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community in the scarlet letterAlexis de Toqueville, a friendlier Frenchman than most we meet nowadays, was, nonetheless, concerned about the deleterious effects of American individualism. In Democracy in America he concedes that individualism is not mere selfishness (égoïsme), but is, rather, “a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.” This attitude is worse in Toqueville’s judgment than it may seem to modern men and women. While mere selfishness “originates in blind instinct,” “individualism proceeds from erroneous judgments more than from depraved feelings; it originates as much in deficiencies of the mind as in perversity of judgment.” A rationalized vice of democratic egalitarianism rather than a mere unthinking result of fallen human nature, “individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.”[1]

Ten years after the second volume of Democracy in America had appeared in 1840, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter dramatizes the religious dimensions of what Toqueville saw as this tendency of democracy that throws a man “back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”[2] Hawthorne finds in colonial New England a compelling setting for his dramatization of the paradox of individualism. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established, in the words of its first governor, John Winthrop, to be “A Model of Christian Charity,” “a city upon a hill.”[3] The Puritans were a tightly knit community with a mission: to “purify” the established Church of England of its residual “popery.” They were, then, a group of dissident voluntary exiles who sought to reform and strengthen the Christian community in England by leaving it—by setting out across the sea for NewEngland, for a New World that would furnish a model for reconstructing the Old one.

The Scarlet Letter envisages this moral and political paradox in terms of individual characters among the first generation colonists: men and women who participate in a hierarchical, authoritarian community that originates in a challenge to the authority and hierarchy of the English church and crown, and a challenge based on the private interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures. Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and her estranged husband, alias Roger Chillingworth, in varying ways embody the tensions that arise in a community based on individual assertion. Political strife in the United States from the time of the founding until our own day has often arisen from this same tension. The Federalist Papers, for example, may be interpreted as an attempt to reassure numerous Americans that a larger, more powerful and centralized federal “community” would not pose a threat to the independence of individual states or individual citizens. Contemporary political controversy—especially about the more inflammatory social issues—frequently involves a similar relation between the individual and society, that is, the larger political community.

With a masterstroke of ironic indirection, Hawthorne highlights the political implications of what is, on the surface, a tragic tale of adultery. He does so by means of a peculiar introduction. “The Custom House,” insofar as it is a literary component of The Scarlet Letter, is less about the trials and tribulations of a political appointee victimized by the Spoils System, than a device for creating a social context and significance for the fatal love triangle that motivates the novel’s plot. There is much in this evidently personal introduction to gladden the hearts of modern conservatives who value independence, self-reliance, and personal liberty; some passages approach libertarian disdain for “the effect of public office on the character,” because a man on the public payroll loses “the capability of self-support” and all the soul’s “better attributes; its sturdy force, its courage and constancy, its truth, its self-reliance, and all that gives the emphasis to manly character.”[4]

Hawthorne’s concerns are not, however, confined to the effects of government employment on the individual or to the economic efficiency of society in the manner of a contemporary proponent of welfare reform; the comic mockery of the Custom House personnel is linked to recurrent references to the folly and even peril of utopian schemes of every stripe. His jocularly hyperbolic comparison of the loss of political office to the loss of one’s head during the Terror of the French Revolution, as when he describes the coverage of his fate in the newspapers as “careering through the public prints, in my decapitated state, like Irving’s Headless Horseman” (51), has the purpose of reminding the reader of the frequent consequences of rebellious idealism. Such allusions, however droll, are made in a context where the author recalls his “fellowship of toil and impracticable schemes, with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm.” And the gluttonous bonhomie of an old bureaucrat at the Custom House compares favorably with the sanctimonious idealism of the Transcendentalists: “Even the old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known [Bronson] Alcott” (38).

