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[From Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, vol 22 no 2, pp 1-20, Fall 1996, ISSN 0980-4197, sponsored by The Nathaniel Hawthorne Society, editor: Frederick Newberry, Department of English, Duquesne University, 600 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15282. Subscriptions: Leland S. Person, College of Liberal Arts, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 62901.

This talk was delivered at the Hawthorne Hotel, Salem, Massachusetts, June 29, 1996. The present text corrects some misplaced references in the printed text.]


The Scarlet Letter:
A Twice-Told Tale

By Sacvan Bercovitch


YOU'VE heard a great deal about Mosses from an Old Manse. [1] Now, moving from Concord to Salem, let me tell you about Hawthorne's next great work. The Scarlet Letter opens in an Algonquin village, where the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and his close companion, Running Moose, have come on a peace mission. Arthur is at home among the indigenes, but he is special in this regard. "You're the only [white man] who comes [to us] with open heart," says the tribal chieftain, Metacomet, who then proceeds to list the settlers' injustices. Metacomet's remarks sound an ominous note. It turns out that Arthur and Running Moose have a "great experiment" in view, involving racial harmony and social diversity, but their dream is not to be. Not yet. The time is the sixteen-seventies, when, historically, a series of attacks by the federated local tribes devastated the English settlements. As the story ends, the assault is underway. And yet the conclusion is hardly tragic. For one thing, it's clear that the settlers have brought their troubles upon themselves. More important, a romance has flowered between Arthur and the beautiful Hester Prynne, a romance that actually occupies most of our attention, and whose harvest is a little Pearl. Finally, as things unfold we learn that the Puritans are not all bad. Potentially they are indeed a diverse community, comprising not only dogmatists and invaders, but ecumenicals, free-thinkers, Quakers, antinomians, and former members of the Merry-Mount colony. So the mood is hopeful as the story draws to a close. The community survives, and with it, presumably, the prospects for the great experiment. Prospectively, too, the experiment moves outward across the continent, where the Dimmesdale family, riding off together into the sunset, goes in search of a new life.

The movie of The Scarlet Letter did not sell many copies of the book. That may be because the movie flopped, or, better, because the book did not need selling, or, best of all, because the American public did not buy the adaptation. For as you can tell from my precis, and as the screen credits make plain, the movie, starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, with Robert Duvall as Chillingworth, is "freely adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne." Joyce Carol Oates called it a feminist adaptation, but I think that's too limiting. The movie is a contemporary reader's fantasy about everything he or she wanted to know about The Scarlet Letter, but was afraid to ask in class. I don't mean this as criticism. The Scarlet Letter clearly needs explaining. Why, where, and how, exactly, did Hester and Dimmesdale get together? How did Hester manage on her own, without either child-support or day-care? What happened to Chillingworth during his long captivity? And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Anyone reading the novel has to come to terms with extra-textual speculations; and this film sets out to provide a context appropriate to our times. A worthy project, admirable in its own right, and perhaps necessary to the novel's persistence from one generation to the next. Not necessary, of course, to our sense of the novel's intrinsic value, but important in suggesting its relevance to our lives. In other words, what I called extra-textual explanation is a commentary on our culture.

The narrative context, then and now, is early New England. We might call this our cultural common, since (for fictional purposes, at least) the Puritans constitute a kind of shifting symbol of national origins. In the film, they are the prudes that H. L. Mencken characterized as living in constant fear that someone, somewhere, might be enjoying himself. Puritanism here is a society to break free of. In fact, the term I mentioned in the credits, "freely adapted," might be read as a pun. Hawthorne's Hester remains confined among the Puritans, first as their "seven-year bond-slave" (as she says resentfully), and then, after her return, as a sad and wise counselor to women. Her one attempt to cast off the A is rejected by Pearl with the vehemence of a Puritan jail-warden. In the film, on the contrary, Pearl is the voice-over from the open territory. What she tells us, as a now-settled frontierswoman of the Carolinas, is a story of liberation. The Carolinas were then slave-territory, but we must let that pass. This is above all a story of personal liberation: the flight to freedom of self-reliant individuals. It is also a story of sexual liberation. In a striking gender reversal, the opening love-scene shows Hester peeping from behind the bushes at Arthur swimming in the nude; and at the end Hester holds the reins as the family drives out of town. Last and perhaps least, this is a story of religious liberation: "Mother came in the hope of worship without fear of persecution," Pearl explains, and Hester finds it in a subversive women's group whose theological creed, as summed up by Hester and repeated by Pearl in the film's final line, is: "who knows what God considers a sin?"

The focus on liberation allows for lots of action. That's a problem in the novel, where almost nothing happens. Confined as they are by their Puritan setting, Hawthorne's characters think and feel; love, hate, interpret, and speculate, but they rarely do anything. The film solves that problem with the customary stand-bys, sex and violence: a massacre, a wife-beating, a murder, graphic physical torture, equally graphic self-mutilation, a scalping, a suicide, an attempted rape, several even more detailed love-scenes, and (to parallel the early swimming episode) a long bathing scene, featuring Demi Moore attended by her black Caribbean companion, Mituba.

