked Hawthorne if he had documentary evidence for this particular punishment, and he replied that he had actually seen it mentioned in the town records of Boston, though with no attendant details. [Footnote: I may here transcribe, as a further authority, which Hawthorne may or may not have seen, one of the laws of Plymouth Colony, enacted in 1658, about the period in which the events of “The Scarlet Letter” are placed. “It is enacted by the Court and the Authoritie thereof that whosoeuer shall committ Adultery shal bee seuerly Punished by whipping two seueral times viz: once whiles the Court is in being att which they are convicted of the fact, and the second time as the Court shall order, and likewise to were two Capitall letters viz: A D cut cut in Cloth and sewed on their vpermost garments on their arme or backe; and if at any time they shal bee taken without said letters, whiles they are in the Gou’ment soe worne, to be forthwith Taken and publicly whipt.”] This friend said to another at the time: “We shall hear of that letter again, for it evidently has made a profound impression on Hawthorne’s mind.” Returning to Salem, where his historical stories and sketches had mainly been written, he reverted naturally to the old themes; and this one doubtless took possession of him soon after his entrance on his customs duties. But these disabled him from following it out at once. When the indefatigable Whigs got hold of the government again, Hawthorne’s literary faculty came into power also, for he was turned out of office. In the winter of 1849, therefore, he got to work on his first regular romance. In his Preface to the “Mosses” he had formally renounced the short story; but “The Scarlet Letter” proved so highly wrought a tragedy that he had fears of its effect upon the public, if presented alone.

“In the present case I have some doubts about the expediency, [he wrote to Mr. Fields, the junior partner of his new publisher, Ticknor,] because, if the book is made up entirely of ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ it will be too sombre. I found it impossible to relieve the shadows of the story with so much light as I would gladly have thrown in. Keeping so close to its point as the tale does, and diversified no otherwise than by turning different sides of the same dark idea to the reader’s eye, it will weary very many people, and disgust some. Is it safe, then, to stake the book entirely on this one chance?”

His plan was to add some of the pieces afterward printed with the “The Snow Image,” and entitle the whole “Old Time Legends, together with Sketches Experimental and Ideal.” But this was abandoned. On the 4th of February, 1850, he writes to Bridge:—

“I finished my book only yesterday: one end being in the press at Boston, while the other was in my head here at Salem; so that, as you see, the story is at least fourteen miles long. . . .

“My book, the publisher tells me, will not be out before April. He speaks of it in tremendous terms of approbation; so does Mrs. Hawthorne, to whom I read the conclusion last night. [Footnote: This recalls an allusion in the English Note–Books (September 14, 1855): “Speaking of Thackeray, I cannot but wonder at his coolness in respect to his own pathos, and compare it with my emotions when I read the last scene of The Scarlet Letter to my wife just after writing it — tried to read it, rather, for my voice swelled and heaved, as if I were tossed up and down on an ocean as it subsides after a storm. But I was in a very nervous state, then, having gone through a great diversity of emotion while writing it, for many months.”] It broke her heart, and sent her to bed with a grievous headache — which I look upon as a triumphant success. Judging from its effect on her and the publisher, I may calculate on what bowlers calls a ‘ten-strike.’ But I do not make any such calculation.”