Hawthorne’s most telling critique of the life of a Custom-House officer grows out of his account of its effect upon himself, and it is explained by what may seem a counterintuitive observation: “the very nature of his business…is of such a sort that he does not share in the united effort of mankind” (48). The paradox here is that the independent spirit of “self-reliance” and “manly character” that the author praises is not the enemy of community or the source of that withering individualism that Toqueville deprecates; rather, it is a man’s timid self-regard that ventures nothing which “threatens,” as the Frenchman has it, “to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

The paradox deepens in the case of the maker of romance fiction. Hawthorne avers that the cautious, banal life of the public functionary, serving at the pleasure of electoral whim, emasculates the imagination. His serendipitous discovery of the scarlet “A,” along with the narrative exposition by “Mr. Surveyor Pue,” avails him nothing so long as he occupies his official sinecure. “The almost torpid creatures of my own fancy,” he laments, “twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion”:

“What have you to do with us?” that expression seemed to say. “The little power you might once have possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone! You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go, then, and earn your wages!” (45)

The artist, in the throes of creation the most isolated of individuals, still requires a vital connection to the everyday labor and strife, joy and sorrow of the great mass of mankind if his “unrealities” are to assume reality, if the fictitious creatures of his imaginative vision are to throb with life. Withdrawal into bureaucratic officialdom is what truly isolates a man—not the solitude of active effort.

Hawthorne here adumbrates an essential element of fictional representation pertinent to any and every school of writers and reveals the link between literature and life in a way that illuminates the deepest import of The Scarlet Letter. It is crucial to recognize that “The Custom House,” despite having the appearance of an autobiographical sketch explaining the provenance of the story and the author’s personal interest in it—despite containing actual historical facts about the author’s life and nineteenth century American history—despite these deceptive appearances, this “introduction” to The Scarlet Letteris as much a part of the fiction as the narrative of the fallen Hester Prynne, her clerical paramour, and her vindictive husband. As Sir Philip Sidney points out, “Now, for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. … What child is there, that, coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes?”[5]

There is no essential difference, however, between mistaking a stage for Thebes and the notion, popular among some contemporary critics, that the “real” significance of The Scarlet Letter lies in Hawthorne’s repressed Oedipal desires, reawakened by his mother’s recent death. Critics who adopt this line generally lose sight of the actual story in pursuit of its supposed origins in the author’s unconscious incestuous longings: “Like the archives of the unconscious that, as Derrida maintains, ‘are always already transcriptions’, so the worn yet still powerfully evocative A-shaped piece of cloth Surveyor Hawthorne discovers alreadyrepresents the transcription of his author’s unconscious transgressive desire for the dead mother.”[6] Such remarks overlook the fact that “Surveyor” Hawthorne’s “discovery” of the “A-shaped piece of cloth” is a perfectly conscious literary device deployed by the author Nathaniel Hawthorne with no basis in historical fact. One may conjecture that the origin of Hawthorne’s tale lies in his unresolved psychic conflicts, but one may with at least equal certainty ascribe its origin to the author’s need for cash after he lost his job in the Custom House. Neither proposition provides much insight into the moral and spiritual significance of the work as fiction.

Hawthorne guides the reader’s understanding of the fiction of the Letter by prefacing it with the fiction of the Custom House. It is precisely one of Hawthorne’s ways of maintaining a suitable aesthetic distance between the reader and the engrossing characters of the tale, and the chief mode is a pervasive irony. Once we acknowledge that the speaking voice of this introduction is a fictional “Hawthorne,” not the actual author, then we are ready to appreciate the ironic fiction of his discourse.

For example, when Hawthorne attributes to Jonathan Pue, a man who actually was a Surveyor of the Salem Custom House in the eighteenth century, the discovery and explanation of the piece of scarlet cloth in the shape of an “A,” then we know we are in the realm of fiction. Similarly, Hawthorne’s humorously self-effacing contrast between his own status as Surveyor and Pue’s is an unmistakable indication of the ironic mode of the discourse:

In his port was the dignity of one who had borne his Majesty’s commission, and who was therefore illuminated by a ray of the splendor that shone so dazzlingly about the throne. How unlike, alas! the hang-dog look of a republican official, who, as the servant of the people, feels himself less than the least, and below the lowest, of his masters. (44)

This is not simple verbal irony; a perceptive reader will take this passage neither at face value nor as the direct opposite of what it literally says. Hawthorne undoubtedly had winced at the petty mortifications of serving what we now refer to as “the public,” and his eventual political decapitation would have proven even more vexatious. Yet there is something lugubrious in the tone of this complaint even without the telltale “alas!” that assures us that we are not reading the considered judgment of Nathaniel Hawthorne, husband of Sophia Hawthorne, née Peabody. Instead, we perceive a complex evocation of the condition of almost all human beings, certain that life is not fair but not wholly confident in their claim upon fairness.

