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The Scarlet Letter (A) as a symbol

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In the novel “Scarlet letter” and how (A) works as a symbol in the novel, with little draw on Saussure theory on the signifier and signified.

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The Massachusetts Review, Inc.
The Obliquity of Signs: “The Scarlet Letter”
Author(s): Millicent Bell
Source: The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), pp. 9-26
Published by: The Massachusetts Review, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25089237
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Millicent Bell
The Obliquity of Signs:
The Scarlet Letter
is not wrong to identify in this famous short novel the
subjects that lie so clearly upon its surface?the effect of
concealed and admitted sin, or the opposed conditions of isola
tion and community, or the antithetic viewpoints of romantic
individualism and puritan moral pessimism or the dictates of
nature and law. But?and perhaps it is the current self-con
sciousness of literature that makes this so?it may now be pos
sible to find in this work a primary preoccupation with the
rendering of reality into a system of signs. Hawthorne may
have had similar reasons to our own for questioning?while
performing?the interpretation of experience as a species of
message. It is a general human impulse to seek coherence?a
syntax?in life, but it is the artist above all who does so most
heroically, who is the champion of our general endeavor. When
that endeavor becomes dubious, art itself becomes questionable.
Like ourselves, Hawthorne may have come to feel that the
universe at large speaks an incomprehensible babble in which
it merely amuses us to suppose we hear communicating voices,
explanation?even consolation.
The very title of the book is a sign, the smallest of literary
units, the character “standing for” no more than a speech
sound. The letter “A” is the first letter, moreover, of the
alphabet, which Pearl recognizes as having seen in her horn
book, and represents the beginning, therefore, of literacy.
Reading will be given the broadest meaning in this novel. It
will become a trope for the decipherment of the world as a
text. The Scarlet Letter, then, is, as much as any work of fiction
can be, an essay in semiology. Its theme is the obliquity or
indeterminacy of signs. From this source comes an energy
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present in every part of the book$ from it derives the peculiar
life of those other themes which might otherwise seem lacking
in modern interest.
That the status of signs is especially important to Hawthorne
is evident in a peculiar stylistic feature of The Scarlet Letter.
Though the reader has the impression of a constant encourage
ment to symbolic interpretation, it turns out, upon examina
tion, that Hawthorne’s prose contains only occasional metaphor
or simile and no true allegorical cohesion. What in fact hap
pens is something else: we are frequently asked to consider
things as symbolic5 objects, persons and events are called signs
rather than being silently presented as such. Hawthorne under
takes a narrative putatively historical, to begin with, introducing
it in the Custom House Preface as a redaction from a docu
mentary record, to reinforce the sense of a reconstructed literal
past. But again and again he deliberately declares that the
actualities of his tale are or may be taken as signs, and he uses
repeatedly such words as “type,” “emblem,” “token,” or
“hieroglyph.” All these words are used in a sense roughly
“Type” is almost invariably employed to mean “that by
which something is symbolized or figured; anything having a
symbolic signification3 a symbol, emblem” (oed), a sense
which had been current already in English during the Renais
sance and can be found in one of Hawthorne’s favorite older
writers, Spenser. The word was still used in this way in the
mid-nineteenth century when the meaning more common with
us, of a general form or of a kind or class, arose, and Haw
thorne, who is conservative in language, almost always seems
to be employing the older rather than the newer of these two
senses. He even occasionally hints the special theological usage
which identifies in the Old Testament events in the New of
which they are “types”?or rather he employs a reversed adap
tation of this which labels something in his story a “type” of
a Bible element?as when Hester Prynne is called “a scarlet
woman and a worthy type of her of Babylon.” But it should
be observed that this particular description comes not from the
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The Obliquity of Signs
narrator but from one of the tale’s seventeenth century Puri
tans who might be expected to typologize in this way, just as
it is the Puritan authority that has affixed upon Hester the
signifying letter which is invariably described as being not red
but scarlet. She is called a “type” in a non-scriptural sense by
the Hawthorne-narrator. At such times she can be associated
with traditional figures of moral personification when he com
ments, “It may seem marvellous that this woman should call
that place her home, where, and where only, she must needs
be the type of shame”?which still implicitly refers to the
viewpoint of the Boston community or, again, when Chilling
worth is said to have come home to behold “the woman, in
whom he hoped to find embodied the warmth and cheerfulness
of home, set up as a type of sin before the people.” Other
occurrences of the term, however, are closer to the simpler
meaning of a symbol. Such is the early designation of the
infant Pearl as “a forcible type, in its little frame, of the moral
agony which Hester Prynne had borne throughout the day.”