Now that the author had strongly taken hold of one of the most tangible and terrible of subjects, the public no longer held back. “The Scarlet Letter” met with instant acceptance, and the first edition of five thousand copies was exhausted in ten days. On the old ground of Salem and in the region of New England history where he had won his first triumphs, Hawthorne, no longer the centre of a small public, received the applause of a widespread audience throughout this country, and speedily in Europe too. His old friend, “The London Athenaeum,” received “The Scarlet Letter” with very high, though careful praise. But at the same time with this new and wide recognition, an assault was made on the author which it is quite worth while to record here. This was an article in “The Church Review” (an Episcopal quarterly published at New Haven), [Footnote: In the number for January, 1851.] written, I am told, by a then young man who has since reached a high place in the ecclesiastical body to which he belongs. The reviewer, in this case, had in a previous article discussed the question of literary schools in America. Speaking of the origin of the term “Lake School,” he pronounced the epithet Lakers “the mere blunder of superficial wit and raillery.” But that did not prevent him from creating the absurd title of “Bay writers,” which he applied to all the writers about Boston, baptizing them in the profane waters of Massachusetts Bay. “The Church Review” was in the habit of devoting a good deal of its attention to criticism of the Puritan movement which founded New England. Accordingly, “It is time,” announced this logician, in opening his batteries on Hawthorne, “that the literary world should learn that Churchmen are, in a very large proportion, their readers and book-buyers, and that the tastes and principles of Churchmen have as good a right to be respected as those of Puritans and Socialists.” Yet, inconsistently enough, he declared that Bay writers could not have grown to the stature of authors at all, unless they had first shaken off the Puritan religion, and adopted “a religion of indifference and unbelief.” Thus, though attacking them as Puritans and Socialists (this phrase was aimed at Brook Farm), he denied that they were Puritans at all. Clear understanding of anything from a writer with so much of the boomerang in his mind was not to be expected. But neither would one easily guess the revolting vulgarity with which he was about to view “The Scarlet Letter.” He could discover in it nothing but a deliberate attempt to attract readers by pandering to the basest taste. He imagines that Hawthorne “selects the intrigue of an adulterous minister, as the groundwork of his ideal” of Puritan times, and asks, “Is the French era actually begun in our literature?” Yet, being in some points, or professing to be, an admirer of the author, “We are glad,” he says, “that ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is, after all, little more than an experiment, and need not be regarded as a step necessarily fatal.” And in order to save Mr. Hawthorne, and stem the tide of corruption, he is willing to point out his error. Nevertheless, he is somewhat at a loss to know where to puncture the heart of the offence, for “there is a provoking concealment of the author’s motive,” he confesses, “from the beginning to the end of the story. We wonder what he would be at: whether he is making fun of all religion, or only giving a fair hint of the essential sensualism of enthusiasm. But, in short, we are astonished at the kind of incident he has selected for romance.” The phraseology, he finds, is not offensive: but this is eminently diabolical, for “the romance never hints the shocking words that belong to its things, but, like Mephistopheles, hints that the arch-fiend himself is a very tolerable sort of person, if nobody would call him Mr. Devil.” Where, within the covers of the book, could the deluded man have found this doctrine urged? Only once, faintly, and then in the words of one of the chief sinners.

“Shelley himself,” says the austere critic, airing his literature, “never imagined a more dissolute conversation than that in which the polluted minister comforts himself with the thought, that the revenge of the injured husband is worse than his own sin in instigating it. ‘Thou and I never did so, Hester,’ he suggests; and she responds, ‘Never, never! What we did had a consecration of its own.’”

And these wretched and distorted consolations of two erring and condemned souls, the righteous Churchman, with not very commendable taste, seizes upon as the moral of the book, leaving aside the terrible retribution which overtakes and blasts them so soon after their vain plan of flight and happiness. Not for a moment does Hawthorne defend their excuses for themselves. Of Hester:—

“Shame, Despair, Solitude! These [he says] had been her teachers — stern and wild ones — and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.”

And what she urges on behalf of herself and Dimmesdale must, of course, by any pure-minded reader, be included among the errors thus taken into her mind.

“The minister, on the other hand, had never gone through an experience calculated to lead him beyond the scope of generally received laws; although, in a single instance, he had so fearfully transgressed one of the most sacred of them. . . . Were such a man once more to fall, what plea could be urged in extenuation of his crime? None; unless it avail him somewhat, that he was broken down by long and exquisite suffering; that his mind was darkened and confused by the very remorse which harrowed it.”

But that these partial excuses are futile, the writer goes on to show, in this solemn declaration:—

“And be the stern and sad truth spoken, that the breach which guilt has once made into the human soul is never, in this mortal state, repaired. It may be watched and guarded. . . . But there is still the ruined wall, and near it the stealthy tread of the foe that would win over again his unforgotten triumph.”

How Mr. Dimmesdale yielded to this stealthy foe is then described; but it is also shown how Roger Chillingworth, the personified retribution of the two sinners, fastens himself to them in all their movements, and will be with them in any flight, however distant.

“‘Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,’ said he, looking darkly at the clergyman, ‘there was no one place so secret, no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me.’”

And it was precisely because Hawthorne would leave no specious turn of the hypocrisy of sin unrevealed, that he carried us through this delusive mutual consolation of the guilty pair, and showed us their empty hope, founded on wrong-doing, powdered to dust at the moment of fulfilment.

But the reverend critic, by some dark and prurient affinity of his imagination, saw nothing of the awful truths so clearly though briefly expressed, and finally came to the conclusion that the moral of the whole fiction was “that the Gospel has not set the relations of man and woman where they should be, and that a new gospel is needed to supersede the Seventh Commandment, and the bond of matrimony.”

“The lady’s frailty, [writes the reviewer,] is philosophized into a natural and necessary result of the Scriptural law of marriage, which by holding her irrevocably to her vows, as plighted to a dried-up old book-worm, . . . is viewed as making her heart an easy victim. . . . The sin of her seducer, too, seems to be considered as lying, not so much in the deed itself, as in his long concealment of it; and in fact the whole moral of the tale is given in the words, ‘Be true, he true!’ as if sincerity in sin were a virtue, and as if ‘Be clean, he clean!’ were not the more fitting conclusion.”