Sex and violence, we might say, serve to recontextualize Hawthorne's tale, and the result is a salutary lesson in the limits of interpretive freedom. Question: what happens when you have the license to adapt a text, especially one as open-ended-which is to say, as temptingly adaptable as The Scarlet Letter? Answer: you get a collage of contemporary cliches. Nothing more clearly exposes the traps of culture than self-conscious attempts at originality. The Puritans in the film are a fair index not only to popular taste, but to current views in academia. What I called the Mencken Puritans are those in power, the ruling patriarchy; the rest are comprised of the mix I mentioned. The bad guys are the usual suspects: witch-hunters, moralists, and land-grabbers. The good guys are mainly the marginals and the unrepresented minorities. The time (as I said) is the 1670s, but the movie actually compresses the three most familiar episodes of seventeenth-century New England: the Anne Hutchinson trial (1630s), Metacomet's War (1670s), and the witchcraft hysteria (1690s). Thus the plot relates intolerance, male chauvinism, colonialism, and, climactically, the racism that explodes in the inter-tribal attack. Hawthorne's novel is set in 1642-1649, in order to emphasize the newness of the venture, and the nature of its errand, which is not revolution, as it was in England in 1642-1649, but rather a certain social order designed to redirect the radical energies of its adherents. The movie Puritans are an incipiently progressive community under an oppressive regime, a society at odds with its own most liberal possibilities.

This is not altogether wrong, historically; certainly no more wrong than Hawthorne's recreation; it is not even altogether false to the novel. A colleague of mine claimed that this was the movie his students had always dreamed of. Many of them had pictured Hester as a free spirit; most could barely remember (much less resolve) the fact that she returns voluntarily to New England; and all of them considered Dimmesdale to be an absolute cad or, worse, an absolute wimp (what did he feel so guilty about, anyway?). I could add parallels from my own teaching experience. And I think we must grant that to some extent the novel is responsible. To that extent, the movie makes for a wonderful case study in continuity and change. That's the subject of my essay: the shift in cultural context between the movie and the novel, with particular reference to the function of the New England Puritans as a symbol of national origins. Let me repeat the phrase: the function of New England Puritanism. For the context I have in mind is not Puritanism itself, but its cultural legacy--Puritanism as it was freely adapted by Hawthorne in 1850 and by the filmmakers of 1995.

What's at stake, then, is the meaning of a national ritual. Hawthorne captures its essence by locating the letter in the Salem Custom House, which he describes as a sort of initiation-post: the "civic" threshold to "Uncle Sam's government," emblazoned with "an enormous specimen of the American eagle," under "the banner of the republic." [2] For two centuries now, the Puritans have been the imagined entry into official U.S. history--or, better perhaps, the official entry into an imagined U.S. history. Either way, the Puritan migration has served, rhetorically, as a communal passage into American identity. Like any other ritual, this one is distinctive to the community that shaped it--which is to say it's a ritual distinctive to a modern secular nation. Other rituals return to a founding moment (as in the Eucharist, to use a Puritan example) in order to recapture--to relive and recapitulate--a unique transcendent event. Americans return to the Puritans both to reclaim a sense of purpose and to declare a great leap forward. We are like the Puritans in fundamental ways and we are fundamentally better than they are. Traditionally, indeed, it's a matter of cause and effect: we're better because we're alike. Their religious venture in utopia (to recall the opening paragraph of Hawthorne's novel) has expanded into our democratic city on a hill; their errand into the wilderness has culminated in our manifest destiny. A New Yorker cartoon has one Puritan say to another, as they disembark from the Mayflower: "My first goal is freedom of religion, but my long-range plan is to get into real estate." That's the skeptic's view of the ritual. For believers, a fit image is Hester at the novel's end, looking toward the great society to come. In the film, we get Arthur's vision of an American New Jerusalem, "the greatest of all human dreams," somewhat modified by Hester's closing summons to the frontier: "We came here to make a new [world]." It is real estate consecrated as the new promised land.

Hawthorne's view of that promise is closer to the skeptic's than to that of either Hester, his, or the film's. His critique of progress is a main theme of Mosses from an Old Manse and a main subtext of The Scarlet Letter. But it is a critique, not a denunciation. Hawthorne believed that, for all its defects, the Northern Union was better than other available social systems, and that the Puritans' crucial contribution was to open the way towards liberal democracy. The movie is somewhat more grudging in this respect. Here, too, however, the community is presented as being proto-American, dedicated to essentially liberal values. To be sure, their language is archaic and their institutions primitive, but in 1995 as in 1850 the Puritans live in a contract society built on voluntary association, the work ethic, free enterprise, government by law, and governorship by election. Hawthorne's Hester earns her living by needle-work, rather like a Victorian seamstress, whereas Demi Moore is an upwardly mobile single mother, with a small farming business, hired help, and live-in child-care. But personal independence is the standard in both cases, and in both independence has a troubled relationship to the equally important standards of the family unit. In general both communities embody the good guy-bad guy contrast I described, the symbolic bipolarity we commemorate in one form or another every Thanksgiving Day. The bad Puritans represent the archaic forms we've left behind; the good Puritans are the forebears through whom theocracy foreshadows the New World Jerusalem.

So the ritual issue is progress. How did we get from the Puritan mission to the American Dream? The different answers suggested by the two versions of the tale make for a surprising reversal of context. The film is the product of our cynical market-hype technocracy, but it places all hope on the free individual, the good Puritans who light out for the territory. It is they who represent New England's true errand into the wilderness. Hawthorne replies from the era of frontier boundlessness, but insofar as he offers hope, it lies with the restrictive society to which Hester returns--not of course with the restrictions themselves (many of which Hawthorne openly criticizes), but with the capacity of that society to develop despite and through social constraints towards the sort of liberal forms he endorsed.

