The Threads of the Scarlet Letter: A Study of Hawthorne's Transformative Art

The Threads of the Scarlet Letter: A Study of Hawthorne's Transformative Art

The Threads of the Scarlet Letter: A Study of Hawthorne's Transformative Art

The Threads of the Scarlet Letter: A Study of Hawthorne's Transformative Art

Synopsis

Regarding the cloth scarlet letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells his readers that "picking out the threads" does not permit the recovery of a "now-forgotten art." However, regarding his classic novel The Scarlet Letter, picking out the threads permits just such a recovery. The Threads of The Scarlet Letter acknowledges hitherto-identified threads and fully elaborates three additional ones.

Excerpt

A critical subtext in The Scarlet Letter is the issue of origins. With regard to historical origins—those of the Puritan community (1:64) and the Election Day ceremony (1:230), for instance—Hawthorne is fairly. straightforward. But with regard to matters of his own creation, he is more ambiguous. Most famously, with his account of the “half a dozen sheets of foolscap” of Surveyor Pue (1:33), Hawthorne offers an engaging but imaginary origin for his story of Hester Prynne (1:32–33). Only seeming to resolve the nature of the novel's beginnings, he provides a nonexistent manuscript that serves to foster greater interest in the subject. Hawthorne comically revisits imaginary origin when the Reverend John Wilson asks Hester's daughter Pearl, “Canst thou tell me, my child, who made thee?”: she mischievously replies that her mother had picked her off a rosebush (1:111–12).

Hawthorne conveys a notable ambivalence with regard to the method of determining origins. Roger Chillingworth asks about Pearl—“the scarlet letter endowed with life!” (1:102)—“Would it be beyond a philosopher's research… to analyze that child's nature, and, from its make and mould, to give a shrewd guess at the father?” (1:116). Hawthorne later implies the evident effectiveness of this method when Hester says to Dimmesdale of Pearl, “I know whose brow she has!” and Dimmesdale responds, in part, “Methought… that my own features were partly repeated in her face, and so strikingly that the world might see them!” (1:206). Nonetheless, Mr. Wilson answers Chillingworth's inquiry about an effort to deduce Pearl's paternity by declaring, “Nay; it would be sinful, in such a question, to follow the clew of profane philosophy” (1:116). With this response, Hawthorne is clearly building character consistent with Puritan theology, but he may also be revealing his own reservations about tracing certain origins— . . .

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