But this moral of cleanliness was one so obvious that Hawthorne probably never dreamed of any one’s requiring it to be emphasized. In fact, it is the starting-point, the very foundation, of the tragedy. The tale is a massive argument for repentance, which is the flinging aside of concealment, and the open and truthful acknowledgment of sin. In the Puritan mode of dealing with sin, Hawthorne found the whole problem of repentance and confession presented in the most drastic, concentrated, and startling form; for the Puritans carried out in the severest style a practical illustration of the consequences of moral offence. Since men and women would not voluntarily continue in active remorse and public admission of wrong-doing, these governors and priests determined to try the effect of visible symbols in keeping the conscience alive. People were set before the public gaze, in the stocks, whipped in public at the whipping-post, and imprisoned in the pillory. Malefactors had their ears cropped; scolding women had to wear a forked twig on the tongue; other criminals to carry a halter constantly around the neck. But that this was only a hellish device, after all; that the inflictors of such punishment were arrogating too much to themselves, and shared the office of the fiend; that, moreover, this compulsion of a dumb outward truthfulness would never build up the real inner truth of the soul; — all this Hawthorne perceived and endeavored to portray in a form which should be as a parable, applying its morality to the men and women of today, all the more persuasively because of its indirectness. As a study of a system of social discipline never before so expounded, it claimed the deepest attention. And never was the capacity of sinning men and women for self-delusion more wonderfully illustrated than in this romance. The only avenue of escape from such delusion was shown to be self-analysis; that is, the conscientious view of one’s self which keeps the right or wrong of one’s conduct always clearly visible. Hester was on the whole the truest of the three persons in the drama, and the advantages of this comparative trueness are constantly made manifest. She in a measure conquers evil and partly atones for her wrong, by the good which she is able to do among her fellow-beings — as much compensation as can rightfully be hoped for a woman who has once been so essentially corrupted as she. Dimmesdale, too, retains so much of native truth that he never allows his conscience to slumber for a moment, and plies the scourge of remorse upon himself continually. To this extent he is better than Chillingworth, who, in order to take into his own hands the retribution that belongs to Heaven, deliberately adopts falsity for his guide, and becomes a monster of deceit, taking a wicked joy in that which ought to have awakened an endless, piteous horror in him instead, and have led to new contemplation and study of virtue. But Dimmesdale, though not coolly and maliciously false, stops short of open confession, and in this submits himself to the most occult and corrosive influence of his own sin. For him, the single righteousness possible consisted in abject acknowledgment. Once announcing that he had fallen, and was unworthy, he might have taken his place on the lower moral plane; and, equally resigning the hope of public honor and of happiness with Hester, he could have lent his crippled energies to the doing of some limited good. The shock to the general belief in probity would have been great; but the discovery that the worst had been made known, that the minister was strong enough to condemn himself, and descend from the place he no longer was fit for, would have restored the public mind again, by showing it that a deeper probity possible than that which it wanted to see sustained. This is the lesson of the tragedy, that nothing is so destructive as the morality of mere appearances. Not that sincerity in sin is a virtue, but that it is better than sin and falsehood combined. And if anything were wanting, at first, to make this clear, there certainly is not a particle of obscurity left by the glare of the catastrophe, when the clergyman rejects Hester’s hope that he and she may meet after death, and spend their immortal life together, and says that God has proved his mercy most of all by the afflictions he has laid upon him.

As to the new truth which Hester hoped would be revealed, it could have been no other than that ultimate lifting up of the race into a plane of the utmost human truthfulness, which every one who believes in the working of all things for good, looks forward to with vague longing, but with most certain faith. How far the Puritan organization was from this state of applied truth, the romance shows. Nearly every note in the range of Puritan sympathies is touched by the poet, as he goes on. The still unspoiled tenderness of the young matron who cannot but feel something of mercifulness toward Hester is overruled by the harsh exultation of other women in her open shame. We have the noble and spotless character of Winthrop dimly suggested by the mention of his death on the night of Dimmesdale’s vigil at the pillory; but much more distinct appears the mild and saintly Wilson, who, nevertheless, is utterly incompetent to deal with the problem of a woman’s lost morality. Governor Bellingham is the stern, unflinching, manly upholder of the state and its ferocious sanctions; yet in the very house with him dwells Mistress Hibbins, the witch-lady, revelling in the secret knowledge of widespread sin. Thus we are led to a fuller comprehension of Chillingworth’s attitude as an exponent of the whole Puritan idea of spiritual government; and in his diabolical absorption and gloating interest in sin, we behold an exaggerated — but logically exaggerated — spectre of the Puritan attempt to precipitate and personally supervise the punishments of eternity on this side of death.

Dr. George B. Loring, of Salem, wrote at the time an excellent reply to this article in “The Church Review,” though he recognized, as all readers of general intelligence must, that the author of it did not by any means represent the real enlightenment of the clergy and laity for whom he undertook to be a mouthpiece.