The same alert sensitivity to irony must be borne with regard to the main narrative of The Scarlet Letter. In the first chapter, the grim aspect of the prison in which Hester has been held—“the black flower of civilized society”—is relieved by a wild rose bush blooming outside its door; and the narrator relates the mythic conjecture that “it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson” (53, 54). Since Hester will presently emerge from this door, she is clearly associated with the legendary antinomian dissident; but it would be a simplistic interpretation that found in the image of the rose an unqualified endorsement either of Anne Hutchinson or of Hester. “Sainted” is not “saintly”; it is rather an ascription of sanctity of uncertain provenance. Moreover, there is a good deal of contrary authorial comment throughout the romance, and, most important, the dramatic unfolding of events and their effects upon the principal characters undermines the claim of Anne Hutchinson to be a model of probity.

In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is treated ironically, but she is not treated derisively, by the narrator or the other characters. As the former observes with regard to the badge of shame itself, “a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself” (55). Hester is in fact the center of the tale’s tragic tension between the protagonist, Arthur Dimmesdale, and his antagonist, Roger Chillingworth. The claim of the latter upon Hester is strictly legal: she has, however heedlessly, consented to be his faithful wife until death do them part.

Dimmesdale can claim, on the other hand, to have won Hester’s love. His is the claim of the heart against the head, of subjective personal longings—of the individual— against the prudent standards established by the community for the common good. Chillingworth—it is significant that he has abandoned his name and identity— concedes to Hester that his claim is mere legalism, that he has taken advantage of her by means of the rules of communal life to grasp what he cannot by his very nature ever really possess:

It was my folly, thy weakness. I, —man of thought,—the book-worm of great libraries,— a man already in decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge,— what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own! (71)

The admission of folly is, however, mingled with intense self-pity and envy for the young, engaging man who has possessed Hester illicitly.

Dimmesdale’s fate is tragic because there is no possibility of a comic or “happy” ending. There is simply no way that his love for Hester can culminate in a fulfilling Christian marriage. Even if Hawthorne had been of a mind to contrive a deus ex machinawith the convenient, natural death of Chillingworth, Hester and Dimmesdale could not have “found closure” and “gotten on with their lives”; this is a tragic world, not a therapeutic world. Chillingworth is absolutely correct in his last words to Dimmesdale in chapter xxiii:

“Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,” said he, looking darkly at the clergyman, “there was no one place so secret,— no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me,— save on this very scaffold!” (194)

After his violation of trust, his fall from his high vocation, and his seven years’ hypocritical concealment of his sin, Dimmesdale could never have simply picked up and moved on. The literal pursuit by Chillingworth, who in the end is little more than the embodiment of the clergyman’s own demons, would have been unnecessary to destroy him. His only recourse was confession and the penance of death. But although Dimmesdale is a tragic figure, his tragedy is Christian, because it closes with the hope of his redemption. The contrast between the protagonist and his vengeful tormentor serves to highlight the final doom of salvation or damnation ultimately faced by all men.

The tragic fall of these individuals is also a tragedy for the community. Most readers will have considerably more sympathy for the adulterous clergyman than for the outraged husband, and by the end of the tale Dimmesdale could reasonably claim to be, like King Lear, “a man more sinned against than sinning.” “We are not, Hester, the worst of sinners in the world. There is one worse even than the polluted priest! That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I Hester, never did so!” (154) Dimmesdale’s self-justification here amounts to the observation that a man who sins less than another may not have the laws of society and community sentiment on his side. But Dimmesdale eventually comes to his senses sufficiently to realize that rebellion against the community is not, therefore, warranted. The toils of sin cannot be escaped by liberal reforms and better social planning: only the expiation of patient suffering offers any hope.

That hope takes shape for Arthur Dimmesdale on the scaffold at the end of the story, when he finally acknowledges Pearl as his daughter, as the offspring of his secret passion. Then she becomes in truth for him “the Pearl of great price” of salvation (Mt. 13.45-46): “Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were a pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it” (xxiii, 196). Pearl’s father, relinquishing his false hope of tainted human happiness, makes possible for his daughter the happiness available to men and women within the bounds of the community.

