Transcendentalist codes in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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Transcendentalist Codes in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

Discovering Transcendentalism as a movement that supports the conviction that divinity can be found in all things, Hawthorne deliberately represents his personal beliefs and observes all the ethics of transcendentalism in The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne who had been brought up in a puritanical society with its rigid laws tried to blend his favor upon transcendentalist ideas with his religious thought together in his masterpiece The Scarlet Letter.

At first we have to know some about Transcendentalism and its meaning, also the relation between Hawthorne and it. In philosophy and literature Transcendentalism defines as “a belief in a higher kind of knowledge than achieved by human reason.” It was strongly influenced by Deism which was opposed to Calvinist orthodoxy.

Transcendentalism rejects the Puritan religious attitudes and it opposes the strict ritualism and dogmatic theology of all religions. It was also influenced by romanticism for example in the ideas of self-reliance, the respect of individualism and the admiration of the nature and humankind. In this way transcendentalists saw a direct connection between the universe (macrocosm) and the individual soul (microcosm), so according to this concept intuition, rather than reason, is regarded as the highest human faculty.

Kant taught the doctrine that instead of looking for evidence of a Supreme Being in the external world, we should seek him in our own hearts; that every man could find a revelation in his own conscience,-- in the consciousness of good and evil, by which man improves his condition on earth; that the ideas of a Supreme Being, or of immortality and freedom of will, are inherent in the human mind, and are not to be acquired from experience; but that, as the finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite, we cannot know God in the same sense that we know our own earthly fathers,…..The new philosophy was named “Transcendentalism” by Kant’s followers, because it included ideas which were beyond the range of experience.

In its most specific usage, transcendentalism refers to a literary and philosophical movement that developed in America in the first half of the 19th century. They believed that man has something more valuable than its fleshy body. Man has a spiritual body that has senses to perceive what is true and right and beautiful.

What attracted Hawthorne in Transcendentalism was its free inquiry, its radicalism, its contact with actual life. It is remarkable to pay attention that the main aspects of the transcendental ideas which occupied Hawthorne’s thought in his romances, especially in The Scarlet Letter, were the doctrines of self-reliance and of compensation. According to the idea of compensation every action carries its reward or punishment with it. The thief is punished, though the police never find him, for the price of theft is loss of innocence, fear of arrest, suspicion of other men. The doctrine of self-reliance, in which a man should live according to his own nature, by listening to the dictates of the over-soul as revealed in his instinct and desire, so he should keep himself free of imprisoning to his past, and of conventional society, which embodies the past.

Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter illustrates self-reliance in a society in which there is no respect for individuals. Since her love for Dimmesdale is the one sincere passion of her life, she obeys it utterly, though a conventional judgment will say that she is stepping out of the moral order. As we see during her punishment, Hester passes some different and difficult stages which show her as a transcendental and self-reliant character. We see that during the novel, her position in the eyes of the people of Boston is progressing. Robert L. Berner says, “(1) her initial humiliation as a sinner to (2) a condition in which she is tolerated, though scorned, through (3) a stage of respect for her good works, to (4) their love for her and for the letter which finally signifies Angel” (273). The first stage shows her a sinner who is cursed by the people who consider Hester as an immoral lawbreaker. This stage is pictured by the prison, the market place and the scaffold, all signifying and emphasizing her humiliation. Then it changes to the second stage, a condition in which she is scorned and tortured but she tolerates all persistently and patiently. In the third stage her good works and her help to poor people receive the respect of the people. This situation forms the last stage in which their love for Hester and her letter are formed. In this stage public invest the scarlet letter with a new meaning. The townspeople who once condemned her now believe her scarlet "A" to stand for her ability to create beautiful needlework and for her unselfish assistance to the poor and sick. The letter is the symbol of her calling. Such power to help and sympathize made many people to refuse to interpret the scarlet 'A' by its original signification. The ‘A’ no longer stands for “Adulteress”. It now means “Able.”

At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madame Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she—the naughty baggage—little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! (79) She never battled with the public, but submitted uncomplainingly to its worst usage; she made no claim upon it in requital for what she suffered; (179) None so self-devoted as Hester when pestilence stalked through the town….She came, not as a guest, but as a rightful inmate, into the household that was darkened by trouble, as if its gloomy twilight were a medium in which she was entitled to hold intercourse with her fellow-creature (179-180). many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Abel, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength (180).

The doctrine of compensation is mostly illustrated in Chillingworth, who, having determined on a fiendish revenge becomes himself a fiend. This gloomy soul, marked for perdition, is a firm believer in compensation; he wronged Hester’s youth by marrying her, and therefore he bears her no ill will for wronging him, but he argues that since the minister had never received a justifying harm at his hands, the secret lover should therefore be punished by the injured husband. As Chillingworth discusses the matter with Hester, compensation seems to be at one moment sheer fatalism, at another moment a primitive exacting of an eye for an eye. He dies and follows Dimmesdale whom he had tortured.

