HAWTHORNE'S HESTER PRYNNE
There had been among the friendlier prophets overseas a vague expectation that the genuine American fiction, when it came, would be somehow aesthetically responsive to our vast continental spaces and the mighty forces that were taming the forests and prairies, the lakes and rivers, to the use of man.
But when it came, the American fiction which owed nothing to English models differed from English fiction in nothing so much as its greater refinement, its subtler beauty, and its delicate perfection of form.
While Dickens was writing in England, Hawthorne was writing in America; and for all the ostensible reasons the romances of Hawthorne ought to have been rude, shapeless, provisional, the novels of Dickens ought to have been fastidiously elect in method and material and of the last scrupulosity in literary finish. That is, they ought to have been so, if the obvious inferences from an old civilization ripened in its native air, and the same civilization so newly conditioned under alien skies that it seemed essentially new, were the right inferences. But there were some facts which such hasty conclusions must have ignored: chiefly the fact that the first impulse of a new artistic life is to escape from crude conditions; and subordinately the fact that Hawthorne was writing to and from a sensitiveness of nerve in the English race that it had never known in its English home.
We need not deny the greatness of Dickens in order to feel a patriotic content in the reflection that he represented English fiction in his time, and Hawthorne represented American fiction, as with the same implications Carlyle represented English thought and Emerson American thought.
Apart from the racial differences of the two writers, there was the widest possible difference of ideal in Dickens and Hawthorne; the difference between the romanticistic and the romantic, which is almost as great as that between the romantic and the realistic. Romance, as in Hawthorne, seeks the effect of reality in visionary conditions; romanticism, as in Dickens, tries for a visionary effect in actual conditions.
These different ideals eventuated with Hawthorne in characters being, doing, and suffering as vitally as any we have known in the world; with Dickens in types, outwardly of our every-day acquaintance, but inwardly moved by a single propensity and existing to justify in some fantastic excess the attribution of their controlling quality. In their mystical world, withdrawn afar from us in the past, or apart from us in anomalous conditions, the characters of Hawthorne speak and act for themselves, and from an authentic individuality compact of good and evil; in times, terms, and places analogous to those in which actual men have their being, the types of Dickens are always speaking for him, in fulfillment of a mechanical conception and a rigid limitation of their function in the drama.
They are, in every sense, parts, and Hawthorne's creations are persons, rounded, whole. This fact appears in what has already been shown of Dickens, and it will appear concerning Hawthorne from any critical study of his romances.
There is, of course, a choice in Hawthorne's romances, and I myself prefer "The Blithedale Romance" and "The Scarlet Letter" to "The Marble Faun" and "The House of the Seven Gables." The last, indeed, I have found as nearly tiresome as I could find anything of Hawthorne's. I do not think it is censuring it unjustly to say that it seems the expansion of a short-story motive to the dimensions of a novel; and the slight narrative in which the concept is nursed with whimsical pathos to the limp end, appears sometimes to falter, and alarms the sympathetic reader at other times with the fear of an absolute lapse.
The characters all lack the vitality which the author gives the people of his other books. The notion of the hapless Clifford Pyncheon, who was natured for happiness and beauty, but was fated to such a hard and ugly doom, is perhaps too single for the realization of a complete personality; and poor old Hepzibah, his sister, is of scarcely more sufficient material.
They move dim, forlorn wraiths before the fancy, and they bring only such proofs of their reality as ghosts seen by others can supply.
The careful elaboration with which they are studied seems only to render them more doubtful, and there is not much in the pretty, fresh-hearted little Phcebe Pyncheon, or her lover Holgrave, with all his generous rebellion against the obsession of the present by the past, to render the central figures convincing. Hawthorne could not help giving form to his work, but as nearly as any work of his could be so " The House of the Seven Gables" is straggling.
There is at any rate no great womanly presence to pull it powerfully together, and hold it in the beautiful unity characteristic of " The Blithedale Romance " and " The Scarlet Letter." What solidarity it has is in the simple Salem circumstance of the story, where the antique Puritanic atmosphere merges with the modern air in a complexion of perennial provinciality.
From the first there is no affectation of shadowy uncertainty in the setting of the great tragedy of The Scarlet Letter. As nearly as can be, the scenes of the several events are ascertained, and are identified with places in actual Boston. With a like inward sense of strong reality in his material, and perhaps compelled to its expression by that force in the concept, each detail of the drama, in motive, action, and character, is substantiated, so that from first to last it is visible, audible, tangible.
From Hester Prynne in her prison—before she goes out to stand with her unlawful child in her arms and the scarlet letter on her breast before the Puritan magistracy and ministry and people, and be charged by the child's own father, as her pastor, to give him up to like ignominy—to Hester Prynne, kneeling over her dying paramour, on the scaffold, and mutely helping him to own his sin before all that terrible little world, there is the same strong truth beating with equal pulse from the core of the central reality, and clothing all its manifestations in the forms of credible, of indisputable personality.