“Token,” i.e., “something that serves to indicate a fact, event,
object, feeling, etc. 5 a sign, a symbol” (oed) also serves to
indicate a sign, with the added implication that the sign is an
evidence, even a consequence of the signified. Dimmesdale’s
distaste for Chillingworth’s appearance is “a token, implicitly
to be relied on, of a deeper antipathy in the breast of the
latter.” “Emblem” is another name for a symbolic signifier,
more exclusively visual, deriving from the seventeenth cen
tury taste for expressing abstractions by means of objects or
pictured objects, but since used as another synonym for symbol
as well as for an armorial device or even for a badge that might
be worn on clothing. Hester’s “A” is all these?a badge she
wears, a device for the escutcheon on her tombstone?”On a
field sable, the letter A, gules” and the “emblem of her guilt.”
Finally, there is “hieroglyph,” which more than any of the
terms just glanced at suggests the art of writing at the same
time that it suggests the pictorial figure, in the reference to the
picture-writing of the Egyptians. By extension, too, a hiero
glyph is “a figure, device, or sign, having some hidden mean
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ingj a secret or enigmatical symbol” (oed), and so more than
any of the others expresses Hawthorne’s feelings about the
signifiers he has marked out in his tale. Such a mystery is the
child Pearl, as we shall shortly consider. As Hester and Dim
mesdale watch her in the forest, it is observed, “She had been
offered to the world, these seven years past, as the living hiero
glyphic, in which was revealed the secret they so darkly sought
to hide,?all written in this symbol,?all plainly manifest,?
had there been a prophet or magician skilled to read the char
acter of flame.” Pearl, the animate letter or character, is truly
the hieroglyphic figure which hides an elusive meaning.
Like a rhetorician, Hawthorne has, in the examples I have
given, labelled his subjects as though they were figures of
speech in a spoken or written text. But, of course, these types,
emblems, tokens, and hieroglyphs are not really supposed to
be products of the human imagination. They belong to the
category of privileged signs deriving from a transcendent pres
ence. They are “written” by a spiritual force which expresses
itself in the secret language of appearances. To read such texts
one must be gifted with a prophet’s or a magician’s power to
see beyond actuality. As Chillingworth says of the “riddle”
(“a question or statement intentionally worded in a dark or
puzzling manner” [oed]) of the identity of Hester’s lover,
“the Daniel who shall expound it is yet a-wanting.” The sur
face of life which he beholds is thus compared to the most
famous of dark texts, the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s
For us, there may no longer be a center, as Jacques Derrida
would call it, to assure to such?or any?appearances the status
of signs. With our loss of confidence in the sacred grounding
of signs we have lost confidence in their objectivity, and see
them only as games of the mind. Hawthorne may have been
at the threshold of our condition, though he was still formally
committed to older views. The Puritan ontology as well as the
Puritan morality haunted the American mind in Hawthorne’s
day, and haunted his in particular. We think more usually of
the moral imperatives of Puritanism as a lingering presence
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The Obliquity of Signs
in Hawthorne’s writing?and where more than in this tale of
transgression and penance? But it is the Puritan understanding
of the relation of natural to divine reality that was more im
portant to him. The Puritans regarded reality textually; a
long tradition of Christian thought which spoke through them
analogized the world as a book which might be compared to
scripture as an act of divine writing. What God had written
in the creation was a cryptic language, yet one could be con
fident nonetheless that no phenomenon but had its sacred sense.
Such a viewpoint was older than Christianity, having its roots
in platonism. It was, too, enjoying a new life in the secularized
religion of romantic transcendentalism of which Hawthorne
was aware at close hand.
