Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Narrative of the Captivity and Redemption of Roger Prynne: Rereading the Scarlet Letter

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Narrative of the Captivity and Redemption of Roger Prynne: Rereading the Scarlet Letter

Article excerpt

Pearl's lack of a father lies at the heart of The Scarlet Letter. It is not surprising, then, that many scholars find The Scarlet Letter resolved when Pearl's biological father, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale, publicly acknowledges her. My reading differs. One effect of Pearl's illegitimacy, her fatherlessness, is that it leaves her available to claims from numerous potential fathers. Her existence is threatened by her unknown biological father as well as by an invisible heavenly father (an alternative she finds especially appalling). The Puritan elder John Wilson suggests a host of fathers for little Pearl, remarking to Chillingworth, "every good Christian man hath a title to show a father's kindness towards the poor, deserted babe." (1) "I am Mother's child" (p. 76), Pearl argues, but because fatherlessness and its inherent result, a vaguely menacing multiplicity of fathers, was a problem in Hawthorne's life as well, I propose that considering The Scarlet Letter in light of Hawthorne's biography creates an opportunity to explore Pearl's relationship to her mother's husband, Roger Chillingworth, and changes the way we understand the novel's apparent resolution.

A scene near the novel's conclusion clarifies for me the significance of the collapse of Hathorne's biography (his lack of a father combined with multiple father figures) into story (Pearl's lack of a father combined with multiple potential father figures). It is Election Day and, as Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth all pass through or linger in the marketplace, a "shipmaster" appears (p. 158). Because we know that Hawthorne's father, Nathaniel Hathorne, was a ship captain who died away at sea when the future author was not yet four years old, we can understand the shipmaster of The Scarlet Letter to be a revenant, a ghost speaking out of Hawthorne's personal past. Additionally, notice that Hawthorne's substitution of "shipmaster" for the more commonly used "ship captain" (his father's title) plays on Chillingworth's lost name of "Master Prynne"--something I will bring out more fully. Like a long absent father, the shipmaster is captivated by Pearl and grabs for her, trying to "snatch a kiss" (p. 165). He fails: "Finding it as impossible to touch her as to catch a humming-bird in the air, he took from his hat the gold chain that was twisted about it, and threw it to the child. Pearl immediately twined it around her neck and waist, with such happy skill, that, once seen there, it became a part of her, and it was difficult to imagine her without it" (pp. 165-66). This shipmaster can no more touch her than can a dead father touch a living child. What he can do, as this passage underscores, is invest Pearl with his possession--an improvisation that Chillingworth will repeat.

Captain Nathaniel Hathorne left an insubstantial material inheritance to his family. A gun and a ship's log were saved for Nathaniel, but the legacy was, largely, impoverishment, with the result that his widow, the former Elizabeth Manning, was forced to live off her family. His Grandfather Manning, however, did eventually leave Nathaniel Hawthorne an inheritance, with which Hawthorne began the highly mythologized internship writing in his mother's attic. The psychological drama suggested by these details adds symbolic weight to my reading of the shipmaster scene. Pearl's gold chain is ostensibly precious while highly ambivalent. Symbolizing wealth, the gold chain also symbolizes bondage--a perverse though apt metaphor for inheritance. "[T]wined ... around her neck" (p. 166), the gold chain is like a hangman' s noose that may have threatened Hester, and it is like an iron chain that oppresses a slave or drags a body to the ocean floor. The connection between the shipmaster and his gold chain and Chillingworth, AKA Master Prynne, tightens when the shipmaster makes Pearl the bearer of a message for her mother from "the black-a-visaged, hump-shouldered old doctor." For most readers of the novel, this gesture is ominous. …

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