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The Scarlet Letter


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Published in: Education, News & Politics

The Scarlet Letter

  1. 1. The Scarlet Letter Themes and issues from Professor Alesandro Portelli’s lecture Nathaniel Hawthorne
  2. 2. General features <ul><li>Historical novel written in 1849, set two centuries earlier in Puritan Boston, Massachusetts </li></ul><ul><li>Made up of an Introductory section, 23 Chapters and a Conclusion </li></ul><ul><li>Based upon a lost manuscript as a source for the story – a common literary device in many historical novels </li></ul><ul><li>Multilayered, challenging novel - as is the case with all great literature </li></ul><ul><li>Notwithstanding his conservative views, Hawthorne provides extremely modern insight on fundamental issues and key themes of American culture </li></ul><ul><ul><li>grounding of authority </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>need to account for evil an death </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>women’s condition </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>function of literature </li></ul></ul>
  3. 3. First things first … <ul><li>The incipit questions the American Utopia - as expressed in the Us Declaration of Independence - highlighting the need to account for Death (Cemeteries) and Evil (Prisons) </li></ul><ul><li>Thus, it also questions the core belief of Transcendentalism </li></ul>
  4. 4. Prisons and Cemeteries <ul><li>“ The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery , and another portion as the site of a prison .”(Chap. 1) </li></ul>
  5. 5. US Declaration of Independence <ul><li>“ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it […]” </li></ul>
  6. 6. Transcendentalism <ul><li>A group of new ideas in literature, religion, culture, and philosophy emerged in New England in the early to middle 19th century </li></ul><ul><li>Core belief: an ideal spiritual state 'transcending' the physical and empirical, realized through the individual's intuition </li></ul><ul><li>Transcendentalists were strong believers in the power of the individual and divine messages </li></ul><ul><li>Prominent Transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne’s landlord </li></ul>
  7. 7. “ Nature” – by Emerson <ul><li>“ We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds ... A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.&quot; </li></ul><ul><li>“ So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. ... Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit” </li></ul>
  8. 8. Puritanism <ul><li>Radical version of Protestantism </li></ul><ul><li>Religious belief of American founders </li></ul><ul><li>Provides a set of values for American society and culture </li></ul><ul><ul><li>God has supreme authority over human affairs </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Individuals and society need to conform to the Bible </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Men and women should pursue moral purity </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Each person should be reformed by the grace of God to fight against sin </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Authority of husband over wife, parents over children, and masters over servants in the family </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Religious and moral authority of women at home but not in public </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Desire to create a just society but intolerance for other views </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Need to be educated in order to read the Bible </li></ul></ul>
  9. 9. Guilt <ul><li>Core theme explored in the novel </li></ul><ul><li>Strictly linked to a Puritan view of life, seen from a twofold perspective </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Inner threat – Who am I? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>( Puritan emphasis on the need for self-examination and the strict accounting for one’s feelings as well as one’s deeds) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>External threat – Who is threatening our community? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>(Puritan paranoia to create a just society which often led to intolerance) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Both perspectives cross-sect 19 th and 20 th century American literature, culture and society </li></ul>
  10. 10. Community vs Individuals <ul><li>Community </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Source of all evil </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Grounding place for individual identity </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Repository of – often stereotypical - moral and social values </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Supportive Gemeinschaft </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Individuals </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Hindered/rejected by strict and rigid community </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Supported and encouraged by particularly worthy community members or on particular occasions </li></ul></ul>
  11. 11. Legitimacy of Authority <ul><li>Thorny question, highly debated in 19 th century America </li></ul><ul><li>Key theme, openly and indirectly explored all over the novel: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>What gives authority its legitimacy at a political, cultural, narrative, psychological and social level? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Is rebellion against established authority legitimate? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>(See Declaration of Independence) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>How can a newly acquired power be grounded? </li></ul></ul>
  12. 12. Political authority <ul><li>Recurring words and expression related to institutional upheavals throughout the novel </li></ul><ul><li>Strong influence of historical events – the novel was written in 1849, soon after 1848 “the” year of revolutions </li></ul><ul><li>Need to provide a solid grounding for popular authority (see Declaration of Independence) </li></ul><ul><li>Republic and democracy as almost exclusive features of American society </li></ul>
  13. 13. Psychological authority <ul><li>Forces governing human behaviour deeply explored, especially through the character of Dimmesdale </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Who governs man’s actions: moral values, reason or emotions? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>What happens when the latter prevail? </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Structure of human psyche broadly outlined in the well known 3 layered metaphor later devised by Freud – Super Ego/Ego/ES </li></ul>
