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Hawthorne and Redemption the Scarlet LetterResearch Paper

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Hawthorne and the Redemptive Aim in the Scarlet Letter

As Hawthorne noted several times in his own works, he wrote "romances" -- not novels. The Romance writer, he contended, gave himself a degree of "latitude" that a novelist could not enjoy (Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables 1). What Hawthorne attempts to "enjoy," so to speak, in The Scarlet Letter is the reconciliation of diametrically opposed forces. On the one hand is Hester, who is ready to quit the Puritan community and embrace "freedom" (Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter 175) -- freedom from sin, from guilt, from the past, from societal constraints, from judgment, from everything. On the other hand is Dimmesdale, who knows that there is no redemption in such a life as the one Hester is tempted to pursue. In between the two is the Calvinist-Puritanical community which is so severe and harsh that it seemingly drives a wedge between itself and any real concept of Christian charity, grace, or atonement. It effectively reduces itself to the level of the Biblical Jews who wish to "cast stones" (John 8:7) at the sinful woman and who are in turn roundly condemned by the same God Whom the Puritans think they are pleasing when they pin the letter to Hester's chest. In their marginalization of her, they are no different from other groups who, in the past as well as the present, seek to suppress others in order to save, elevate or differentiate themselves. This paper will show how it is Hawthorne's objective to overcome the obstacle of bad faith, or spiritual blindness within the Puritan community (including the characters of Hester, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth), by effecting a true reconciliation through a redemptive or cleansing act -- which in the case of the novel consists of a full confession, a humbling, and a prayer. It is part of Hawthorne's sense of reality that he chose to identify the novel as a "romance" because, realistically speaking, the tale needed a little "magical realism" -- or infusion of grace (not necessarily the stuff of the realistic novel) in order to arrive at the conclusion he sought to produce.

To better understand the objective that Hawthorne aims to achieve, it is necessary to look at his method. As Marshall McLuhan observes, "The medium is the message" (1), and for Hawthorne the medium (in the sense of that which he uses to effect his desired end) is the Puritan community. That he should choose the "romantic" route through this medium to his end is indicative of the message which the Puritan community itself effects: it is a contradictory message, which can be seen in the words that they historically preach and in the actions that they historically take. Hawthorne couples the actions (the identification of Hester as an adulterer and her subsequent marginalization) with the preaching (the final speech of Dimmesdale which serves as both sermon and confession) to overcome the difficulty of the novel -- and he does so by what Wendy Faris might well call "magical realism" (though this is certainly not a term invented in the 19th century but rather the 20th and typically applies to those post-colonial works of a particular surrealist quality, wherein the everyday reality is blended with an imaginative, spiritual reality). It might apply to Hawthorne's novel in the sense that he effects the final conversion of characters (except that of the incorrigible sinner Chillingworth) through the working of "a native grace" as well as the hand of "Providence" (The Scarlet Letter, 89). By "magical realism," Faris means the combination of "realism and the fantastic so that the marvelous seems to grow organically within the ordinary, blurring the distinction between them ... [including] different cultural traditions ... [and reflecting] the hybrid nature of much postcolonial society" (p. 1). The blended traditions in the novel, of course, would be the somewhat recently developed Protestant tradition and the more ancient and long-seated Christian or Catholic tradition of the Old World (from which notions of penance, confession, atonement, and redemption spring long before they do in the Protestantized New World. In this sense, Hawthorne utilizes the "fantastic" by his own admission (by writing in the "romance" genre and digging into the spiritual depths) to deal directly with the reality.

Colacurcio points out that for Hawthorne, the tactic of calling his works "romances" allowed him to embrace a "more fictional, and therefore less realistic" form of narrative (Colacurcio 31). In other words, Hawthorne's novels were not to be read as works of realism (which was a term not even defined in antebellum America), but rather his works, instead, were to be read almost as one would read a fable -- full of symbols and interpretable meaning. Indeed, among his published works were many short stories that read as fables -- tales of morality and immorality and the effect of sin on the soul, mind and body of the individual (as well as the community). Hawthorne's "romance" writing was not like modern "romances" which are geared towards the fulfillment of lovers' wishes. His idea of a "romance" was that which pealed back the veneer of reality to get to the heart of human nature. Novels of "realism," he felt, did not do the trick: they merely concentrated on the surface, the superficial expression of life in its day-to-day enactments.

Hawthorne did not shy away from such day-to-day expressions but he did look beneath them to the psychological, spiritual motivation -- which he then depicted in his "romantic" way, meaning in his expressive, symbolic, fable-like way -- a forerunner perhaps to the genre of magical realism (replacing the genre's surrealism with spiritualism instead). Thus, in the Scarlet Letter itself can be seen a visual representation of that which lurks beneath the surface, the veneer, the faAade, the superficial reality. It is a symbol of sin -- and yet only Hester wears it (as though she were the only human being in the community who had ever committed a sin). What is unsaid but implied by Hawthorne is that sin lurks beneath the surface of nearly everyone, and it is only "seen" in society when the effects of sin (such as childbirth out of wedlock) are clearly visible. That is why Hester is given the letter to wear -- because she is the one among them whom everyone can know that is a sinner (they in their hypocrisy act like the Jews who seek to stone the woman and who are in turn admonished by Christ, who says, "Ye without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:7) -- and of course they all drop their stones and leave, a Biblical point which supports the implicit theme of Hawthorne's "romance"). They are also similar to Shirley Jackson's community in "The Lottery" who seek to hurl down their bloodlust upon any random member of society -- it does not matter -- just so long as they can hurl it down upon someone.

The sin of the Puritans in the novel, therefore, is that they hurl stones (cast judgments). The sin of Dimmesdale is two-fold (he commits adultery and then allows his flock to socially stone Hester out of fear for his own person). The sin of Chillingworth, of course, is that of the cuckolded husband seeking revenge. In short, no one is without sin in the community (except perhaps Pearl -- a direct reference to the Baroque age, since "Baroque" means pearl (Bauer 3), and was a type of art that the Catholic world used as part of its counter-Reformation campaign to undo the Protestantization of Europe) (Laux 422). Pearl represents mankind with its native grace and yet with its own touch of Original Sin (which means it too is in need of saving grace). The hypocrisy of the Puritan community is thus explicit: it judges and therefore risks being judged by God in turn (Matthew 7:1). The Puritans should know better, since they seek the pure spirituality; they fail, and thus Hawthorne uses the symbol of their failure (the letter) to move the plot towards redemption -- the realization, not that "we are sinners all alike" (224) as some of the more incorrigible, wizened spectators sanctimoniously believe (and though this is true, it is not the main point for his sermon is not just a sermon but also a confession), but that indeed grace can be re-introduced into the soul through confession of one's sins, which is a gray, shadowy Biblical point that the Puritan community made uncomfortable by. The point is there, however, and must be made, for Hawthorne's aim is not to make the New Englanders of his own day feel more comfortable with themselves but rather to look into their own souls and see how they stand in relation to the God Who made them.

In today's world, it is decidedly as difficult if not more so to see how Hawthorne's stratagem works towards its aim. The same sort of hypocrisy that plagues the Puritans is demonstrated again and again, as individuals… [END OF PREVIEW]

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