In its kind the romance remains sole, and it is hard to see how it shall ever be surpassed, or even companioned. It is not without faults, without quaint foibles of manner which strike one oddly in the majestic movement of the story; but with the exception of the love-child or sin-child, Pearl, there is no character, important or unimportant, about which you are asked to make believe: they are all there to speak and act for themselves, and they do not need the help of your fancy.
They are all of a verity so robust that if one comes to declare Hester chief among them, it is with instant misgivings for the right of her secret paramour, Arthur Dimmesdale, and her secret husband, Roger Chilling-worth, to that sorrowful supremacy.
A like doubt besets the choice of any one moment of her history as most specific, most signal. Shall it be that dread moment on the pillory, when she faces the crowd with her child in her arms, and her lover adjures her to name its father, while her old husband on the borders of the throng waits and listens?
"The Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale bent his head, in silent prayer, as it seemed, and then came forward. ' Hester Prynne,' said he, leaning over the balcony and looking down steadfastly into her eyes, . . . ' if thou feclest it to be for thy soul's peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life. . . . Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou mayest work out an open triumph over the evil within thee, and the sorrow without. Take heed how thou deniest to him—who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself— the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!' The young pastor's voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken. The feeling that it so evidently manifested, rather than the direct purport of the words, caused it to vibrate within all hearts, and brought the listeners into one accord of sympathy. Even the poor baby, at Hester's bosom, was affected by the same influence; for it directed its hitherto vacant gaze towards Mr. Dimmesdale, and held up its little arms, with a half - pleased, half - plaintive murmur. . . . Hester shook her head. 'Woman, transgress not beyond the limits of Heaven's mercy!' cried the Rev. Mr. Wilson, more harshly than before. . . . ' Speak out the name! That, and thy repentance, may avail to take the scarlet letter off thy breast.' 'Never!' replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. AVilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman. 'It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!' 'Speak, woman!' said another voice, coldly and sternly, proceeding from the crowd about the scaffold. 'Speak; and give your child a father!' 'I will not speak!' answered Hester, turning pale as death, but responding to this voice, which she too surely recognized. 'And my child must seek a heavenly Father; she shall never know an earthly one!' 'She will not speak!' murmured Mr. Dimmesdale, who, leaning over the balcony, with his hand upon his heart, had awaited the result of his appeal. He now drew back, with a long respiration. 'Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!'"
One could hardly read this aloud without some such gasp and catch as must have been in the minister's own breath as he spoke. Yet piercing as the pathos of it is, it wants the ripened richness of anguish, which the passing years of suffering bring to that meeting between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale in the forest, when she tells him that his physician and closest companion is her husband, and that Chilling-worth's subtlety has divined the minister's relation to herself and her child.
The reader must go to the book itself for a full comprehension of the passage, but no one can fail of its dramatic sense who recalls that Hester has by this time accustomed the little Puritan community to the blazon of her scarlet letter, and in her lonely life of usefulness has conciliated her fellow-townsfolk almost to forgiveness and forgetfulness of her sin. She has gone in and out among them, still unaccompanied, but no longer unfriended, earning her bread with her needle and care of the sick, and Dimmesdale has held aloof from her like the rest, except for their one meeting by midnight, when he stands with her and their child upon the scaffold, and in that ghastly travesty forecasts the union before the people which forms the catastrophe of the tremendous story.
In certain things "The Scarlet Letter," which was the first of Hawthorne's romances, is the modernest and maturest. The remoteness of the time and the strangeness of the Puritan conditions authorize that stateliness of the dialogue which he loved. The characters may imaginably say "methinks" and "peradventure," and the other things dear to the characters of the historical romancer; the narrator himself may use an antiquated or unwonted phrase in which he finds color, and may eschew the short-cuts and informalities of our actual speech, without impeaching himself of literary insincerity.
In fact, he may heighten by these means the effect he is seeking; and if he will only keep human nature strongly and truly in mind, as Hawthorne does in The Scarlet Letter, we shall gratefully allow him a privilege which may or may not be law. Through the veil of the quaint parlance, and under the seventeenth-century costuming, we see the human heart beating there the same as in our own time and in all times, and the antagonistic motives working which have governed human conduct from the beginning and shall govern it forever, world without end.
Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale are no mere types of open shame and secret remorse. It is never concealed from us that he was a man whose high and pure soul had its strongest contrast in the nature
"Mixt with cunning sparks of hell," in which it was tabernacled for earth. It is still less hidden that, without one voluntary lure or wicked art, she was of a look and make to win him with the love that was their undoing." He was a person of a very striking aspect, with a wide, lofty, and impending brow; large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth which, unless he compressed it, was apt to be tremulous. . . .