Hawthorne knew perfectly well his difference and distance
from the Puritans though “strong traits of their nature,” he
said, had “intertwined themselves” with his. He was skeptical
as well about the convictions of his Concord neighbors, Emer
son and Thoreau. His temperamental nominalism, which is so
visible in the determined abstention from all interpretation
practiced in his Notebooks with their tireless recording of triv
ial realities, made him a man for whom the world is exactly
what it is and no more. Yet, as for so many mid-nineteenth
century minds the loss of the visionary sense, the draining of
significance from the mundane, was felt with a certain anguish,
at best a wry humor, and the viewpoint of science seemed to
him pitiably meager and even morally dangerous. In The
Scarlet Letter he gives play to all of his mingled feelings?
his tenderness for the poetry of a lost faith in essences, his ironic
detachment and disbelief, and his fear of such disbelief in
himself or others.
The agency of these complex feelings is, in the novel, a per
sona about whom too little has been said. His divided attitudes
are made clear in the Custom House Preface?making the
Preface a necssary part of the fictional whole, giving a char
acter to the narrating voice. This narrator appears to us in the
Preface as a man undecided in his view of reality between the
Puritan-transcendental conviction that the invisible speaks
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ceaselessly behind the visible and the materialism that finds the
explanation of things merely in accident and physical laws. He
admits his deviation from the beliefs of his “grave-bearded,
sable-cloaked and steeple-crowned” progenitors, yet declares
a legitimate descent from them. He values his experiences at
the Custom House as an antidote to transcendental associations
and inclinations. Even the old inspector, a personality of un
illumined materiality, was, he tells us, “desirable as a change
of diet, to a man who had known Alcott.” Yet his final and
most moving words are a tribute to the art that discerns the
spirit essence in the quotidian.
In this well-known section of the Preface he discusses his
aesthetic problems while striving, in the Custom House, to
overcome his creative torpor. But it should be noted that his
problem is as much ontological as aesthetic: it involves his
unsuccessful struggle to attain the transcendental sense. In the
nighttime vigil in the parlor of his Salem house, the moonlight
“making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morn
ing or noontide visibility,” the homely details of the room
were completely seen, he recalls, “yet spiritualized by the un
usual light.” The room became a neutral territory where “the
Actual and the Imaginary may meet.” It was the sort of meet
ing he would have liked to bring about in his writing yet could
not, though the “wiser effort would have been, to diffuse
thought and imagination through the opaque substance of to
day … to seek, resolutely, the true and indestructible value
that lay hidden in the petty and wearisome incidents, and ordi
nary characters.” His failure was no matter merely of skill or
of artistic imagination, as it has seemed to most readers. The
requisite imagination that he lacked was the prophet or magi
cian’s?or if the poet’s, then the romantic poet’s seer-like power
to discern higher truth. Unable to find essence in his surround
ings he could only retreat to the unsubstantiality of the past
or the fanciful, in which one might play with the idea of sig
nificance in the mode of romance.
Nevertheless, nothing is more serious than The Scarlet
Letter, despite the charge of Henry James that its faults are
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“a want of reality and an abuse of the fanciful element?of a
certain superficial symbolism” which “grazes triviality.” James
did not see that Hawthorne’s method in the book was to ex
press his own profoundest problem. In a way that is seldom
understood and seems sometimes merely coy, he offers and
withdraws, denies and provides the sense of the spirituality of
life?and so suggests the opacity or unreliability of its signs.
Many a reader has been irritated by the narrator’s reluctance
to decide what, if anything, Chillingworth saw on Dimmes
dale’s bosom, or what, if anything, was seen in the sky during
the night-scaffold scene in Chapter XII or what, if anything,
was seen on Dimmesdale’s bosom, again, by the assembled
multitude in the final scaffold scene. These are only the most
memorable instances of Hawthorne’s reluctance to settle a sim
ple question of appearances. More important, however, is his
refusal to help us to assign final significance to these phe
nomena, even if granted. Repeatedly, he seems only willing to
say, as at the conclusion of the final scene after summarizing
the conflicting reports of witnesses, “The reader may choose
among these theories.”