I am not forgetting the enormous powers of resistance that Hester embodies. No doubt her letter symbolizes the high romantic concept of selfhood, and along with that many of the qualities the movie beatifies--sexuality, pluralism, toleration, personal rights--but before as after her return, the narrative itself forces these ideals, as ideals, into forms of compromise and constraint. Liberation for Hawthorne is a reciprocal process rather than a flight from bondage. First and last, the A belongs to society. Although Hester embellishes it, her art gathers meaning through communal interpretation. And although, at the end, she resumes the letter deliberately, because she wants to, it is the communal judgment concerning her guilt and its consequences that she consents to and helps disseminate. This is not conservatism on Hawthorne's part, any more than the movie's defiant Hester signals subversion. Rather, the contrast represents two alternate routes of the American Way, then and now. Both of these are foundational to the very meaning of America, whether as melting-pot or as patchwork quilt. One route, the one taken in the film, leads toward individual fulfillment (for self and family). This may imply the good society, but it often runs into trouble with society as it is. Appropriately, the film feeds on a nostalgia for those mythic wide open spaces just beyond the town limit. The other route, the route taken by the novel, leads toward the good society. This implies self-fulfillment, but it often comes into conflict with adamant individualists (consider the American tradition from Anne Hutchinson through Henry David Thoreau). Appropriately, Hawthorne presents the individualists in the novel through images of containment and in situations demanding negotiation.

Political scientists have distinguished between these alternatives in various ways. I will adopt the relatively accessible terms individualist democracy and civic democracy. In both cases, democracy means self-government, but with a significant disagreement about what the self represents. Indeed, a convenient way to distinguish between the two is through the concept of representation. When we speak of the representative American, we mean: (1) a self-realized individual who represents the society at large, which is therefore a good society. Or else, we mean (2) a participant in a self-governing society that represents the social good, which is therefore a society in the individual's best self-interest. Theoretically, these alternatives coexist in creative tension. In practice, however, they have often come into conflict. Sometimes conflict has hardened into polar opposition: libertarian versus communitarian; Montana Freeman versus Berkeley hippie. Generally the conflict has centered on ideological control. According to the political philosopher Michael Sandel, the principles of civic democracy predominated for most of our history. From the Federalist period through Lincoln's republic, democracy in America, he writes, has meant "deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community"; and accordingly, it has involved "a sense of belonging, a concern with the whole, a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake." These are principles, not reality; but principles can shape reality through people who believe in them. And over the past half century, Sandel argues, a different set of principles has shaped America reality. From the Second World War through the Reagan Era, the civic "conception of freedom... has largely given way" to the principles of individualist democracy. In this view, persons participate in society as "independent selves, unencumbered by moral or civic ties they have not chosen"; "freedom consists in the capacity of persons to choose their values and ends"; and the role of government is to let them do their own thing. [3]

The result is our current culture of extremes. On the one hand, we honor the single, separate person (and its independent family unit). On the other hand, we attend to the huge abstract entities (race, ethnicity, gender) that define society in general. What's lost in between is everything that used to constitute our ways of life-networks of citizens engaged in a variety of local communities. For Professor Sandel, this loss marks the crisis of our time. Americans, he observes, feel threatened now as never before by "the fear that we are losing control of the forces that govern our life" and "the sense that.. .the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us." And he predicts that if present trends continue we will find ourselves in a world of "formless, protean storyless selves unable to weave the various strands of their identity into a coherent whole." [4]

Professor Sandel's warning is well worth heeding, but it underestimates the resources at our disposal for rebinding the fabric of American identity. Indeed, the danger may be said to lie precisely in our protean human capacity to adapt stories to new circumstances. All too often, we know, narrative re-visions have helped justify changes which were the very cause of crisis. In any case, the twice-told tale of The Scarlet Letter testifies to the continuing resonance of the American Puritan ritual, and to its malleability. Demi Moore's Hester is no less a heroine for our decade than Hawthorne's was for his. To put the contrast starkly, it depends on your view of adultery. According to the film's director, Roland Joffe, the novel is "a badly thought-out polemic against adultery." [5] Joffe was obviously determined to set things straight. In the film, the right to adultery is the cornerstone of democratic values. It signifies by extension the right to be culturally different (e.g., an Algonquin), the right to your own beliefs (e.g., feminism), and, I suppose, the right to be Puritan, although the point is (1) that the magistrates should not have imposed their beliefs on others, and (2) that the good Puritans would not have done so. The movie's divine imperative is non-interference: "Who knows what God considers a sin?"

The novel speaks for a different kind of society. Here the key to democratic values lies in the conspicuous absence of sexuality. As critics have long noted, Hawthorne bans not only the adulterous act, but the very word "adultery." It's not that he didn't think the issue through. It's that (to coin a phrase) The Scarlet Letter is a post-adultery narrative. There's plenty that goes wrong, but none of it concerns extra-marital sex. Within the story itself, the main characters remain celibate forever, except possibly for Pearl, somewhere across the Atlantic.

In these terms, which are the only proper literary terms for analysis, Hester, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale, like Pearl, are born into a sinful world they never wanted and can't escape. That's partly because they're directly involved, and partly because they come to feel responsibility for it. Pluralism here is not a legal right; it's a moral, psychological, and social necessity, a function of interconnectedness following upon imperfection. All the characters are the offspring of an adulterated reality. Their problems center on the tenuous connections between holding to one's ideals, acknowledging one's limitations, and participating in society. These problems never arise in the movie because the ideal, a forbidden perfect love, precludes social participation. That's the film's donnée. Governed as it is by the patriarchs, society itself makes honest interaction impossible. Hester tries, but she is first ostracized for her beliefs and then imprisoned for witchcraft. Moral: society imprisons the self. Arthur would love to confess, but he'd be hanged if he did. Moral: society kills natural desire. The lovers' options are an authoritarian world or else their own free selves.