On the other hand we have Hester and Dimmesdale, the sinners, and we can see the doctrine of compensation which is illustrated in both Hester and Dimmesdale for their sin. Due to their sin both of them suffered in their life and we see that their sin and its consequences are with them to the end of their lives, and we see that after her sin, Hester, as a transcendental heroin did not escape from that society but stays there and, believing to be purified again, tolerates all pressures:

What she compelled herself to believe—what, finally, she reasoned upon as her motive for continuing a resident of New England—was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost: more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom (105).

Hawthorne deliberately tried to convey his thought by choosing the best options for his characters. However it seems that the main sinner in the story is Hester Prynne but it is obvious that on the other hand Hawthorne puts Arthur Dimmesdale, a clergyman, to introduce the truth of the puritanical society. Hester is a young, fresh and beautiful woman who has committed adultery, but Hester as someone who has broken the rigid and inflexible laws of the puritanical society of Boston is considered as a transcendental heroin who at last is respected by all the people of this society. Hawthorne used a clergyman as an unknown lover of Hester to depict the real situation of that society.

Considering the life and suffering of Hester and regarding her as a transcendentalist character, it is necessary to find answers for some questions to know completely how Hawthorne portrays Hester’s character. To what extent does she accept the tenets of Puritan religion and law? Have all the years of suffering and good works brought about in Hester the change that the magistrates originally sought? Does Hester intend to repent? And what is her view toward her sin?

At first after her sin, Hester’s submission to society is deepened. She lives more than ever in conformity with the rigid Puritan codes. With no reputation to lose, Hester conducts herself with such circumspection not to allow the people in Boston can find a hint of scandal to report. She accepts without complaint the ill-treatment she receives at their hands. What’s more, Hester takes new steps to redeem herself in the eyes of God and man. She becomes a self-ordained Sister of Mercy. Her new role is that of tender and competent nurse to the colony’s ill and dying. Condemned as an adulteress, Hester has become a free thinker, something far more dangerous in this stuffy, illiberal world. Once she was a dissenter, a person who broke with her society over a single law. Now she is a heretic, a person who questions the basis of every law. So we see that Hester, relaying on her self-confidence and on her heart, did what she wanted and now due to her sin she finds herself and her position as a free and real human being in the world. And somehow we can say that her sin helped her to find her real identity, a kind of identity which does not like the harsh and rigid atmosphere of the puritanical society and wants to spread love and tenderness through this society. Charles Feidelson says:

Hester is, indeed, a sinner. But her sin is a cause not of evil but of good. Suffering disciplines Hester, so that she grows strong. Sorrow awakens her sympathies, so that she becomes a nurse. In fact, the best deeds of Hester’s life come about through her fall from grace. Her charity to the poor, her comfort to the broken-hearted, and her unquestioned presence in times of trouble are the direct result of her search for repentance. If Hester had not sinned, she would never have discovered the true depths of tenderness within herself.

There is nothing in the story to condemn directly Hester or the minister in their sin; and in this way we as readers and also the writer himself sympathize with Hester. Darrel Abel argues, “We sympathize with Hester at first because of her personal attraction, and our sympathy deepened through the story because we see that she is more sinned against than sinning” (302). The only blame attaches to Dimmesdale’s cowardice, his lack of self-reliance, his unreadiness to make public acknowledgment of his love. The passion itself, as the two lovers still agree at the close of their hard experience, was sacred, and never caused them repentance, but in the eyes of God and transcendentalists Hester is some how a sinner but not a sinner who is deserved to be tortured in such a way. Frederic I. Carpenter says:

According to the transcendental idealists, Hester Prynne sinned in that she did not go beyond human love. In seeking to protect her lover by deception, she sinned both against her own “integrity” and against God. If she had told the whole truth in the beginning, she would have been blameless. But she lacked this perfect self-reliance (297).

We see that her sin leads her to a larger life. Social ostracism first gives her leisure for meditation and a just angle from which to attack social problems, and then it permits her to enter upon a life of mercy and good works which would have been closed to a conventional woman in this freezing puritan society. We see that the original wearer of the scarlet letter as a woman puts away her shame by embroidering the guilty “A” into an elaborate and beautiful emblem. She becomes more loving, more sympathetic, and tenderer; and intellectually she becomes emancipated from the narrowness of her age.

Arthur Dimmesdale as a clergyman and as someone who brought up in this society finds himself a criminal. Regarding the traditions and principles of this society, it is obvious that during seven years in which he hides his sin from society, because he has violated these rules, he is suffering and regretting. We can examine this character in two ways. One aspect of this character is Arthur Dimmesdale who has violated the inflexible laws and on the other side stands another aspect of him, a venerable clergyman who is respected by the society. Arthur Dimmesdale hides himself behind the protection of his social position but it is obvious that he can not get rid of his sin and its consequences. We can not see him growing wiser or stronger, but day after day, weaker and paler. This kind of physical situation implies and shows his sick and suffering mind which is the result of his sin. Regarding his violation of the dignity of his position, Dimmesdale is wavering and becoming more and more perplexed and worn down with woe. It is obvious to see the minister in this condition because he has broken a law which his education had made more prominent than any law in his own soul. His nerve seemed absolutely destroyed. “His moral force was abased into more than childish weakness. It grovelled helpless on the ground, even while his intellectual faculties retained their pristine strength, or had perhaps acquired a morbid energy, which disease only could have given them” (178).