Nowhere is this insistent ambiguity more conspicuous than
in the central scaffold scene?which James, it may be noted,
particularly disliked. Here are duplicated the conditions of the
moonlit chamber of the Preface $ the scene is bathed in a
supernal light which makes each detail both completely visible
and radiant with meaning. In the light cast from the sky dur
ing the minister’s night-vigil, he sees for the first time that
Roger Chillingworth is no friend, he pierces the veil. Yet this
is also the occasion for the narrator’s most skeptical discussion
of the delusiveness of signs. He comments upon the “mes
sages” read into nature by man and the egotism of the assump
tion that they are addressed to our particular selves. “We
impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own eye and
heart that the minister, looking upward toward the zenith,
beheld there the appearance of an immense letter,?the letter
A,” he seems to conclude. But, immediately after, we hear that
the sexton reported the next day that “a great red letter in the
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sky,?the letter A,” was seen by others also, and by them taken
to stand for Angel, to signify the governor’s passing. So, what
are we to make of the reading of signs? The sexton, who has
found Dimmesdale’s glove on the scaffold, says that Satan
must have dropped it there, intending?falsely?to impute
that Dimmesdale belongs where evil-doers are set up to public
shame. Signs may be only the mischief-making of Satan, then,
and no true tokens? Except, of course, that this token is well
Hester’s letter is the central example of the almost infinite
potentialities of semantic variety. A material object, a piece of
embroidered cloth held in the finder’s hand, it is the one irre
ducible reality which connects the intangible historic past with
the narrator’s present sensation -y it authenticates, is an evidence
of its vanished substantiality. As an abstract sign on Hester’s
bosom, it purports to speak both for the nature of her past and
for the present condition of the wearer. It is a letter of the
alphabet, but also, presumably, an initial, a sign of a sign, since
it represents a word, the next larger linguistic unit after the
letter. But “adultery” is never “spelled out.” The word, like
the act it designates, is invisible in the text?the act held inac
cessibly out of the reader’s sight while the word only hovers
in his mind. The merely implied word becomes somehow less
explicit, and when we are told that the letter is a “talisman”
(a magic object generally engraved with figures or characters)
of the Fiend, we suspect a more generalized significance. It is
said to throb in sympathy with all sin of whatever kind beheld
by Hester. It seems to represent an absolute and undenotable
The letter may indicate the presence in Hester of Original
Sin, and refer to a common corruption which requires no out
ward demonstration, which does not manifest itself in true
signs, which even the most virtuous in deed must share. The
old Calvinist mystery is really the mystery of signs?there is
an inner reality that cannot be signified by deed, while deeds,
good works or the reverse, are without inner meaning. Trapped
in this disjunction the Puritans themselves forget the original
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The Obliquity of Signs
significance of Hester’s letter and take it to stand for “able”
?which is, unlike “adultery,” enunciated in the text?because
of her good works. But Hester, when the magistrates consider
removing the stigma, says, “were I worthy to be quit of it, it
would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into
something that should speak a different purport.” She seems,
still, to insist upon its relation to her inner self. Yet she will
try to comfort Dimmesdale by pointing out his good works?
“Is there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and witnessed
by good works?”?until he tells her that his scarlet letter still
“burns in secret.”
On Dimmesdale, where the letter may be guessed to have
appeared for a similar signifying function as on Hester, it is,
however, as invisible as the act or condition it refers to. Society
has placed no token upon him and when Chillingworth opens
the sleeping minister’s vestment he sees “something” which is
not pictured or named for the reader. Even in the final scene
when he tears his own garment from his chest we are told only,
“It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that reve
lation,” and the reader is cheated again of the confirming spec
tacle. Although some spectators testified to having seen that
the minister did bear a letter like Hester’s, others saw nothing.
And the sign, if it had really been there, might, anyhow, our
narrator remarks, have been only the medical symptom of
Dimmesdale’s psychic distress, “the effect of the ever active
tooth of remorse gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly,”
an instance of psychosomatic symptomology (another sign
theory which greatly interested Hawthorne, as we shall see in
a moment).