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from the regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace which is now recognized as its indication."
They were both of their time and place, materially as well as spiritually; their lives were under the law, but their natures had once been outside it, and might be again. The shock of this simple truth can hardly be less for the witness, when, after its slow and subtle evolution, it is unexpectedly flashed upon him, than it must have been for the guilty actors in this drama, when they recognize that, in spite of all their open and secret misery, they are still lovers, and capable of claiming for the very body of their sin a species of justification.
We all know with what rich but noiseless preparation the consummate artist sets the scene of his most consummate effect; and how, when Hester and Pearl have parted with Roger Chillingworth by the shore, and then parted with each other in the forest, the mother to rest in the shadow of the trees, and the child to follow her fancies in play, he invokes the presence of Arthur Dimmesdale, as it were, silently, with a waft of the hand.
"Slowly as the minister walked, he had almost gone by before Hester Prynne could gather voice enough to attract his observation. At length, she succeeded. 'Arthur Dimmesdale!' she said, faintly at first; then louder, but hoarsely, 'Arthur Dimmesdale!' 'Who speaks?' answered the minister. . . . He made a step nigher, and discovered the scarlet letter. 'Hester! Hester Prynne!' said he. 'Is it thou? Art thou in life?' 'Even so!' she answered. 'In such life as has been mine these seven years past ! And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live?' ... So strangely did they meet, in the dim wood, that it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the grave, of two spirits who had been intimately connected in their former life, but now stood coldly shuddering, in mutual dread; as not yet familiar with their state nor wonted to the companionship of disembodied beings. ...
It was with fear, and tremulously, and, as it were, by a slow, reluctant necessity, that Arthur Dimmesdale put forth his hand, chill as death, and touched the chill hand of Hester Prynne. The grasp, cold as it was, took away what was dreariest in the interview. They now felt themselves, at least, inhabitants of the same sphere.
Without a word more spoken—neither he nor she assuming the guidance, but with an unexpected consent —they glided back into the shadow of the woods, whence Hester had emerged, and sat down on the heap of moss where she and Pearl had before been sitting. . . . 'Hester,' said he, 'hast thou found peace?' She smiled drearily, looking down upon her bosom. 'Hast thou?' she asked. 'None!—nothing but despair!' he answered. 'What else could I look for, being what I am, and leading such a life as mine?' . . . 'The people reverence thee,' said Hester. 'And surely thou workest good among them. Doth this bring thee no comfort?' 'More misery, Hester!—only the more misery!' answered the clergyman, with a bitter smile. . . . 'Had I one friend — or were it my worst enemy — to whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself, and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby. Even thus much of truth would save me! But, now, it is all alsehood!—all emptiness! all death!'
Hester Prynne looked into his face, but hesitated to speak. Yet, uttering his long-restrained emotions so vehemently as he did, his words here offered her the very point of circumstance in which to interpose what she came to say. She conquered her fears, and spoke: 'Such a friend as thou hast even now wished for,' said she, 'with whom to weep over thy sin, thou hast in me, the partner of it!'—Again she hesitated, but brought out the words with an effort.—'Thou hast long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him, under the same roof!'
The minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and clutching at his heart, as if he would have torn it out of his bosom. 'Ha! What sayest thou!' cried he. 'An enemy! And under my own roof! What mean you?' ... '0 Arthur,' cried she, 'forgive me! In all things else I have striven to be true! Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast, and did hold fast, through all extremity; save when thy good—thy life—thy fame—were put in question! Then I consented to a deception. But a lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side! Dost thou not see what I would say? That old man!—the physician!—he whom they call Roger Chillingworth—he was my husband!' The minister looked at her for an instant, with all that violence of passion which—intermixed, in more shapes than one, with his higher, purer, softer qualities—-was, in fact, the portion of him which the Devil claimed, and through which he sought to win the rest.
Never was there a blacker or a fiercer frown than Hester now encountered. For the brief space that it lasted, it was a dark transfiguration. But his character had been so much enfeebled by suffering, that even its lower energies were incapable of more than a temporary struggle. He sank down on the ground, and buried his face in his hands. ... '0 Hester Prynne, thou little, little knowest all the horror of this thing! And the shame! —the indelicacy!—the horrible ugliness of this exposure of a sick and guilty heart to the very eye that would gloat over it! Woman, woman, thou art accountable for this! I cannot forgive thee!' 'Thou shalt forgive me!' cried Hester, flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him. 'Let God punish. Thou shalt forgive!'