In Hawthorne's novel, it's precisely that either/or dynamic which does not work. That's his donnée. The sin in The Scarlet Letter is concealment: the deliberate masking of who one is in order to deny one's actual state of connectedness. Hester goes so far as to consider herself above the law, but the fact is that she's the very image of social interdependence. So also in their different ways are the otherworldly Dimmesdale and the solitary truth-seeker Chillingworth. All three of them are hypocrites, and hypocrisy is above all a social act. Its "living symbol" is Pearl (251), the child of hypocrisy--a pearl of great price entangled in (because necessarily defined by) the webs of family, community, legal codes, and moral disputes. That's the set of narrative restrictions within which we are free to interpret. Here as in the film, the plot is a vision of the ways things are, as we would expect from an adaptation of a ritual. In Hawthorne's version, we are creatures who have ideals, and should, and should want to make them work; and who, in the process of trying to make them work, and sometimes succeeding, generally make a mess of things. We love, perform our duty, seek the truth, and in the act we lie, conceal, harm one another, harm ourselves. And vice-versa: we cannot be what we'd like to be; and our impurity in this respect (as distinct from pure evil)--in Hester's case, our capacity for loyalty that shines through the lies we tell; in Dimmesdale's case, the sense of duty that underlies our fraudulent pretensions; in Chillingworth's case, the innate goodness that is predicated in one's transformation into a villain--our very impurity holds out the promise of improvement.

A complex promise, and the contrast here with the film is striking enough to warrant invoking what's probably the single most memorable scene in The Scarlet Letter. I refer to the sun-lit moment in the forest when Hester lets her hair down, discards the A, and declares her independence. "What we did," she whispers fervently, "had a consecration of its own. We felt it so. We said so to each other!" For principled individualists, that pledge is sacred. It may well have inspired the film adaptation as a whole. Certainly it inspired Hawthorne to a rhetoric of high romance. The lovers embrace, and, he writes, "As if the gloom of earth and sky had been but the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming down the gray trunks of the solemn trees.... Such was the sympathy of Nature... with the bliss of these two spirits!" (286, 293). Actually, the lovers don't embrace; that's the movie version. But the rest is accurate so far as it goes. And it conveys all those naturalistic, anti-repressive, self-liberating impulses awakened in Demi Moore when she sees Gary Oldman skinny-dipping in the brook. But those of you who have read the novel recently will also recall the phrase I muted in the reading: "Such was the view of Nature--that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth--with the bliss of these two spirits!" (my italics).

The trouble with Hawthorne's lovers is that their love has a consecration of its own, whereas, in his view, we all live, for better and worse, in a relational sphere, the realm of non-transcendence called history and community. So considered, adultery is nature unsubjugated by human law (hence "wild, heathen"). Progress requires a more solemn attitude. In Mosses from an Old Manse, Hawthorne sets out its basic conditions, through his warning against "Egotism; or the Boston Serpent"; through the gloomy transmutation he details in "The Birth-mark"; and through his picture of nature as Mount Auburn Cemetery in "The New Adam and Eve." It is too often forgotten that Hester's brave summons in the forest--"Is the world so narrow?... Whither leads yonder forest-track? Backward ... Yes; but onward, too!... Begin all anew"--has its long foreground in Hawthorne's satire on "The Celestial Railroad," and that Dimmesdale's dizzy-spell, after he agrees to leave with Hester, has its context, deep as Dante's Inferno, in the forest of "Young Goodman Brown." But we don't need Mosses to explicate the novel. The chapter I quoted from, "A Flood of Sunshine," begins by describing the savage landscape of abstract liberation. "Her intellect and heart," writes Hawthorne, "had their home ... in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the Indian in the woods"--an ironic play on the meaning of freedom that runs throughout the novel. Here it is a "freedom of speculation" nourished by "Shame! Despair! Solitude!" More generally, it is the ambiguity of free will as the source of liberty and license alike. This theme is struck when Hester first leaves the prison "as if of her own free will"; it concludes in the last chapter when she resumes the letter "of her own free will" (290, 162, 344, my italics). Implicit in that closing act is her recognition that ideals and absolutes, even those that are most vital to us as individuals, must be freely placed at the service of society, as the moral foundation of the self-governing community. It amounts to a heroism of civic democracy.

The competing norm, the heroism of doing your own thing, involves a metaphysics of conflict between self and others. That conflict need not be adversarial. In theory, every self should thrive in conflict, as in a free enterprise utopia. In practice, however, problems arise because personal rights, which take absolute priority, must work themselves out in social and institutional terms, and those terms, although theoretically secondary, claim an absolutism of their own. The individual has access to what Thoreau called the higher laws, like the law of love. Society is governed by merely legal codes, like "Thou shalt not commit adultery." And it often happens that love involves legal issues. Demi Moore distinguishes in this respect between what she calls (with reference to scripture) "the imagination of mortals" and (in the other corner, as it were) the voice of God, Who (she says) speaks to her directly. This is bad theology, even for an antinomian, but it conveys the terms of her revolt. Heroism in the film begins in Hester's and Arthur's capacity to follow their instinct--their hearts vibrate to Emerson's iron string, trust thyself-and it thrives in their defiance of society. The dramatic conflict is us-against-them. That's the source of conflict in many tragic romances--Anthony and Cleopatra, for example--but tragedy there involves irreconcilable concepts of the good. The heart has its irrepressible reasons and society has its undeniable demands. In the individualist-democratic version of this stand-off, the reasons for self-fulfillment take absolute priority. The tragedy is that society can interfere at all.