Pearl, the asker of so many preternaturally pertinent ques
tions, asks her mother to explain the meaning of the sign she
wears and is not answered?plausibly because the answer would
be beyond her grasp but also so that the reader may still not
hear the signified, the unutterable. When she asks, “What does
the letter mean, mother,” Hester says evasively, “I wear it for
the sake of its gold thread.” Pearl says that she has been told
that the scarlet letter is the Black Man’s mark, an expression
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she repeats when she asks if the minister holds his hand upon
his bosom because the Black Man has “set his mark” there.
“Mark,” for which the root sense is, once again, token or sign,
implies here, as a special meaning, a signature, the personal
sign of a signer set in stead of his name. As such it signifies not
the wearer but the writer, the author of all sin. Pearl connects
this guessed-at sign with Hester’s A when she asks, “Is this
his mark?” and extracts from her mother the acknowledge
ment, “Once in my life I met the Black Man! This scarlet
letter is his mark!” And Pearl then guesses, when she sees the
minister’s hand over his heart, “Is it because, when the minister
wrote his name in the book, the Black Man set his mark in
that place?”
Both symbol and consequence of Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s
sin, Pearl is herself an instance of the ambiguity of signs. She
is the animate letter, the child dressed in gold-embroidered
scarlet, “the scarlet letter in another form, the scarlet letter
endowed with life.” Yet when she dances about in the final
scene in the city square, “her dress, so proper was it to little
Pearl, seemed an effluence or inevitable development and out
ward manifestation of her character, no more to be separated
from her than the many-hued brilliancy from a butterfly’s
wing, or the painted glory from the leaf of a bright flower.”
Her appearance, once the sign, the “effluence” of her parents’
sin, is now an exterior organically developed from her own
airy nature, as the rest of nature’s signs emanate from tran
scendent being. Earlier, she reverses or nullifies Hester’s sign
when she places it, made of eel grass, upon herself. It is the
color of nature, green, the eidetic image of her mother’s token,
and Pearl waggishly reflects as though to mock the meaning
searcher, “I wonder if mother will ask me what it means!”
But Hester refuses to see it as a sign, and says, “The green
letter on thy childish bosom has no purport.”
The mystery of meaning is expressed in the obliquity of
Pearl’s own answers to the question of what she is. Hester
wonders, “Child, what are thou?” and is answered, “O, I am
your little Pearl,” which is no answer for her name is her sign
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The Obliquity of Signs
not her significance. Hester asks, “Tell me, then what thou
art and who sent thee hither?” and then answers this question
herself, but Pearl demurs, “I have no Heavenly Father,” the
animate sign denying its source in the divine. A little later, the
Reverend Wilson asks again, “Who made thee?” and Pearl’s
answer is that she has not been made but plucked from the
prison rose-bush, an answer at once improbably arch and in
formed with a pantheistic view of nature, dispensing with the
myth of express creation. Hawthorne’s ironic dubeity can be
felt in his presentation of the Governor’s shocked, “a child of
three years old, and she cannot tell who made her!”?for how
many among his readers would have had perfect confidence
in the catechism reply? Of course, all the while that we have
had this play of alternative semiologies, of Puritan and tran
scendental explanations of origin, it is obvious that Pearl’s pert
remarks are naturalistically explicable; she has just seen the
roses in the governor’s garden, has already been called “red
rose” by Wilson himself, who also calls her “little bird of
scarlet plumage,” the natural creature she will be likened to
in the last scene.
Our first view of Hester and her child occurs, nevertheless,
when they emerge from the prison door passing the rose-bush
and the weeds “which evidently found something congenial
in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized
society, a prison.” Weeds and prison are linked by a resem
blance that is not merely metaphor but attributable to the
generative force of which they are both products. Nearby, the
rose-bush holds up “delicate gems” which “might be imagined
to offer” sweetness to the condemned “in token that the deep
heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.” Nature, the
symbolizer, proffers a token from the realm of spirit in the
same way as the Christian godhead has sent Pearl as “emblem
and product of sin.” But Hawthorne does not assert either
source of signification uncontrovertibly: his weak copula,
“might be imagined,” is a reminder that such symbolizing may
be only the result of the human imagination.