Considered as a work of art, “The Scarlet Letter” is perhaps not so excellent as the author’s subsequent books. It may not unjustly be called a novel without a plot, so far as this touches the adroit succession of incidents and the interdependence of parts, which we call “plot.” Passion and motive and character, having been brought together in given relations, begin to work toward a logical issue; but the individual chapters stand before us rather as isolated pictures, with intervals between, than as the closely conjoined links of a drama gathering momentum as it grows. There is succession and acceleration, indeed, in the movement of the story, but this is not quite so evident as is the hand which checks each portion and holds it perfectly still, long enough to describe it completely. The author does not, like a playwright, reflect the action swiftly while it passes, but rather arrests it and studies it, then lets it go by. It may be that this is simply the distinction between the dramatist’s and the novelist’s method; but probably we must allow it to be something more than that, and must attribute it to the peculiar leisure which qualifies all Hawthorne’s fictions, at times enhancing their effect, but also protracting the impression a little too much, at times. Yet the general conception, and the mode of drawing out the story and of illustrating the characters, is dramatic in a high degree. The author’s exegesis of the moods of his persons is brief, suggestive, restrained; and, notwithstanding the weight of moral meaning which the whole work carries, it is impossible to determine how much the movement of events is affected by his own will, or by that imperious perception of the necessary outcome of certain passions and temperaments, which influences novelists of the higher order.

As a demonstration of power, it seems to me that this first extended romance was not outdone by its successors; yet there is a harshness in its tone, a want of mitigation, which causes it to strike crudely on the aesthetic sense by comparison with those mellower productions. This was no doubt fortunate for its immediate success. Hawthorne’s faith in pure beauty was so absolute as to erect at first a barrier between himself and the less devout reading public. If in his earlier tales he had not so transfused tragedy with the suave repleteness of his sense of beauty, he might have snatched a speedier popular recognition. It is curious to speculate what might have been the result, had he written “The House of the Seven Gables” before “The Scarlet Letter.” Deep as is the tragic element in the former, it seems quite likely that its greater gentleness of incident and happier tone would have kept the world from discovering the writer’s real measure, for a while longer. But “The Scarlet Letter” burst with such force close to its ears, that the indolent public awoke in good earnest, and never forgot, though it speedily forgave the shock.

There was another smaller but attendant explosion. Hawthorne’s prefatory chapter on the Custom–House incensed some of his fellow-citizens of Salem, terribly. There seems to have been a general civic clamor against him, on account of it, though it would be hard to find any rational justification therefor. In reference to the affair, Hawthorne wrote at the time:—

“As to the Salem people, I really thought I had been exceedingly good-natured in my treatment of them. They certainly do not deserve good usage at my hands, after permitting me . . . to be deliberately lied down, not merely once, but at two separate attacks, and on two false indictments, without hardly a voice being raised on my behalf.”

This refers to political machinations of the party opposed to Hawthorne as an official: they had pledged themselves, it was understood, not to ask for his ejection, and afterward set to work to oust him without cause. There is reason to believe that Hawthorne felt acute exasperation at these unpleasant episodes for a time. But the annoyance came upon him when he was worn out with the excitement of composing “The Scarlet Letter”; and this ebullition of local hostility must moreover have been especially offensive at a moment when the public everywhere else was receiving him with acclaim as a person whose genius entitled him to enthusiastic recognition. Hawthorne had generous admirers and sincere friends in Salem, and his feeling was, I suppose, in great measure the culmination of that smouldering disagreement which had harassed him in earlier years, and had lurked in his heart in spite of the constant mild affection which he maintained toward the town.

But the connection between Hawthorne and Salem was now to be finally broken off. He longed for change, for the country, and for the recreation that the Old Manse garden had given him. “I should not long stand such a life of bodily inactivity and mental exertion as I have led for the last few months,” he wrote to Bridge. “Here I hardly go out once a week.” On this account, and because of his difficulty in writing while in office, he did not so much regret losing his place. One of the plans proposed at this time was that he should rent or buy the Sparhawk house, a famous old colonial mansion on Goose Creek, at Kittery, in Maine, which was then to be disposed of in some way. Hawthorne, I think, would have found much that was suggestive and agreeable in the neighborhood. After his return from abroad, he made a visit to the quaint and stately little city of Portsmouth, and dined at one of the most beautiful old houses in New England, the ancient residence of Governor Langdon, then occupied by the Rev. Dr. Burroughs. A memorial of that visit remains, in this bright note from his host:—

PORTSMOUTH, September, 1860.


MY DEAR SIR:— There are no Mosses on our “Old Manse,” there is no Romance at our Blithedale; and this is no “Scarlet Letter.” But you can give us a “Twice–Told Tale,” if you will for the second time be our guest tomorrow at dinner, at half past two o’clock.

Very truly yours,


But, at present, Hawthorne’s decision led him to Berkshire.


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