Love and law in Scarlett Letter.

A possible interpretation of love, following Denis de Rougemont’s patterns
In order to understand Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlett Letter”, we must realize that it was written in a different age, with different conceptions and expectations. Hans Robert Jauss, a critic who built his literary theory on the reader’s expectation in a written text, considered that a discourse reflects the mentality of its own time. In other words, we can consider that this novel reflects the opinion of 1850s about the Puritan communities and about the religious phenomenon. If we want to observe the whole mechanism on which the text functions and to deconstruct it, we must at a first reading to make an intellectual empathy with the author and his times (this would be a first step taken into consideration by Hans Robert Jauss ). In other words, Hawthorne was not very keen on the fundamentalism of Quakers or Puritans. In other works too, he emphasized their illogical view of life . Widely, this author offers a personal interpretation of life in 17th century.

We can observe that the theme of love functions in different patterns in this novel. I consider that the theme of love introduces the principle of the juridical act. In order to have a more exact approach about this vast term called “love”, we will use the distinction made by Denis de Rougemont in “L’Amour en Occident” , where distinguishes between philia (maternal love), eros (passionate love), agape (pure love) and caritas (the love of the church). It is important to make this distinction because the term love is very large and deals, as we can see, with a large category of relations. A possible approach may be to see the law system as a part of caritas category. The action of the novel is determined by the law of the Puritan society. In other words, it is determined by the love of the church for each of his members. According to Oxford Dictionary, a suitable definition for law is: ”the system of rules which a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and which it may enforce by the imposition of penalties”. To our distinction, the law would define a part of the last category.

In “Scarlett Letter” it is clearly expressed the moral faith of liberty and it is accused the fundamentalism of the Puritans. Still, we must ask ourselves to what extent the law is justified by the religious faith? To what extend can we read in the novel the law principles applied from a Christian (a religion of love ultimately) view?
First of all, I will analyze the way in which the three first types of love (philia,eros and agape) appear in the novel and who are the principal actors. Then I will focus on dichotomy between punishment and forgiveness, a ambiguous theme that deals both with the sense of law and love in the text. In my last part I try to answer to the question of sin in the ”Scarlet Letter” and to show that the Puritans wanted to control the nature and every person in the community.

In “The Scarlett Letter”, the most visible type of philia love is the relationship between Pearl and the main character. Nathaniel Hawthorne builds Pearl as a complex character, identified both as the symbol of the scarlet letter, and as a living symbol of the sin. The Puritans see her existence as a product of Satan’s rather than a child of God. For Hester, Pearl is the only reason for living: “Hester has fought against her sorrows before Pearl’s birth”. Because she suffers from ostracism as her mother, she searches in the natural world for companionship. In the traditional tension between nature and culture, the place for this character is in the first category, without doubt.
The passionate love or according to Rougemont, eros, is not present directly in the action of the novel. The licentious act between Dimmesdale and Hester is not presented in the novel, but instead, we have constant references to it. Dimmesdale considers himself as “the worst of sinners” and “altogether vile” and even tells this to his whole congregation, but nobody takes into consideration the real meaning of the words. The meeting in the forest makes a shift in his thinking. After that he takes into consideration the possibility of the escape from that community. We can consider that after this moment, because Dimmesdale is protecting Hester and her child, their relationship is a pure one, or agape, according to Denis de Rougemont. Letter A appears in this situation too, Hawthorne uses this symbol to show the secret of the preacher (the letter A that appears on his chest).
The relationship with the community can also be considered as a form of love, especially at the end of the novel. According to the Puritan rigid dogmas, the reason for the ostracism is the love for her and the need for correction. For a historical interpretation, we would have to take into consideration that during Hawthorne’s day, a women would be expected to be first of all a mother. A rejected woman was that who could not raise her child. A tensioned situation is present when the community does not believe that she is suitable enough to raise her child (the episode when Reverend Wilson, Reverend Dimmesdale and the Governor discus about this issue). The antithetic feeling, the hate of the reverends is marked in the 17th chapter, with the divine invocation of the priest: ”The judgment of God is on me, answered the conscience-stricken priest.”.