It is quite “significant,” therefore, that the artistic imagina
tion appears centrally in Hester herself who is an artist of
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needlework, the only medium available to a woman in her day.
Her works are distinguished by their power of symbolic ex
hibition, her first oeuvre of note having been her letter. She
is afterwards called upon to show the meaning of other human
situations, the pomp of public ceremonies, the sorrow of funer
als which she would “typify by manifold emblematic devices.”
Her art is also ^//-expressive, “a mode of expressing and
therefore soothing the passion of her life.” Pearl has some
thing of her mother’s instinct: her creativity operates upon “a
stick, a bunch of rags, a flower,” adapting them to her inner
drama. Her art is harmless play. But Hester collaborates with
Puritan society in converting Pearl herself into a symbol by
clothing her in her symbolizing, signifying costume. She thus
does violence to the irreducible being of the child who is shown
repeatedly to be a natural phenomenon, a whimsical child and
nothing else. All art, all symbolizing, is reductive.
In the mirror of art the truth is distorted from its natural
proportions, as Hester’s own image is when she sees herself
in the polished armor in the Governor’s house. The monstrous
ly enlarged “A” upon her breast, her face reduced to insignifi
cance by the convex surface of the breastplate, represent her
reduction as the woman behind the scarlet letter. And in time,
“all the light and graceful foliage of her character had been
withered by this red hot brand, and had long fallen away, leav
ing a bare and harsh outline,” the person becoming the symbol.
Yet the narrative shows at the same time that Hester resists
this simplification, remaining a complex, developing personal
ity. An opposite process takes place in the case of Chillingworth
who, as his history advances, becomes more and more an ab
stract symbol of infernal malice until at the end he simply
shrivels to nothing, all his humanity gone.
But Hawthorne does not dismiss or disparage the reading of
signs altogether. He continues throughout the narrative to find
ways of exploring the relation of phenomenon and meaning,
of outerness and inwardness; his narrative discovers and tests
other pairs of terms that represent signifier and signified. One
example is the theory of disease by which he anticipates psycho
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The Obliquity of Signs
somatic medicine. Chillingworth, it will be recalled, ascribes
his patient’s malady to a spiritual cause. “He to whom only the
outward and physical evil is laid open knoweth, oftentimes,
but half the evil which he is called upon to cure. A bodily dis
ease, which we look upon as whole and entire within itself,
may, after all, be but a symptom of some ailment in the spiri
tual part … a sickness, a sore place, if we may so call it, in
your spirit, hath immediately its appropriate manifestation in
your bodily frame.” Bodily disease, then, is a “manifestation”
of spirit, another instance of the sign language of all phe
nomena. Hawthorne’s interest in the general science of signs,
extends, logically, to the branch of medicine having to do with
symptoms, which is also called semiology. Older medical con
cepts and even modern ones, of course, imply a dualism in the
patient whose disease is defined as a manifestation of some
hidden meaning?and a meaning that was truly inaccessible,
for the most part, before the germ theory and modern knowl
edge of physiology. And so the source of disease, though pre
sumed to be spiritual in Dimmesdale’s case, will not, after all,
be accessible to the probing of his physician-enemy.
Dimmesdale himself subscribes to his physicians’ theories
when he attributes his own distrust of Chillingworth to his
inner spiritual disorder?”the poison of one morbid spot was
infecting his heart’s entire substance.” In fact, his perceptions
are accurate. But his inner condition does produce hallucina
tions, delusive signs. These seem to demonstrate, again, Haw
thorne’s view of the effects of the Puritan-transcendental view
of a superior spiritual reality, his preference for the matter
of-fact: “It is the unspeakable misery of a life so false as his,
that it steals the pith and substance out of whatever realities
there are around us . . . To the untrue man, the whole uni
verse is false,?and it is impalpable,?it shrinks to nothing
within his grasp.”
