What is the wall between saint and sinner made of?
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne begins with a lengthy prologue, given in the voice of a fictional narrator who, while working in the Salem Custom-House, finds a long-forgotten relic of New England past. The artifact is beautiful, uncommonly so, and as he investigates its craftmanship, he relates, “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. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.”
And so we are introduced to the burden of Hester Prynne’s sin of adultery, and with our narrator, we too briefly touch its burning cloth to our chests. I have loved this story ever since I first read it in high school, principally for the beauty of the symbolism in conjunction with searing psychological and natural realism. It’s true, parts of the story drag by modern estimation and it might be considered a bit melodramatic or overly romantic about some aspects of the human condition. But I’m hard-pressed to think of any story I’ve read before or since that surpasses it in gracefulness or the compelling way its pieces fit together as a whole.
When it comes to the actual story, I remember few details. But two scenes stand out. First, in Chapter 1, Hester emerges from her prison, branded by the emblem of her sin. It is a beautiful, if flawed vision of woman, in the tenderness of motherhood and restrained by uncommon poise, set against the hypocritical and scornful response of the on-lookers:
“The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch–that is a truth,” added a third autumnal matron. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madame Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me…”
From the first insults hurled at her, the reader’s heart is opened to Hester. What could she possibly have done to deserve such vitriole? Hester may be a sinner, but she is not on the level of these self-righteous Pharisees. The same theme is taken up again by Hawthorne in the person of Chillingworth, who though he seems to seek justice against Dimmesdale’s sin, shows us Hawthornes idea of real evil. He–like the women of the first scene–are all too happy to cast the first stone, and besides having no compassion for their fellow men, they seem to have no perception of (or at least no shame in) their own pervertedness.
As a young person reading this story for the first time, I had very little knowledge of actual Puritan culture or doctrine. Except for a few Thanksgiving plays, this was the first that I remember encountering them. And while I did absorb some of Hawthorne’s prejudice against them, most of what I took away from the story was a general disgust for religiously-motivated hatred. By imagining myself in Hester Prynne’s place, I saw her worth, her value–despite the fact that she had done something evil. And I saw that no matter how religious zealots might ostracize her and try to strip her of community and freedom, she was not beyond love. In fact, Hawthorne made it clear she deserved it far more than they.
Race and class had already been brought to my mind as dangerous in the hands of brutal people. From Anne Frank to To Kill a Mockingbird to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I had seen the cost of pride–belittling others so that I might feel more important. But this was the first time I remember seeing the same lesson applied to religion. In my childhood world, the world of Anne of Green Gables, religion and God were constraints on evil. Songs I grew up singing like “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” had taught me to value all people because they were made by Him. I had believed God was love, and religion an outward expression of that truth.
But The Scarlet Letter planted a seed. A seed that would yield a hundredfold in its season: wasn’t religion just another way of controlling other people and propping ourselves up? I mean, did my piousness or our following religious rules really make me better than other people?
And as an adolescent, for me that was a criticism that rang true. I had been brought up as a Christian, and I don’t recall ever hearing that those who were not Christian were bad or Other. But I had heard alter calls and snarky comments by Baptists against Presbyterians, and vice versa. And then there was our church camp. I had a friend who was Catholic, and she and I had attended my Methodist church camp together for several years in junior high. Not that it was the best camp ever. But it was a place we felt loved, a place we met other kids from our state and flirted with boys, a place we got to swim and do archery and sing around the campfire. And through the prayers and devotionals, she and I had made peace with each other’s differences and found comradeship in the commonalities of our faith. This wasn’t rigorous comparative religion. Just two girls who loved each other and tried to love God together.
And then one year her parents decided that she couldn’t go anymore. They didn’t want her bringing home any more Protestant doctrine, and that was the end of that. We drifted away as friends for other reasons, but I still felt the sting. Her parents had essentially said I wasn’t good enough, my religion not good enough for their daughter. And while it was no scarlet letter, I think it probably helped me relate to Hester.
The other scene that has stuck with me regarding this story is the one in which Dimmesdale confesses his sin. Near the end of the book, though they had planned to run away and start a new life together during their conversation in the wilderness, now in the light of day and before the assembly, Dimmesdale falters. He stammers, and takes the scaffold, and calls Hester and Pearl to stand with him. And there, in that place of judgement and punishment, he reveals the scarlet letter upon his chest and his part in the Hester’s affair. His last words unload the burden:
“Shall we not meet again?” whispered she, bending her face down close to his. “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe! Thou lookest far into eternity, with those bright dying eyes! Then tell me what thou seest!”
“Hush, Hester–hush!” said he, with tremulous solemnity. “The law we broke I–the sin here awfully revealed!–let these alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God–when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul–it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be His name! His will be done! Farewell!”
That final word came forth with the minister’s expiring breath. The multitude, silent till then, broke out in a strange, deep voice of awe and wonder, which could not as yet find utterance, save in this murmur that rolled so heavily after the departed spirit.
As a youngster, I was admittedly puzzled by the dark and depressing turn the story took. It was no Disney ending. But there was something compelling and heroic about it.
What I did not notice at the time was the slight of hand that had gone on in the background. Actually, it wasn’t slight at all, if I had had eyes to see. For what we see here is not a man pleading the blood of Christ for his sin, but two lovers placing faith in their own righteousness to the last–the righteousness of self-flaggelation and their own confession. I can’t think of a more poignant picture of works-righteousness and the blindness of human sin than Hester’s cry, “Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!”
I can’t help but pause for a moment here to compare this story to another Hawthorne would have known, Pilgrim’s Progress. In that story, we begin with a character who is also burdened by sin. And Bunyan sets him within a context of ostracism because of that burden; he is alone with his burden in a culture and family who are blind to their own sin. But Bunyan finds in the end the righteousness of another to cover him and to take the burden for him.
Consider these words of Christian’s unburdening:
Then CHRISTIAN gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing:
“Thus far did I come laden with my sin,
Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came hither. What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss!
Must here the burden fall from off my back!
Must here the strings that bound it to me crack!
Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me!”
Because there is no hope in the cross for Hester and Dimmesdale, they must find atonement and new life in their own actions. And that man-centeredness seems to me to be what sets its apart from The Pilgrim’s Progress or from true Christian faith.
The American educational experiment has hoped in the last 50 years that if we could avoid teaching religion overtly, our schools could be nuetral on the subject. And while a particular stripe of religion may not have been promoted by this book and others, the criticism was clear. And in the place of the rules and doctrines of religion, against the tyranny of man’s judgement toward his neighbors, The Scarlet Letter seemed to offer again the nobility of compassion. And I willingly took of the fruit of the tree, and ate.
In my next installment of Behind the Bookcase, I’ll be reading The Yellow Wallpaperby Charlotte Perkins. It will be the first story in my series which I read in college, and I’ll briefly look at how it dismantled my inherited ideas of gender and sex.
If you’d like to read my previous post in this series, see Behind the Bookcase: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. You can read the entire series in our Behind the Bookcase category. And don’t miss our read-along beginning this week! Here’s Janie’s introduction to C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.