Hawthorne does not offer us a policy solution for the tension between the individual and community, which turns out to be as acute in the New World as in the Old. The community can adjudicate men’s conduct, but not their souls. It is in the light of these realities that we must weigh the career of Hester Prynne. Recent commentators who deploy postmodern theoretical strategies in their approach to The Scarlet Letter are generally impatient not only with traditional historical scholars and formalist critics but even (or especially) with Hawthorne himself. Nina Baym, for example, complains “that the critics of the 1950s were almost unanimously concerned to deny Hester her rightful place as protagonist of The Scarlet Letter.” She explains this interpretive inequity as the result of “a more covert aspect of the New Critical social ideology, its strong sense of appropriate male/female roles and its consequent conviction that it would be improper for a woman character to be the protagonist in what might well be the greatest American book.”[7] But even if Hester occupies more pages in the romance than either Dimmesdale or Chillingworth, the apparent anomaly does not require the explanation that New Critics necessarily read literature through the lens of ingrained “sexism.” Nick Carraway occupies more pages and more of the reader’s attention in The Great Gatsby than Jay Gatsby, but the latter is undoubtedly the Aristotelian tragic protagonist because of the place he holds in the structure of the plot. And so with Arthur Dimmesdale. What Baym decries as an “ideology” is the principle that artistic form is an essential element in a literary work, distinguishing it from reality as an analogical representation of the actual realm of human experience.

Even though she is not formally the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter, however, no character is more important than Hester, for it is she who embodies most poignantly the conflict between individual and community that lies at the heart of the work’s dramatic significance. Postmodernists who are dismissive of New Critical “formalism,” which they take to be nothing more than a veneer for retrograde political opinions, are still more vexed by the author himself for his depiction of the heroine—much as many current Shakespeare scholars cannot forgive Shakespeare for his failure to make Caliban the hero of The Tempest. Joanne Feit Diehl, for example, asks, “Is he [Hawthorne] on her side or is he not?” She takes the author to task for the fictional situation in which he has placed Hester, since it seems to be insufficiently “empowering” and reflects not his vision of seventeenth- century Massachusetts, but his own masculine prejudice against women: “Placing such severe personal and historical restrictions on Hester—curtailing her power of speech while granting Dimmesdale, in the midst of his duplicity, the freedom of speech—Hawthorne, as author, withstands being submerged by female presence.”[8] The assumption implicit in this critique is that there is a Hester Prynne who exists apart from the story that Hawthorne actually wrote and whom he has somehow treated unfairly.

For Sacvan Bercovitch, The Scarlet Letter is basically not different in nature and purpose from Hawthorne’s political biography of Franklin Pierce, which stakes out a moderate position, critical of Abolitionists and the radicalism of the European revolutions of 1848. As such the romance is “thick propaganda,” and Hester’s role in the narrative is contrived for strictly political purposes: “When after ‘seven miserable years’ Hester at last finds the strength to discard the A, it takes all of Hawthorne’s resources (providence, Pearl, Dimmesdale, nature itself) to have her restore it against her will.”[9] Such is the result of the New Historicist discarding of “old distinctions between literature, history, and the social sciences, while blurring other boundaries” and regarding a work of literature as “a political act.”[10] Works of literature cease to have their own integrity, and by being politicized in a vulgar sense, are deprived of their genuine and vital political significance.

The Scarlet Letter presents a dramatic structure in which all the tensions and contradictions of life in a political community may be contemplated and considered, not an argument for a party platform. Hester Prynne is at the heart of this presentation because she embodies the paradoxical relation between the individual and the community in The Scarlet Letter. A community demands of its members a high level of conformity to the practices and principles that make common life feasible among individuals with competing desires and contrary views of the world. Since the family, originating in the union of husband and wife, is the fundamental unit of any human community, traditional societies have always imposed severe penalties on violations of the marital bond. As an adulteress who bears an illegitimate child, Hester is by that fact alone a threat to social cohesion and subject to the full weight of public opprobrium. But the narrator is at pains to show that she is not just a young woman who fell through carnal weakness after long separation from her missing elderly husband. Hawthorne tells us that Hester’s isolation from the community led her to question all of its standards: “She 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 stigmatized by the scarlet letter” (133). Steeped in misery herself, Hester wonders whether life is bearable for even the happiest of women and despairs of any real improvement in their lot without a total revolution: “As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew.” The narrator adds, “The scarlet letter had not done its office” (134).

