Scarlet Letter Although Nathaniel Hawthorne Essay

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Scarlet Letter

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Although Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter long before the New Historicism was a method of literary criticism, it is undeniable that Hawthorne himself was steeped in history, and in a mode of thinking we might conveniently designate as "historicist." The opening of the novel demonstrates this amply: rather than thrust the reader into the action in medias res, Hawthorne gives us a prologue that is seemingly set some two centuries after the main action of the book. It is worth noting that the present-day (for Hawthorne) frame narrative of "The Custom House" suggests, in light of the novel's title, one crucial aspect of New Historicist thinking. The scarlet letter in The Scarlet Letter is, after all, a symbol: a single character which is meant to stand for something larger, but which requires a reader to interpret its meaning. And one of the central burdens of the New Historicism is that such symbolic meanings are indeed socially constructed, and do not necessarily maintain a fixed meaning over time: instead they must be understood with reference to the material conditions that produced them in the first place. If New Historicism dictates this is the position from which any reader must necessarily approach The Scarlet Letter, it is worth noting that it is not unlike the position from which Hawthorne's own narrator approaches the scarlet letter itself: as he states in "The Custom-House," "Certainly there was some deep meaning in it most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind." (21). Hawthorne himself understands there is a meaning in this alphabetical piece of cloth, yet he is at pains to emphasize (with words like "mystic," "subtly," and "evading") the incommunicability of the meaning over time. It is worth considering, therefore, whether a New Historicist reading of the central symbol in The Scarlet Letter can offer a more "worthy…interpretation" of the "deep meaning" than Hawthorne himself professes to be able to attain.

TOPIC: Essay on Scarlet Letter Although Nathaniel Hawthorne Assignment

To a certain extent, we may perhaps note a possible pun lurking in the title of Hawthorne's prologue: the "Custom-House" is, of course, an official location where customs-officers survey imports and exports, but it also hints at the double meaning of the word "custom," referring also to social mores and behavior. This latter form of custom differs, of course, not only by place but also by historical period: to a certain extent what Hawthorne attempts to invoke in the actual novel is the vanished "custom" of Puritan New England, a place where such a thing as a scarlet letter actually existed as a form of legal punishment. Yet the concluding lines of the novel actually come full circle to the historical distance of the prologue, as we see the way in which such a symbol can alter its meaning over time. In the novel's plot, the scarlet letter is a punishment for Hester, but in its concluding sentences Hawthorne somewhat surprisingly makes reference to heraldry in redefining Hester's badge as a coat-of-arms:

So said Hester Prynne, and glanced her sad eyes downward at the scarlet letter. And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial-ground beside which King's Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tomb-stone served for both. 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 may serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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"Scarlet Letter Although Nathaniel Hawthorne."  Essaytown.com.  December 8, 2013.  Accessed October 26, 2021.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/scarlet-letter-although-nathaniel-hawthorne/8411107.