LT161 Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: A Novel of Conflict
All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate --as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport –there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow: -- “ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES’ (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter XXIV)
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) 1630 – William Hawthorne moves to the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlement from Bray, Berkshire. He gained special prominence in history as a magistrate pronouncing judgement on the Quakers. 1656 – first Quakers expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony. When they came back they were executed 1692 –Salem Witch Hunt. Nineteen people were hanged and one pressed to death by stones. John Hawthorne, another ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, had a part in the Salem Trials from the very beginning.
The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter I)
There was a steel-head piece, a cuirass, a gorget, and greaves, with a pair of gauntlets and a sword hanging beneath; all, and especially the helmet and breastplate, so highly burnished as to glow with radiance, and scatter an illumination everywhere about upon the floor. This bright panoply was not meant for mere idle show, but had been worn by the Governor on many a solemn muster and training field, and had glittered, moreover, at the head of a regiment in the Pequod war. For, though bred a lawyer […] the exigencies of this new country had transformed Governor Bellingham into a soldier, as well as a statesman and ruler. (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter VII)
1633-1637 – Pequod Wars. 1637 – Antinomian Crisis in Boston. Ann Hutchinson, leader of the Antinomians, is put on trial and banished a year later.
A free-born Englishman, but now a seven year’s slave. During that term he was to be the property of his master, and as much a commodity of bargain and sale as an ox, or a joint stool […] (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter VII)
The Founding Idea 1607 –Virginia: first permanent British settlement in America (Jamestown)
Judging from the decision of her air and the glittering symbol in her bosom, [concluded] that she was a great lady in the land [and] offered no opposition. (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter VII)
Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one. She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy […] the letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her, --so much power to do, and power to sympathize, --that many people refused to interpret the scarlet letter A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength. (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter XIII)
‘Hist, hist’ said she, while her ill-omened physiognomy seemed to cast a shadow over the cheerful newness of the house. ‘Wilt thou go with us to-night? There will be a merry company in the forest; and I wellnigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should make one’ (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter VIII)
A sluggish servant or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping post […] an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian, whom the white man’s fire-water had made riotous about the streets was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest […] a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter II)
Wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter II)
Canst thou tell me, my child, who made thee? [The rosebush that] had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson, as she entered the prison door (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter viii)
[Hester] had assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic but which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatised by the scarlet letter. In her lonesome cottage, by the sea-shore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter XIII)
Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind, with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth accepting, even to the happiest among them? As concerned her own individual existence, she had long decided in the negative, and dismissed the point as settled. A tendency to speculation, though it may keep woman quiet, as it does man, yet makes her sad. She discerns, it may be, such a hopeless task before her. As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position. Finally, all the other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter XIII)
But here I cannot but stay and make a pause and stand half amazed at this poor people’s present condition; and so I think will the reader too, when he well considers the same. Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation […] they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor. It is recorded in Scripture as a mercy to the Apostle and his shipwrecked company, that the barbarians showed them no small kindness in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they met with them […] were readier to fill their sides full of arrows than otherwise. And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men—and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah* to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes; for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. *Pisgah – Mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land. (From William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Book 1, Chapter IX)
[Hester] had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they [Hester and Dimmesdale] were now holding a colloquy that was to decide their fate. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside or the church. (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter XVIII)
‘Do I feel joy again?’, cried he, wondering at himself. ‘Methought the germ of it was dead in me! Oh Hester, thou art my better angel! I seem to have flown myself --sick, sin-stained and sorrow-blackened down upon these forest leaves, and to have risen up all made anew, and with new powers to glorify Him that has been merciful. This is already the better life! Why did we not find it sooner?’ (From The Scarlet Letter, chapter XVIII)
1848-1849 Political turmoil in Europe Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) Transcendentalist, advocate of human rights and ardent revolutionary.
‘The Custom House’: set in Boston (1840s to 1850) 1849 –Dismissal of Democrats from office: the Whig administration takes over. The confrontation was so bitter that Nathaniel Hawthorne –one of the Democrats defeated by the new regime- describes his own dismissal as a ‘decapitation.’ The issue that agitated American politics most deeply in Hawthorne’s time was slavery.