Such is the Hester valued by postmodernists, a radical feminist firmly opposed to the “patriarchal” establishment of colonial New England society. In the view of these theorists, Hester somehow takes on a life of her own, apart from the book that we have, only to be suppressed by the author’s timid conservatism. In fact, the Hester that Hawthorne depicts is a far more credible and compelling character than the sanctimonious ideologue of his critics. The woman who entertains radical conjectures and unhallowed longings to resume her affair with Arthur Dimmesdale, if she acted on them as her contemporary partisans wish, would become the creature feared by Tocqueville, a woman “confined entirely within the solitude of [her] own heart.” But she is also, providentially, “terror-stricken” by her “sympathetic knowledge of the sin of other hearts” (80) and deeply anxious over the spiritual state of her daughter: “O Father in Heaven,—if Thou art still my Father,— what is this being which I have brought into the world!” she cries (86). Most important is the practical role Hester assumes, in contrast to the “freedom of speculation” that she has assumed:

She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy; or, we may rather say, the world’s heavy hand had so ordained her when neither the world nor she looked forward to this result. 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 A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester with a woman’s strength. (131)

Hester begins by showing charity to those who greet her alms with scornful taunts, but eventually her competence and generosity win the world’s respect and transform her token of shame to a badge of honor. Paradoxically, it is just the strength of her defiant individualism, maintaining her dignity in the face of disdain, that enables her to be so effective as a self-effacing servant of the community. The implication is that the community needs strong individuals, who sometimes struggle against it.

Even as Arthur Dimmesdale realizes that his only hope of escape from the sin and guilt incarnate in Roger Chillingworth is to ascend the scaffold, confess his sin, and accept redemption in the terms offered by Providence; just so, Hester eventually realizes, when Pearl has attained the measure of temporal happiness forfeited by her mother, that New England remains the proper place for her to live out her life, comforting and counseling troubled women. She retains her “firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness” (201). What Hester gives to the community thus depends upon this tension between her individual vision and social convention and the energy that thus arises. Yet, “Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognized 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 lifelong sorrow” (201). Hester, who has not read Hawthorne’s version of her own story, can hardly know what the author has shown us, that these strictures apply to us all, that no one is suited to such a mission.

Hawthorne sets his romance among a people who have fled England in order to reestablish society “on a surer ground,” as it were. Hester’s story shows that the longings of the heart will inevitably conflict with the order of society—even a society established to resolve such conflicts. Hawthorne does not furnish a plan for reorganizing society according to Scripture or enlightened reason or sociological research, so that all strife will be eliminated. His tale suggests, to the contrary, that tension between the individual and the community can never be resolved, nor should it be. For it is the friction between strong, imaginative individuals and the necessary limits of social order that generates the vigor and vitality of a community, just as resistance in the filament is necessary for an electric light bulb to glow incandescent. We probably cannot say that Hester enjoyed a happy, satisfying life in modern terms; after all, she lacked cable television and internet access and never even went to the mall. But perhaps what Hawthorne shows us is that excessive preoccupation with a shabby, vulgar, comfortable kind of happiness is what is depriving the American republic of both challenging individuals and vibrant communities.

Books mentioned in this essay and related works may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of The Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2007).


1.  Democracy in America Part II, I, ii, ed. Phillips Bradley (New York: Random House, 1945), II, 104.

2.  Ibid., II, 106.

3.  “A Model of Christian Charity,” in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed. Ronald Gottesman et. al. (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1979), I, 24.

4.  The Scarlet Letter, ed. Ross C. Murfin (Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 48-49. Further references to this work will be given parenthetically in the text.

5.  The Defence of Poesy, in Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 235.

6.  Joanne Feit Diehl, “Re-Reading The Letter: Hawthorne, the Fetish, and the (Family) Romance,” in The Scarlet Letter, ed. Murfin, 250.

7.  “The Significance of Plot in Hawthorne’s Romances” (1981), quoted by Murfin, “The Critical Background,” in The Scarlet Letter, 220.

8.  “Re-Reading the Letter,” 246.

9.  “Hawthorne’s A-Morality of Compromise,” in The Scarlet Letter, ed. Murfin, 354,355.

10. Ross C. Murfin, “What Is the New Historicism?” in The Scarlet Letter, 332.

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