All things hidden and all things exposed become antonyms
in the novel to reflect the opposition of outer and inner. The
forest, where the lovers meet alone save for little Pearl who
does not understand what she sees except by occult instinct, is
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the place of a seclusive truth, difficult to read; the forest path,
like a hard text, is “obscure.” The public scenes in which Hester
and Dimmesdale are together are the locus of communal truth,
that which is perceived by all. “We must not talk in the mar
ket-place of what happens to us in the forest,” Hester warns
Pearl, distinguishing between the unutterable inner world and
the world of speech. Hester’s “A”, Mistress Hibbins says, is a
“token” that Hester has been to the forest many times, but the
minister’s visit is ultimately incommunicable. His election ser
mon is best understood when, in fact, its words are indistin
guishable and only the mournful tone of his voice conveys his
state to Hester as she stands outside. Language, by implication,
misleads us, tells us nothing of the heart, which has no lan
guage. Dimmesdale’s unintelligible murmur is like Pearl’s
babble or the gibberish she speaks in his ear in the night scaf
fold scene?perhaps a sacred speaking in tongues, perhaps the
non-sense of a message-less world.
Nature, too, only babbles. The forest keeps its secrets though
the babbling brook would seem to want to “speak” them: “All
these giant trees and boulders of granite seemed intent on mak
ing a mystery of the course of this small brook: fearing, per
haps, that, within its never-ceasing loquacity, it should whisper
tales out of the heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or
mirror its revelations on the smooth surface of a pool.” Pearl
asks what the brook says, but Hester replies that if she had a
sorrow of her own the brook would tell her of it, “even as it
is telling me of mine!” implying that she has understood the
brook as the brook has understood her, but also that one hears
in Nature’s babble what one’s own experience suggests. And
as Pearl continues to play by the side of the brook her own
cheerful babble mingles with its melancholy one, we are told,
and “the little stream would not be comforted and still kept
telling its unintelligible secret of some mournful mystery.”
Hawthorne’s antithesis between the solitary soul and society
is a variation upon the theme of an inexpressible inner reality.
Hester is one of the great American isolatoes, who cannot speak
the language of community. At his extremest, this loner is
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The Obliquity of Signs
Melville’s Bartleby, who withdraws from language altogether.
By embracing silence he acknowledges the lapse of a common
truth which unites not only men with one another but which,
by a language of signs, unites the universe to mankind. Hester’s
sin is not only unutterable but involves a name, that of her
partner, which she refuses to utter. Her sexual history is so
private that it cannot be imagined when we gaze at her in the
chaste aftermath of Hawthorne’s novel. And yet that privacy
has its public manifestation, the child Pearl. And Hester’s sin
is outrageously publicized by her exposure in the most public
of places, the town pillory. The opening scene of the novel
draws thrilling intensity from this paradox. From the hidden
interior of her prison cell, from the secrecy of her own heart,
Hester emerges with the child upon her arm, isolated and
silent, to stand upon the most public site in Boston. A special
piece of cruel machinery, a vise to hold the head upright, is
available on the scaffold so that the condemned may be forced
to face those who look upon him, and Hawthorne comments,
“There is no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit
to hide his face for shame.” But Hester voluntarily faces her
viewers. Nevertheless, her exposure reveals nothing. Indeed,
the spectator is prompted to find her an “image of Divine
Maternity,” to read the scarlet woman as her opposite.
“Secret” is a key word in The Scarlet Letter. All the princi
pal personages have secrets?Hester, the identity of her lover,
Dimmesdale his sin, Chillingworth his own identity and motive.
Chillingworth’s name is like Hester’s sin in never being enunci
ated in the text?though we may guess that it is Prynne. Per
haps the most important of these secrets, in terms of the pro
gressive tension of the plot is Dimmesdale’s. Chillingworth’s
struggle to bring to the surface what lies hidden in the mini
ster’s heart is the primary conflict of the story (James was
right in saying that the essential drama is there, between the
two men, and not in Hester). This is also because more is in
volved in their struggle than the story tells: theirs is the con
test between two views of the communicability of meaning.
Chillingworth had asked Hester to name her lover and she had
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refused, eliciting from him the comment, “there are few
things,?whether in the outward world, or the invisible sphere
of thought?few things hidden from the man, who devotes
himself earnestly and unreservedly to the solution of a mys
tery.” By profession a scientist, an investigator of nature and
mankind, he is confident that he can compel all mysteries to
yield to him. From the “prying multitude,” from even the
magistrates and ministers, Hester’s secret may be hidden, but,
Chillingworth declares, “I come to the inquest with other senses
than they possess. I shall seek this man as I have sought truth
in books, as I have sought gold in alchemy.”