Insofar, then, as the movie retains the novel's tragic elements, it builds on a familiar dichotomy. The heroism of the individual is directly proportionate to the evil of society. The more sinister they are, the more compelling is the argument for autonomy. This is a well-worn allegory of the American screen. Think of the good-guy gunslinger of the Westerns--say, John Wayne in True Grit--the killer who is not a mere vigilante, although he too takes the law into his own hands because the town bosses are so corrupt. The film makes a similar case for Hester and Arthur. Their adultery is justified by contrast with the dull lives around them, with Roger's sheer unloveableness, and with the town's unnatural moralism--unnatural and hence perverse, as in the case of the church-warden who "rogers" Algonquin maidens in the woods, or the respectable Major Dunsimer, who harasses Hester throughout the film and finally tries to rape her. So, too, more generally, in the contrast between the good and bad Puritans. The argument for feminism, multi-culturalism, and religious tolerance is made largely by negation. The good Puritans constitute the emergent force within a hierarchical, still relatively Old World social system. And perhaps negation here is the best ground to argue from. What's at stake (to repeat) is the course of national progress. It seems ritually correct that the argument for individualist democracy should begin in a basic challenge to state law. We progress, in this view, from theocracy to democracy by getting our priorities straight. Hester and Arthur earn their right to the role of good Puritan foremother and forefather by proving, first, that they endorse general principles of equality (in race, creed, and gender), and second, that they are "unencumbered by moral or civic ties they have not chosen." In the end, their united state of adultery looks forward to a New World order.

The Scarlet Letter posits a different route to the future. Here the ritual centers on the conflict within; it concerns the problematics of choice (moral and psychological); and its premises derive from Puritan thought, adapted to the values of antebellum America. Did Hawthorne share those values? Let me say a word about adaptation in this context. Unlike the scriptwriters, Hawthorne was a literary genius who aimed at a select audience (as Melville pointed out in his review of Mosses) as well as popular success. What makes for his extraordinary achievement, however, even for a select audience (like this one), is not his departure from the ordinary but just the reverse. It is his groundedness in the everyday forms of his age--in its language, customs, biases, beliefs, contradictions, norms. The film's flimsiness derives from its evasion of the issues it raises. The depths of The Scarlet Letter are an index to the profundity of Hawthorne's involvement in his times. This seems to me true of all great literature. Certainly it's true of the great writers of the mid-nineteenth-century North, fired as they were by the prospects of a new democratic art. Hawthorne's work is not a reflection of his times. It is a sustained intellectual, moral, and emotional engagement with them--engagement as both complicity and dissent, resistance and consent entwined--and in this deep sense of the term his engagement issued in a brilliant appropriation of the main concerns of his times and in an extraordinary expression of the creative possibilities they afforded. Among those was the dreamy "neutral territory" of late Romantic-early Victorian aesthetics. Among them, too, were the possibilities of civic democracy. For Hawthorne, they required some sort of supra-rational support, a spiritual authority which (it seemed to him) had been lost in the transition from Puritan to Yankee New England.

So we return to the question of the Puritan legacy. I'm sure the scriptwriters made the historical changes I mentioned in the belief that they had better archival resources than Hawthorne at their disposal, and they did. But they turned up exactly the sort of good Puritans we need today: men who were instinctively tolerant of the indigenous population, women who dared speak their minds, and local religious sects, Puritan or other wise, that dissented from the reigning orthodoxy. And much the same may be said of Hawthorne. He was a great reader of Puritan texts and New England history, but his Puritans are the community that, for all its faults, provided exactly the sort of moral foundation he considered crucial for the mid-nineteenth-century republic. To that end, Hawthorne endorses Puritan theology, moralized and secularized. The immigrants, he suggests, were right to begin their enterprise by "allotting a portion of the virgin soil" to a cemetery and a prison (158). Mortality and imperfection are the limitations we must confront, and the sooner the better, if we aspire to the good society. To this end, too, he adopts their psychological outlook. According to the Puritans, the Fall eventuated in a split among the various faculties of the mind. In his state of innocence, Adam could think and feel, judge and empathize, all at once (and all correctly). His disobedience resulted in our inner battles between the heart, the mind, the senses, and the soul.

This Puritan model frames the psychology of The Scarlet Letter. It assumes an innate mental and emotional dissonance that corrodes the very process of choice. Hawthorne focuses on the ideals we choose, and in particular on the ideals of individualist democracy. Of course, to call into question is not to dismiss. It's to introduce an element of self-doubt, or, in positive terms, to stress the need for others. Hester is one example, Dimmesdale another. Each needs to doubt a self-inflicted despair and to question self-justifying reasons for dissembling sainthood. But for purposes of contrast with the film, the most interesting figure is Chillingworth. Hawthorne's villain, you recall, plays the detective in what for readers of 1850 was still a who-done-it. He's obsessed with finding the culprit, and why shouldn't he be? As Hester admits, he has been "greatly wronged." This issue (like that of personal complicity) does not arise in the film. Partly that's because the script-writers can't wait to tell us who done it. Mainly it's because Duvall's Roger is not so much an outraged cuckold as he is a victim of ethnocentricity. Captured by the Tarantines, he becomes a Frankenstein's monster of savagism. He whoops, howls, tortures, murders, mutilates, and scalps. Does this show he has descended to a primitive state? The answer--in what is probably the film's subtlest statement--is that Roger has been deformed by stereotypes. The Tarantines may be fierce warriors, but they are above all a community defending itself against invasion. Roger's transformation expresses the cruelty of invasion in its most grotesque, because uncanny, form. The aggressor turns into the dehumanized image he has imposed on the indigenes in order to justify his own aggression. Psychologically, Roger represents the violent underside of civilization. Culturally, he is the natural self twisted by miseducation into a figure of imperialist rhetoric.

