Hawthorne and Symbolism: The Scarlet Letter

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Hawthrone begins The Scarlet Letter with a long introductory essay that generally functions as a prologue, but more specifically, achieves four significant objectives: outlines autobiographical information about the author, describes the conflict between artistic impulse and the commercial environment, define the romance novel and adds an imaginative literary device, the romantic pretense of having discovered the manuscript of The Scarlet Letter in the custom-house.

The connection between Hawthrone’s introductory essay and his novel has frequently puzzled readers, and several critics believe that it so detracts from the artistic unity of the volume that it should be omitted. Hawthrone himself states that his “true reason” for including the sketch was that it explained the source of the “most prolix among the tales that make up my volume”. Furthermore, the essay serves as a means of introducing the reader to a subject of some antiquity: from the Salem of the 19th century, he is gradually taken back to the Boston of the 17th century. The need for such a device is emphasized in Hawthrone’s regret that he was unable to write a novel about contemporary life. There are many thematic connections between the two pieces as well as similarities in point of view. The principal reason for this resemblance is probably that they were both written at approximately the same time and therefore reflect the events that affected Hawthrone's life in the latter part of 1849. Critics like Sam S Baskett calls for the contrast between the decay of the somnolent society of 19th century Salem and the iron vigour and strength of the sterner society of 17th-century Boston. He points out that the new society is characterized by shallow commercialism and petty politics as opposed to the characteristically religious and moral concerns which ordered the life of Puritan New England. Much of the unity of effect Hawthrone was able to achieve in The Scarlet Letter is due to the aloofness towards his subject, whereas “The Custom House” sketch reveals the difficulty he has in taking an impersonal attitude towards his immediate circumstances. The major themes of isolation, guilt, decadence and the sinister power that one person or institution can exercise over another, all appear in this short piece.

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The parallel analysis of this short introduction shows that the narrator identifies himself with Hester. Both of them are little understood for their ways and feel alienated. Familiar with the journeys to Hell of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, Hawthrone has many classical parallels which create his hellish descent. More important than these conventions of the journey, is the ethical necessity for the traveller to learn who and what he is and what life is. In Hawthrone's case as in Dante’s, the traveller is an artist, who like, Aeneas and Odysseus, goes through the underworld and emerges rejuvenated and inspired, the possessor of profound knowledge and insight. Hawthrone pauses on the threshold of what will be his underworld to describe the town of Salem as the vestibule opening into Hell, “dead level of site and sentiment” casts a “spell” on him, and Hwathrone feels that Providence and a clear sense of destiny have drawn him to Salem. In this once “wild and forest-bordered” city of errors, Hawthrone like Dante will lose his way. Hawthrone begins his sojourn in the Custom-House on a “fine morning” such as Dante and Aeneas began their infernal experience. Hawthrone’s Custom-House is also a frigid place where the inhabitants have denied the bonds of community with the human world; the chill of isolation has immobilized the old men into inactivity and living dead. Like the gluttons, the residents of the House are far more concerned with “their morning’s breakfast” than any other memory of their former lives. When Hawthrone first goes to the House, he seemed to search for moderation and harmony in his life, but crossing the threshold into the community of the dead, he becomes thoroughly disorganized and off-balance.

Edward Wagenknecht’s remarks that after deploring the “casualness” of tone which makes the introduction “hopelessly out of harmony” with the romance proper, Wagenknecht flatly concludes that The Custom House has no real connection with the main story. Austin Warren, in his “Introduction” to the Rinehart edition of The Scarlet Letter, explains that “There is not the slightest reason for crediting this discovery”, because Hawthrone has in 1837, already made use of the idea of Hester’s punishment in “Endicott and the Red Cross”. Warner insists, that “The Scarlet Letter is a romance, not a chronicle”. The mood of romance is set in the “House” and it is not simply by the famous moonlight passage, but throughout the preface and perhaps especially in the paragraphs that include the mention of those curiously circumstantial measurements of the scarlet letter.

The “Custom-House” is a penetrating commentary on the theme of survival- survival of the human spirit benumbed by bureaucracy. Hawthrone’s central target, the patriarch of this little squad of officials, is “a certain permanent Inspector” who has indeed survived as an animal. Hoeltje suggests that “If the characterization of the permanent Inspector…approaches naturalism painful to some modern readers as it was to Hawthrone’s Whig enemies, that characterization id more than balanced by the portrait of the old Collector, General Miller..”

Hawthrone’s careful management of narrative tone and his use of a carefully controlled narrative voice as an aspect of general narrative technique deserve to be studied in the romances that followed the “Letter”, and indeed in the tales and sketches that preceded it. Again, viewed as a symbolic journey through darkness to aesthetic enlightenment for Hawthrone, “The Custom House” is an appropriate introduction to the romance, which deals specifically with another journey through the dark sins of the human heart to salvations or lacks it. As Hester is allowed to reconcile with God, Hawthrone is “saved” by being dismissed from the Custom House. Both of them made this discovery in isolation when they were thrown on their resources and no longer dependent on either the strong Republic or the Puritan church.

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Hawthorne and Symbolism: The Scarlet Letter. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/hawthorne-and-symbolism-the-scarlet-letter/
“Hawthorne and Symbolism: The Scarlet Letter.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/hawthorne-and-symbolism-the-scarlet-letter/
Hawthorne and Symbolism: The Scarlet Letter. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/hawthorne-and-symbolism-the-scarlet-letter/> [Accessed 12 Jun. 2024].
Hawthorne and Symbolism: The Scarlet Letter [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2024 Jun 12]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/hawthorne-and-symbolism-the-scarlet-letter/

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