With sudden and desperate tenderness, she threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom; little caring though his cheek rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should look her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her—for seven long years had it frowned upon this lonely woman—and still she bore it all, nor even once turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven, likewise, had frowned upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of this pale, weak, sinful, and sorrow-stricken man was what Hester could not bear and live! 'Wilt thou yet forgive me?' she repeated, over and over again. 'Wilt thou not frown? Wilt thou forgive?' 'I do forgive you, Hester?' replied the minister, at length, with a deep utterance, out of an abyss of sadness, but no anger. 'I freely forgive you now. May God forgive us both!
‘We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man's revenge has been blacker than my sin! He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!' 'Never, never!' whispered she. 'What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou forgotten it?' 'Hush, Hester!' said Arthur Dimmesdale, rising from the ground. 'No; I have not forgotten!'...'Thou must dwell no longer with this man,' said Hester, slowly and firmly. 'Thy heart must be no longer under his evil eye!' 'It were far worse than death!' replied the minister. 'But how to avoid it? What choice remains to me? Shall I lie down again on these withered leaves, where I cast myself when thou didst tell me what he was? Must I sink down there, and die at once?' 'Alas, what a ruin has befallen thee!' said Hester, with the tears gushing into her eyes. 'Wilt thou die for very weakness? There is no other cause.' 'The judgment of God is on me,' answered the conscience-stricken priest. 'It is too mighty for me to struggle with!' 'Heaven would show mercy,' rejoined Hester, 'hadst thou but the strength to take advantage of it.' 'Be thou strong for me,' answered he. 'Advise me what to do.' 'Is the world, then, so narrow?' exclaimed Hester Prynne, fixing her deep eyes on the minister's, and instinctively exercising a magnetic power over a spirit so shattered and subdued that it could hardly hold itself erect. 'Whither leads yonder forest track? . . . Deeper it goes, and deeper into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step, until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man's tread. . . . Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of Roger Chillingworth?' ' Yes, Hester; but only under the fallen leaves/ replied the minister, with a sad smile. ' Then there is the broad pathway of the sea!' continued Hester. 'It brought thee hither. If thou choose, it will bear thee back again.' . . . ' 0 Hester!' cried Arthur Dimmesdale, in whose eyes a fitful light, kindled by her enthusiasm, flashed up and died away, 'thou tellest of running a race to a man whose knees are tottering beneath him! I must die here! There is not the strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange, difficult world, alone!' . . . 'Thou shalt not go alone!' answered she, in a deep whisper. Then, all was spoken."
There is a greatness in this scene which is unmatched, I think, in the book, and, I was almost ready to say, out of it. At any rate, I believe we can find its parallel only in some of the profoundly impassioned pages of the Russian novelists who, casting aside all the common adjuncts of art, reveal us to ourselves in the appeal from their own naked souls. Hawthorne had another ideal than theirs, and a passing love of style, and the meaning of the music of words. For the most part, he makes us aware of himself, of his melancholy grace and somber power; we feel his presence in every passage, however deeply, however occultly, dramatic; he overshadows us, so that we touch and see through him. But here he is almost out of it; only a few phrases of comment, so fused in feeling with the dialogue that they are like the voice of a chorus, remind us of him.
It is the most exalted instant of the tragedy, it is the final evolution of Hester Prynne's personality. In this scene she dominates by virtue of whatever is womanly and typical in her, and no less by what is personal and individual. In what follows, she falls like Dimmesdale and Chillingworth under the law of their common doom, and becomes a figure on the board where for once she seemed to direct the game.
In all fiction one could hardly find a character more boldly, more simply, more quietly imagined. She had done that which in the hands of a feeble or falser talent would have been suffered or made to qualify her out of all proportion and keeping with life. But her transgression does not qualify her, as transgression never does unless it becomes habit. She remains exterior and superior to it, a life of other potentialities, which in her narrow sphere she fulfills. What she did has become a question between her and her Maker, who apparently does not deal with it like a Puritan. The obvious lesson of the contrasted fates of Dimmesdale and herself is that to own sin is to disown it, and that it cannot otherwise be expropriated and annulled. Yet, in Hester's strong and obstinate endurance of her punishment there is publicity but not confession; and perhaps there is a lesson of no slighter meaning in the inference that ceasing to do evil is, after all, the most that can be asked of human nature. Even that seems to be a good deal, and in " The Scarlet Letter " it is a stroke of mastery to show that it is not always ours to cease to do evil, but that in extremity we need the help of the mystery "not ourselves, that makes for righteousness," and that we may call Chance or that we may call God, but that does not change in essence or puissance whatever name we give it.
Author: W. D. Howells
Book: Heroines of Fiction
KEYWORDS: hester Prynne, the scarlet letter hester Prynne, dimmesdale from the scarlet letter, hawtornes, nathanial hawthorne