For Hawthorne, the defect lies simply, sweepingly, in the self. Chillingworth is a scholar, gifted with an extraordinary mind, as Hester is gifted with an extraordinary heart, and like Hester, he makes the all-too-human error of trusting too much in his particular strengths. He becomes, in Hawthorne's words, "a demon of analysis"; and in Hawthorne's analysis, this transformation yields a step-by-step anatomy of the pride of intellect. Step one: Chillingworth discovers the culprit. Moral: the reason brings sin to light. Seek the truth rationally and you shall find evil everywhere, even in those who seem purest. Step two: Chillingworth shrivels up emotionally; he becomes hateful and self-hating. Moral: to trust the reason exclusively is an error in cognition. You are more than the rational facts that describe you, and so are the people you analyze. The reason is accurate but partial in the truths it reveals, as the truths of love and duty (in their ways) are accurate but partial. Each perspective requires correction, amendment, and supplement from the others. The capital-T Truth, whatever it is, embraces them all. Unlike Hester and Dimmesdale, Chillingworth dies without confronting the interpretive problems this entails. The third step in Hawthorne's anatomy remains a test-case of our understanding. He leaves it to the reader to explain why this stereotype villain (as Chillingworth sometimes appears to be) can become the agent of whatever happy ending the story allows, Pearl's surprise benefactor, and why his unremitting malice is also a form of "golden love" (342).

Our explanations, however we frame them, involve a diversity of views, each of these open to process. We must imagine an interpretive community that welcomes change through interchange, not unlike the Puritans in The Scarlet Letter. In our case, of course, the imagined community is pluralist, not theocratic. But we should remember, as Hawthorne does, that the Puritans were officially Dissenters, a theocracy of Non-Conformists. And we should note further that Hawthorne's concept of truth is not simply pluralistic. Or rather, it's pluralistic in a special, somewhat anachronistic sense. Hawthorne posits an overall moral and psychological coherence, a comprehensive Truth, even though this remains for us at any given time, in 1640, 1850, or 1990, always a Truth in process. In short, he defines pluralism in opposition to relativism. Hawthorne's epistemology demands our faith in a reality that extends beyond the self, beyond even inter-subjectivity. And as I've been implying, his ground of faith is Puritan hermeneutics. That ground is not so distant as it may seem, even from us. For present purposes its premises may be briefly stated. We see darkly here, through interpretations, rather than directly, as angels do, or by revelation, as Abraham or Paul did. Our interpretations, however, if properly directed, lead in time towards the Truth, since the interpretive source is God's Himself, made manifest verbally in the Bible. In time, in degree, our words may come to approximate the Word. Hawthorne elicits that spiritual authority at second remove. Significantly, the letter is an act of exegesis. The magistrates, you recall, had decided not to follow the scriptural law ("thou shalt put an adulterer to death"), but to adapt it to this particular case, so that Hester's "earthly punishment [as one minister puts it] will thereby be more effective to salvation." Thus the story begins in an act of interpretation which evokes the Bible in a way that distances the Bible from the secular realm, without, however, divorcing the sacred from the secular. Or more precisely, the act of interpretation evokes the Bible in such a way as to link sacred and secular through a practice fundamental to both realms, the search for meaning. It is a paradox custom-made for a modern republic that considers itself a nation under God, a pragmatic people bound by a sacred-secular Constitution, and even (however vaguely) a Bible culture.

The contrast with the film is instructive. Here the Bible functions mainly as a multi-cultural artifact: Arthur is busy throughout translating it into the Algonquin language. As for the A, it's just the vicious night-scheme of the governor's frigid wife. A drab piece of work, it gets the treatment it deserves: in the last film-clip, we see it crushed under the outward-bound wagon-wheels. Hawthorne's imagery is atavistic by comparison. He alludes frequently to scripture and he notes that Hester's embroidered letter, for all its creative daring, resembles that basic building block of Puritan hermeneutics, the A for Adam's Fall in the New England Primer. And yet his strategies are no less geared than the film's to the concerns of the time. He reaches back to the Puritan Bible in order to lend moral gravity to his symbolic mode. The appeal to history had many advantages for Hawthorne, and among the most important of these was the political authority (political, in the broad Aristotelian sense) that he found in connecting religion with art, the spiritual resonance of scripture with the manifold meanings of the scarlet letter, both Hester's and his own.

Hawthorne's ambiguities have been described as a device for detachment, transcendence, or deconstruction. Nothing could be further from the case. Symbolism was the form that most precisely embodied his public interests. It constitutes a cultural aesthetic, a symbolic system designed to curb and rechannel the high individualism and simmering violence of antebellum America. In this sense, Melville was prescient in reading intimations of a national ambition in Mosses from an Old Manse. The Scarlet Letter is the great American novel of civic democracy. I refer now not so much to its content as to its form--to the unrelenting semiotic frustration we've all felt as Hawthorne's readers. In the opening chapter, he offers us a rose which is obviously symbolic and obviously impossible to explicate. (It is either one thing or another or still another, and it may function, Hawthorne adds, for one of several different purposes.) At the end, he offers us an emblem which "might serve for a motto of our now concluded legend" (345, my italics), but which, as the description makes plain, is indecipherable. And in between there's that notorious procession of evasions and lacunae and conflicting speculations--notorious partly because they so deliberately encourage us to keep interpreting.