Chillingworth is defined as a materialist, one of a species of
men who have lost the sense of spiritual meanings. “In their
researches into the human frame, it may be that the higher
and more subtle faculties of such men were materialized, and
that they lost the spiritual view of existence amid the intricacies
of that wondrous mechanism which seemed to involve art
enough to comprise all of life within itself.” The newcomer
becomes the community physician, replacing the aged deacon
and apothecary, “whose piety and deportment were stronger
testimonials in his favor” than a medical diploma, for he is
learned in both “antique physic” and the Indians’ homeopathic
He believes, consequently, that the inner condition of his
patient, the meaning of his disease can be understood. The
narrator seems to agree: “Few secrets can escape an investigator
who has opportunity and license to undertake such a quest.”
Like a researcher into a difficult scientific problem he is de
scribed “prying into his patient’s bosom, delving among his
principles, prying into his recollections, proving everything
with a cautious touch, like a treasure-seeker in a dark cavern.”
Hawthorne even goes on to say, “A man burdened with a secret
should especially avoid the intimacy of his physician” for “at
some inevitable moment, will the soul of the sufferer be dis
solved, and flow forth in a dark and transparent stream, bring
ing all its mysteries into the daylight.” The doctor?more in
vestigator than therapist, is said to be “desirous only of truth,
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The Obliquity of Signs
even as if the question involved no more than the air-drawn
lines and figures of a geometrical problem, instead of human
passions, and wrongs inflicted on himself.”
His contest with Dimmesdale, who steadfastly protects his
secret, is dramatically illustrated in their conversation in the
graveyard in Chapter Ten. Upon a grave without identifying
tombstone the physician finds weeds that “grew out of the
[buried man’s] heart and “typify, it may be, some hideous
secret that was buried with him.” They have sprung up there,
Chillingworth declares, “to make manifest an unspoken crime.”
Dimmesdale, however, insists upon the inaccessibility and
sacredness of the dead man’s secrets. “There can be … no
power, short of the Divine mercy, to disclose, whether by
uttered words, or by type or emblem, the secrets that may be
buried with a human heart. The heart . . . must perforce hold
them, until the day when all hidden things shall be revealed.
. . . These revelations . . . are meant merely to promote the
intellectual satisfaction of all intelligent beings, who will stand
waiting, on that day, to see the dark problem of this life made
plain.” Not merely, then, does he not choose to tell his secret;
it cannot ever be revealed to men until Judgment Day. It is a
mystery too profound for us before that. And, Hawthorne’s
language seems to suggest, it is a mystery which is only part
of the general mystery of “hidden things” for which “type or
emblem”?the language of appearances?provide no clue. As
the methodical indeterminacy of The Scarlet Letter suggests,
there is no present disclosure of “the dark problem of this
To presume otherwise by trying to penetrate the mystery
of another soul is Chillingworth’s sin, as Dimmesdale tells
Hester. He “violated in cold blood the sanctity of a human
heart.” This statement is not usually understood, though in
variably quoted in discussions of the novel. We tend to think
that Chillingworth has sinned because he has criminally used
the knowledge he has gained in order to manipulate and de
stroy the minister. But this is not what the words say. The
insistence upon illicit discovery, the assault by Chillingworth
upon sacred knowledge, is itself illegitimate.
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Here perhaps is the pious man’s reply to the problem of the
obliquity of signs. Hawthorne may have felt that it was his
only stay against skepticism to believe in an ultimate revelation,
an ultimate deciphering of what is beyond our comprehension
in this life. But he may also have entertained the suspicion that
no ultimate meanings exist. Perhaps he sometimes felt bold
enough to share the thought expressed by Melville in a letter
he got from him only a year after The Scarlet Letter was pub
lished: “If any of those other Powers choose to withhold cer
tain secrets, let them; that does not impair my sovereignty in
myself; that does not make me tributary. And perhaps after
all, there is no secret.”

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