Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter:
Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student
Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson
(courtesy of Greenwood Press)
In "Hawthorne's Career and Contributions" (p. 21) Pennell describes how critics
have connected Hester and Pearl to Sethe and Denver in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved,
with significant differences. All four live as outcasts, and both children are
"a source of pain and comfort" to their mothers.
"In appraising her early fiction, critics have highlighted issues
in Morrison's work that are similar to those in Hawthorne's. Her novel Beloved
(1987) has elicited the most pointed comparisons to Hawthorne's work, particularly
The Scarlet Letter. In Beloved, the central character Sethe is
haunted by the past. A former slave, Sethe ran away from the Sweet Home plantation
in Kentucky, crossing into the free state of Ohio before the Civil War and Emancipation.
Fearing that she was to be captured and returned to slavery, she killed her
daughter Beloved to prevent her from growing up as a slave. When the novel opens,
Sethe is living on the outskirts of Cincinnati with her daughter Denver in a
house '124' haunted by the ghost other dead child. Like Hester and Pearl, Sethe
and Denver live as outcasts, and the pain of isolation has weighed heavily on
Denver. Like Pearl, she is a source of both pain and comfort to her mother.
While Hester wears a fabric letter as a sign that carries multiple meanings,
Sethe is marked by a 'tree' scarred into her body from a whipping. Although
elements of Sethe's story contain parallels to Hester's, Caroline Woidat argues
that Morrison's, 'reinterpretation' of The Scarlet Letter offers a 'counter-
narrative' to the vision of American identity offered in Hawthorne's novel (529-530).
Morrison does not want her character to quietly submit to the expectations of
a dominant culture, as Hester does. Through Sethe's actions, Morrison invites
the reader to confront the vision of the past and its legacy as perceived by
an African American woman" (21).