Let us consider that the text is built on the dichotomy of the punishment and forgiveness. What is the purpose of the punishment, according to the Puritan community? If we analyze the Biblical source and their way of thought throughout the history, we find that the main determination for punishment is the love for the others. We must understand that in that period, the church and the state are the same entity, especially in a Puritan community. In the first chapter appears the tension between the individual and the state with the example of the need of building a prison in every recognized settlement. The social order and obedience are the main focus on this chapter. Those who are not belonging to majority (like Hester), will face ostracism and hate. She is seen ”as intricate and shadowy as untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to decide their fate”. This quote defines the first appearance of Hester in the eyes of Salem community.
How functions the ostracism in this novel? Clearly, the most striking element of judgment is the symbol of the ‘letter A’. In this novel, the punished is obliged to wear it, but at the same time chooses to wear this mark. We can observe from the chapter “The Market” that Hester has an ambivalent relationship with this sign. First of all, is a sign of rejection, but at the same time, it is a sign of beauty: “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter “A”. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore” . We can observe the specific terminology that Hawthorne uses in order to explore and suggest the richness of this embroidery (“fine”, “elaborate”, “fantastic”, “gold”, “artistically”, “fertility”, “gorgeous”, ”luxuriance”, ”fancy”). A hypothesis for the use of these adjectives is for ambiguity and also to suggest the forgiveness of Hester.
We must consider that the principle of forgiveness functions in the text as a sum of the punishment with the love of Hester for the community. This can be seen in the final part, when the passed letter is seen as a stigma: ”the stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit.”. The following exclamation, ”O! exquisite relief” announces both the feeling of freedom (characteristic to law) and the possibility to be loved by the community and to be integrated into it. The relationship between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester throughout the novel is a clear example of how this tension is resolved at the end. Arthur Dimmesdale’s image is dependent of his congregation, he avoids to be seen close to Pearl or Hester at any moment. Still, he protects them secretly and he punishes himself because he is incapable of confessing his sin publicly. The meeting in the forest in chapter XVII produces a shift in his thinking. The symbol of the mirror plays a crucial part in this chapter, with the resuming phrase: “The soul beheld its features in the mirror of the passing moment.” This is the moment of truth and forgiveness between these two characters. On the other hand, Hester’s relationship with Chillingworth is characterized by its inability to forgive, under the influence of his anger.

Throughout the whole novel, Hester is questioning herself “What is the sin?”. We can consider that this is also a voice of the narrator who builds the whole action based on this problematic question of theology and philosophy. According to the Puritan law, present in this novel, the sin implies an earthly punishment by a judge. How functions the juridical aspect in the text?

We must come again to “The Market Place”, a scene where the figure of the judges is presented in great detail. A striking aspect is presented at first, when we have the image of the magistrates as a ambiguous tension: “The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch-that is a truth,’ added a third autumnal matron.” . It appears that for a traditional Puritan community, the faith is put against mercy: “merciful”. We can observe this also by the use of the conjunction “but”, which usually introduces an alternative meaning or solution for the first part of the phrase. This moral is clearly not a Christian one; instead, we have the Old Testament principle of “eye for an eye” applied here. The God they fear is not the Christian one, but is Yahweh, the Jewish unique divinity. According to the historical interpretation by Jauss, we have a 19th century vision about the harsh, Puritan law. They had come to New England in order to establish some communities that “would exemplify the religious and moral rigor that they deemed necessary for salvation” . The Puritan consider themselves as the Jewish people: elected by God, the chosen ones.
Another striking aspect of the severity of the Puritan law code is the moral that they try to impose by force. For them, the ideal is the ”natural dignity” and ”force of character” and they fight against the free will. We must consider that for Puritans, the main purpose was to control the nature, by this achieving the Adam’s status before the fall. Nature must be brought under the control of the pilgrim, to be ordered and cultivated. They want to do the same thing with Hester, to control any odd and to level the society by destroying any possible differences. Hester is seen as the Other, the odd which has and at the end, will be leveled. Hawthorne manages to show this opposition between nature and culture with the image of the house where Hester lives, situated in a distant and safe place from the main community.
In chapter 17, we find an aspect which strikes the reader; the narrative voice seems to empower the Puritan way of life and vision: “the whole seven years of outlaw and ignominy had been little other than a preparation for this very hour” . Her stage of purification of seven years has been passed and now she can return to the community center. Her rite of passage is considered as a period of “ignominy” and she became an “outlaw”, a characteristic which is by excellence attributed to men. We have few cases of women who are told that are “outlaw”. She manages to exit this previous stage and to be accepted in the society which at first hated her. Dimmestdale’s forgiveness in this chapter, but only after hearing her speech. I consider that when he announces this forgiveness, he is talking in the name of himself, the community and the divinity itself: “I freely forgive you now. May God forgive us both!”. The use of the adverb “freely” is very problematic because we have a derived part of speech from the adjective “free”. We must observe that the use in this context gives ambiguity and proposes two ways of interpretation. The first hypothesis is that Dimmesdale considers him action relieved from any social tension. Another possible interpretation is that the act of forgiveness itself is determined by freedom.

To sum up, we must observe that “Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a novel which manages to emphasize the mingling of the religious aspect with the juridical code. Ultimately, we must take into consideration that a contextual view explains many aspects from this novel, but does not manage to explain Hawthorne’s vision about the Puritans. At a first reading we would tend to say that Hawthorne is against this rigid mentality, but as I tried to argue, the end is very ambiguous and proposes a “doctrine of forgiveness” and an excellent example of what Denis de Rougemont calls philia.

1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Penguin Books, London, 1994.

Critical works:
1. De Rougemont, Denis, Love in the Western world, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1983.
2. Jauss, Hans Robert, Pour une esthetique de la reception, Gallimard, 1978.
3. Reynolds, Larry J. (ed.), A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oxford University Press, 2001.
4. McFarland Pennell, Melissa Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1999.

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