All the people in the puritanical society of Boston respected Dimmesdale as a venerable clergyman but Dimmesdale whom Hawthorne used to show the truth of this kind of society, is the main sinner, someone who has violated the laws and hides behind his social position. He loves Hester Prynne heartily, and yet he has neither moral courage nor moral honest to assert his sin. He was dying because of his sin but all the people consider his dying situation as the result of his purity and holiness:

Some declared, that if Mr. Dimmesdale were really going to die, it was cause enough that the world was not worthy to be any longer trodden by his feet (142). They deemed the young clergyman a miracle of holiness. They fancied him the mouth-piece of Heaven’s messages of wisdom, and rebuke, and love. In their eyes, the very ground on which he trod was sanctified. The virgins of his church grew pale around him, victims of a passion so imbued with religious sentiment, that they imagined it to be all religion, and brought it openly, in their white bosoms, as their most acceptable sacrifice before the altar (163).

Hawthorne as someone who lived in a freezing, rigid and dark society of that puritanical time wrote his works somehow as a reflection of this society. Regarding the bitter and self-denying doctrines of that day it is easy to know that there was no sin worse than what Hester Prynne committed, the sin for which she was damned by her society. It was a long time that there was no place for passion in that kind of society. Nobody dares to show or respect this sensuous element of human nature. All the puritans have been brought up so that to be able to deny or scorn his owns flesh and blood and his natural feelings. Anybody who wants to be and to live as a free individual and to value his physical body and sensuous feeling is considered as a rebellious sinner who has rebelled against the authority of God. This people doom to be killed or exiled from the society.

Due to Hawthorne’s background and religious thought The Scarlet Letter ,in particular, Hester, shows the confusing state of mind of the writer in which there is a conflict between his traditional thought that consider Hester as a sinner woman and his transcendental ideas which agree that Hester did wisely to “give all to love”. As Frederic I. Carpenter says: “Explicitly, he condemned Hester Prynne as immoral; but implicitly, he glorified her as courageously idealistic”. Hawthorne as a traditional moralist considers Hester Prynne as a true sinner who has produced death and tragedy as the result of her sin:

Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognised the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow (275).

Considering Hawthorne’s transcendental ideas Hester did nothing wrong. She is faithful and loyal toward her true lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, and also she is not disloyal to her evil husband, Chillingworth, because she has never loved him as we see she tells Chillingworth, “Thou knowest I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any” (100). but her love for Dimmesdale is a real love. She wants honestly to be with her lover forever. Transcendentalists do not consider Hester as a sinful woman who broke the rules because in the sight of God she had never been married. Hester just obeys her heart because she feels no conflict, as Dimmesdale feels, between her heart and her head, so Hester acts as Emerson counsels to do what her heart demands:
Leave all for love:

Yet, hear me, yet
. . . . . . . .
Keep thee to-day,
To-morrow, forever,
Free as an Arab
Of thy beloved.

Heartily know
When half-gods go,
The gods arrive (qtd. in “Carpenter, Frederic I.” 295).

Using his genius, Hawthorne employs the best options of characters to convey his two-sided credence, and it seems to show the confusion which stands beneath the story, a kind of confusion that illustrates at the same time the puritanical and traditional thought and also transcendentalist ideas in Hawthorne’s mind.

Work Cited
Abel, Darrel. “ Hawthorne’s Hester” The Scarlet Letter An Authoritative Text
Essays In Criticism And Scholarship. 3rd Ed. Seymour Gross. Sculley Bradely.
Richmond Croom Beatty. E, Hudson Long. New York: Norton & Company, Inc,
1988: 302.
Berner, Robert, L. “ A key to The Custom-House” The Scarlet Letter An Authoritative
Text Essays In Criticism And Scholarship. 3rd Ed. Seymour Gross. Sculley
Bradely. Richmond Croom Beatty. E, Hudson Long. New York: Norton &
Company, Inc, 1988: 273.
Carpenter, Frederic I. “ Scarlet A Minus” The Scarlet Letter An Authoritative
Text Essays In Criticism And Scholarship. 3rd Ed. Seymour Gross. Sculley
Bradely. Richmond Croom Beatty. E, Hudson Long. New York: Norton
& Company, Inc, 1988: 297.
Fiedler, Leslie, A. “Achievement and Denial” Thirty Great Novels. Ed. Ismail
Salami. Tehran: Mehrandish Books, 1999.
Hawthorne, Nathanaeil. The Scarlet Letter And Selected Tales. Ed. Thomas,
E. Connolly. Penguin English Library, 1970.
Strearns, Frank Peterson. The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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