Encouragement through frustration: it's the hermeneutic equivalent to the novel's moral and psychological arguments. "Be true! Be true! Be true!" Hawthorne exclaims in a much-discussed passage, but he tells us beforehand that this is just one among many other morals he has gleaned from a partially reliable manuscript, and he follows it with a striking qualification: "Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, then some trait whereby the worst may be inferred" (341). Ambiguity, so considered, opens out into (1) human truths which, as such, are really true; (2) acts of free will, in the ironic sense that it's a freedom in constraint, independence circumscribed by interdependence; and (3) declarations of risk, a readiness to expose one's imperfections to the inferences of others. An entire culture stands behind this concept of interpretation, as was the case with Dante's medieval four-fold method or the Elizabethan theory of correspondence. In the case of The Scarlet Letter, we might call it the aesthetics of the ballot -box. It teaches by indirections that to trust yourself is not opposed to but reciprocal with entrusting yourself to others. You assert your rights on principle; by the same principle you consent to abridge them; both in your assertion and in your consent you defer to the claims of community; and finally, you defer because you understand that what's out there is more than the evidence at your disposal, and that what's more is worth having faith in, politically, psychologically, and morally.

In the conflict between yourself and the world, writes Kafka, back the world. Hawthorne gives us similar advice, except that, in his pluralist context, to back the world is to participate in shaping the society you may be in conflict with. On these grounds, he backs the Puritans against Hester (insofar as her anti-Puritanism develops, as it inexorably does, into something like anarchy or antinomianism), and so does Hester herself in the long run (insofar as her return signals some degree of penitence). [6] The movie hardly allows for conflict at all in this sense. It simply aligns adultery with the best tendencies in society. I mean adultery now in its highest libertarian meaning, as the sign for love and individuality. In this perspective, there's really no serious issue between Demi Moore and the world. She simply has to choose what's right for herself, since that choice is what makes for the best kind of world. Now, abstractly considered, adultery has the same meaning in Hawthorne's novel. Indeed, he may be said to have avoided the word and act precisely in order to emphasize the abstraction. Adultery in The Scarlet Letter signifies full individuality; and as such it extends beyond the personal (as it does in the film) to promise a grand design--in Hester's words, "a whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness" (344). The difference is that that self-evident right clashes in the novel with equally self-evident civic obligations. The conflict that ensues--on the one hand, love, the most undeniable of personal ideals; on the other hand, marriage, the law, religion, the entire network of social institutions--makes for a virtually impossible choice. As such, it expresses a deep conflict in the culture at large: on the one hand, the American dream of individuality fulfilled; on the other hand, the American covenant for the Great Society. Hawthorne's strategy pivots on that impasse. Confronted as we constantly are, he suggests, by choices of that order, and limited as we are by our adulterated capacities for choosing, we must qualify self-reliance by our reliance on social process.

Qualify your self-reliance: it does not seem like much to ask for. In Hawthorne's work it amounts to the grandest form of heroism. To that end he invokes the genre of the adulterous romance--the biblical tale of David and Bathsheba, Marvell's poem of the star-crossed lovers, the whole immemorial tradition which Dryden (in his adaptation of Anthony and Cleopatra) summed up as All for Love, or The World Well Lost. Hawthorne appreciates its tragic power. Indeed, he conveys it in Hester's forest appeal with an eloquence beyond anything that the film registers. His novel, however, argues for something like the opposite. The absolutist drama of us-versus-them is more spectacular and perhaps more poignant, but it is harder, Hawthorne urges, more rigorous and courageous, more profoundly tragic because more fully cathartic, to sacrifice the personal absolute to the pragmatic claims of society. Whatever hope we have of approaching the Truth, or of establishing in due time a whole relation between people on a surer ground of mutual happiness--whatever tough-minded reasons there are for believing that out of the recurrent conflict between self and society there may emerge a world where personal rights coincide with social obligations--that hope and those reasons lie in our capacity to respond to the heroics of civic democracy.


The Scarlet Letter is the founding classic of that American heroic tradition. Needless to say, this does not make it a partisan tract. The novel is no more a polemic against individualist democracy than it is a polemic against adultery. The materials it's made of provide a full-scale representation of the dynamics of liberal democracy, civic and individualist principles entwined, legal obligations interlocked with personal rights. Entwined, interlocked: The Scarlet Letter has a double plot. It is a love-story narrated in the context of historical continuity, and vice-versa. The love story is brazenly elaborated in the film. The narrative of historical continuity is brilliantly elucidated in Professor Sandel's book. For all the enormous, qualitative differences between the two works, each of them may legitimately lay claim to the Hawthorne legacy. What's absent from both, however, is tragedy. And of course it's precisely the novel's tragic aspects which interlock, entwine, and bind together its double narrative. The virtues of process that Hawthorne celebrates require the sacrifice of individuality. The civic heroics we are asked to embrace are heroic only insofar as his lovers'-tale elicits, tragically, our commitment to self-realization.

This is not to say that the literary work is superior because it's tragic. It's to say that its tragic dimension offers a distinctive cultural perspective on the literary achievement. [6] I have argued that Hawthorne endorses history and community, but the novel makes another point as well. Its tragic dual plot asserts not only that our possibilities are a function of conflict, but that the terms of conflict are inherent in our condition. By condition Hawthorne means something unchanging, inevitable, as his appeal to Puritanism indicates--our abiding human limitations. Ultimately, he implies, democracy's discontents give particular cultural expression to a universal dilemma. I do not disagree--I agree, up to a point--but I would add that part of that dilemma (for us, as for any society, at any time) is rooted in the culture we inherit. And after all that's what the novel is all about. Or rather, that's what it's also all about--our cultural legacy and its limitations. So understood, the tragedy, if we may call it that, lies in a changeable, volatile historical condition. The limitations it points to consist not so much in our discontents as in the solutions we devise, since they are solutions chosen for us by culture. I realize that Hawthorne would probably disagree; but I choose to trust the tale, as D. H. Lawrence recommended. Directly and indirectly, The Scarlet Letter suggests that what we have been presented with over and again as alternatives--civic versus individualist heroism, the self-governing community versus Emersonian self-reliance, good versus bad Puritans--are narrative variations on a certain richly-elaborated, still-astonishingly-effective social ritual. [7] This seems to me the novel's major contribution as a cultural document--both in its own right, aesthetically, and as a commentary on our conflicted decade. As a twice-told tale of national origins, it remains our most powerful representation of the options we face, the advantages we gain, and the price we pay for entering the Puritan Custom House into the story of America.