  14. 14. Psychological revolution <ul><li>“ Before Mr. Dimmesdale reached home, his inner man gave him other evidences of a revolution in the sphere of thought and feeling. In truth, nothing short of a total change of dynasty and moral code , in that interior kingdom , was adequate to account for the impulses now communicated to the unfortunate and startled minister. At every step he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional ; in spite of himself , yet growing out of a profounder self than that which opposed the impulse. (Chp. 20) </li></ul>
  15. 15. Literary authority <ul><li>As thorny a question as that of political authority </li></ul><ul><li>Loop question </li></ul><ul><ul><li>A narrative has a higher value if it is true </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>A true narrative has to be founded upon material evidence – manuscript, piece of cloth in “A” shape, legal documents etc. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Material evidence is supported and legitimated by oral sources </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Oral sources have to have written records </li></ul></ul>
  16. 16. Narrative authority <ul><li>Shifty omniscient narrator </li></ul><ul><li>Seems to be at a loss whenever a decisive statement has to be made </li></ul><ul><li>Often forgets he is omniscient </li></ul><ul><li>Seems to rely on local witnesses more than on own knowledge </li></ul><ul><li>Is never sure of facts, especially as concerns the Scarlet Letter </li></ul><ul><li>Tries to rely characters’ inner feelings, thoughts, impressions but often fails to do so </li></ul>
  17. 17. A not so “omniscient narrator “ <ul><li>A few quotes … </li></ul><ul><li>“ It was whispered, by those who peered after her, that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way of the interior.” </li></ul><ul><li>“ They averred, that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight, whenever Hester Prynne walked in the night-time.” </li></ul><ul><li>“ We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own eye and heart, that the minister, beheld 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.” </li></ul>
  18. 18. Narrative theory - Estrangement <ul><li>Outlined by Hawthorne in the Introductory section of the Scarlet Letter </li></ul><ul><li>First theorized by Russian novelist Lev Tolstoy </li></ul><ul><li>Proposed as a literary criticism device by the Russian formalist Victor Sklovskij </li></ul><ul><li>Practiced by many outstanding writers of all times (Rabelais, Swift etc.) </li></ul><ul><li>Favored by Berthold Brecht </li></ul><ul><li>Bosom-child of mass literature genres </li></ul>
  19. 19. Narrative theory <ul><li>“ Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly,—making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility,—is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a work-basket, a volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the book-case; the picture on the wall;—all these details , so completely seen, are so spiritualized by the unusual light , that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect .[…];—whatever has been used or played with, during the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by daylight. </li></ul>
  20. 20. Literature as a neutral territory <ul><li>Meeting point between the actual and the imaginary </li></ul><ul><li>No man’s land where everything is possible </li></ul><ul><li>Neutral field where controversial issues may find their composition </li></ul><ul><li>Way to better focus reality through imagination </li></ul>
  21. 21. A Neutral Territory <ul><li>“ Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory , somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. </li></ul><ul><li>Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside” (Introductory) </li></ul>
  22. 22. Letter “A” as a Symbol generator <ul><li>Endless interpretations, starting from Hawthorne himself, from the most obvious to the least probable ones </li></ul><ul><li>More than a symbol, a symbol generator </li></ul><ul><li>Changes from stigma to emblem at the end of the novel </li></ul><ul><li>“ The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her,—so much power to do, and power to sympathize,—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able ” </li></ul>
  23. 23. “ A” as in …. <ul><li>Adulteress </li></ul><ul><li>Angel </li></ul><ul><li>Able </li></ul><ul><li>America </li></ul><ul><li>Aleph – the beginning of everything </li></ul><ul><li>A – first letter of the Alphabet… with no Alphabet </li></ul><ul><li>… name your own </li></ul>
  24. 24. Qualities of the letter A <ul><li>Glimmers </li></ul><ul><li>Glitters like a lost jewel </li></ul><ul><li>Glows alight </li></ul><ul><li>Burns </li></ul><ul><li>Shines </li></ul><ul><li>Fastens the eye </li></ul><ul><li>Flames </li></ul><ul><li>Is a red-hot brand </li></ul><ul><li>Is a stigma </li></ul><ul><li>Casts a lurid gleam of awe </li></ul><ul><li>Is a brand of sin and infamy </li></ul><ul><li>Changes into a monument </li></ul><ul><li>Becomes a type of usefulness </li></ul><ul><li>“ My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind. I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me,—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron.” (Introductory) </li></ul>
  25. 25. The Scarlet Letter becomes a Motto <ul><li>“ Yet one tombstone served for both. All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald's wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:— </li></ul><ul><li>&quot;On a field, sable, the letter A, gules&quot; (Conclusion) </li></ul>
  26. 26. Women’s condition <ul><li>The Puritan family structure encouraged some measure of female authority while supporting family patriarchy </li></ul><ul><li>Early form of feminism – see Ann Hutchinson, key figure in the development of religious freedom in American colonies and the history of women in ministry </li></ul><ul><li>Women achieve higher self awareness than men’s </li></ul><ul><li>Longing for different man/woman relationships, not to be achieved then and there </li></ul><ul><li>Strong supportive women vs weak irresolute men </li></ul>
  27. 27. Open Ending <ul><li>No real conclusion, as in all 19 th </li></ul><ul><li>century great American novels </li></ul><ul><li>Ambiguity </li></ul><ul><li>Multiple meanings </li></ul><ul><li>Compromise solution/s </li></ul><ul><li>Always one more chance available </li></ul><ul><li>Social and geographical mobility typical of the “American dream” ideology </li></ul>
  28. 28. In Heaven’s own time… <ul><li>“ She [Hester] assured them [women], too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period , when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven's own time , a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness. Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess , but had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow. The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman , indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise; moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!” (Conclusion) </li></ul>