Harvard University



[Footnote 1:] This paper was first delivered as an address at the biennial conference of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society, 29 June 1996. My opening remarks refer to the Conference theme, "From Concord to Salem: Hawthorne in 1846" and to its major text, Mosses from an Old Manse. It is a pleasure to express my gratitude to Larry J. Reynolds for the invitation, to the audience for a warm reception, and to Frederick Newberry for his incisive editorial guidance and his personal and intellectual generosity.

[Footnote 2:] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, in Novels, ed. Millicent Bell (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 123. Further quotations from the novel will be cited parenthetically in the text.

[Footnote 3:] Michael J. Sandel, Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Political Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 5.

[Footnote 4:] Sandel, pp. 55-51.

[Footnote 5:] New York Times, 23 June 1996.

[Footnote 6:] Richard Millington points out in an illuminating essay-review that the crucial phrase, "here was yet to be her penitence," implies that "the motivation of her return was, specifically, not penitence but some other thing, perhaps even the sense of her fidelity to her emotional history" ("The Office of The Scarlet Letter: An 'Inside Narrative'?," Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 22 [Springl996], p.4). This is close to the interpretation I myself intend. My only caveat is that "not yet" does not quite translate into "specifically, not." Hester's fidelity to her past, I believe, is a (not "the") motivation. The larger, Janus-faced design, embracing past and future, love and the law, nostalgia and prophecy, "not" and "not yet," involves something more than self-justification--a justification that takes in more than the self. I refer to Hester's sense of her own culpability, to her appreciation of the need for constraint signaled by the A, and to her hope for social progress-indeed, since the A is a Puritan artifact, for social progress through Puritanism, in the double sense of "through," by means of and beyond it, and in the ritual sense of "Puritanism," at once a state to return to and a state to surpass.

[Footnote 7] Robert Milder, in an extremely insightful and provocative essay-review, discusses the tragic dimension of Hawthorne's vision in relation to Freud's (and to current feminist emendations of Freud). The Scarlet Letter, he concludes, is a story of "the requirements of social and moral order that make suppression, repression, and human deformity a condition of society as it has always existed" ("The Scarlet Letter and Its Discontents," Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, 22 [Spring 1996], p. 23). I share Milder's view; my closing remarks (below) were written in that common context. But they are also meant to question the relation between the universal condition we recognize in a text ("society as it has always existed") and the cultural specifics through which that condition is represented. According to Aristotle, literary art ascends from the possible to the probable: from cultural specifics to generalities that apply to all times and places. So understood, The Scarlet Letter gives a local habitation and a name to the recurrent, unavoidable conflict between individual and society, a conflict variously but compatibly explained by Christianity as the Fall and by Freud as sublimation. Suppose, however, that we see these tragic universals as cultural specifics in their own right--explanations and probabilities designed (more or less as the scarlet letter was) to help us accommodate ourselves, willingly, "wisely," to the particular forms of "suppression, repression, and human deformity" which characterize this society. We could then invert Aristotle's formula and argue that the text's deep meanings, whatever they are, lie in cultural specifics, and by extension in the historical possibilities which are explained away by "probable" universals. The point of the analysis would be not to deny the tragic element but to redefine it (as Milder himself seems to) in terms of cultural agency.

[Footnote 8] One telling instance of its efficacy is the emphasis on antinomianism in Americanist literary criticism. Oppositional critics make Anne Hutchinson the secret heroine of The Scarlet Letter; the film makes her the prototypical Independent Career Woman. Can we have it both ways? That's precisely the function of ritual bi-polarities, of course. In an ingenious Pauline reading of the novel, Paul K. Johnston claims that the office of the letter is death (emblematized by Dimmesdale's corpse on the pillory); but he concludes almost precisely where the Puritans did (following Augustine), with the reciprocity, the necessary interdependence, between littera-historia and the spirit: "Though the antinomian spirit of Anne Hutchinson, given poetic existence in The Scarlet Letter, still survives in American culture, so too does the Puritan spirit that distrusts it" ("Killing the Spirit: Anne Hutchinson and the Office of the Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, 22 [Spring 1996], p. 32). This is cogently stated; but what options does it allow for? Can this culture, founded on contract and the Constitution, entrust itself to an antinomian spirit? I would suggest that Johnston's concept of distrust involves a symbiosis between dissent and trust, where dissent is defined--delimited, essentialized--by its origins in Anne Hutchinson, and where American culture is defined as a centuries-long perpetuation of the Antinomian Controversy. Its proper symbol is Hawthorne's Grey Champion, representative of continuity through opposition (including Oppositionalist criticism).

Sacvan Bercovitch, Professor of English and American literature at Harvard University, is the author of The Puritan Origins of the American Self, The American Jeremiad, The Office of the The Scarlet Letter, and The Rites of Dissent. In addition to publishing numerous journal articles, he has edited and co-edited several volumes of essays and literay histories.

-- 1996-12-10
Copyright © 1996 by Sacvan Bercovitch and Nathaniel Hawthorne Review. All Rights Reserved.