In the essay " Bourgeois Sexuality and the Gothic Plot in Wharton and Hawthorne"
in Hawthorne and Women, Monika Elbert links Hester Prynne to Gothic elements
in The Scarlet Letter and explores how Hawthorne desexes Hester by making
her "shadowlike" and ghostly.
At the center of Hawthorne's and Wharton's New England Gothic is the exposure of fertile woman and of fecund nature as grotesque, dangerous, and treacherous. . . . The real danger lies in the feminine landscape, which seems to be haunted by inexplicable ghostly visions and/or by a suffocating type of wilderness, which seems threatening to the established order. Thus Hester, in her seaside cottage on the periphery of civilization, is visited by dangerous thoughts, " such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy guests that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainers, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door" (183). The operative fear on Hawthorne's part, though, is that nature, as well as woman, will nourish as well as strangle and thus must be controlled. So, juxtaposed with the "wild rose" of the initial prison-door scene are various ugly and poisonous herbs, among them "burdock, pigweed and apple-peru," which grow indiscriminately and which are linked to Chillingworth's tampering with nature as he cross-breeds plants so that the monstrous growth results not just in "nightshade, dogwood, [and] henbane" but in "poisonous shrubs, of species hitherto unknown" (176). Hawthorne even describes nature as having deteriorated: the "luxuriant heap of moss" upon which Hester and Pearl sit and converse in the forest had been "at some epoch of the preceding century ... a gigantic pine... with its roots and trunk in the darksome shade, and its head aloft in the upper atmosphere" (185-86). This process of decay is also Hawthorne's technique for desexualizing an initially vibrant and passionate Hester. But Hester's sexuality is permissible only as long as it is allied with the maternal; the narrator conjures the picture of "Divine Maternity" (if only in contrast to the "sacred image of sinless motherhood") in order to feel in command of her sexuality; maternity becomes a safe outlet for her sexuality. In fact, Hester is continually desexed through the text so that she appears as shadowlike, cold, statuelike, and ghostlike once she loses her passion and gains in rationality; in fact, toward the end of the narrative, she glides "shadowlike" back into her New England cottage, a veritable ghost. Hester, neutered in the marketplace, does not wield much power in the man's world. In the forest, when Hester lets her hair down one last time with Dimmesdale, Pearl reminds her to put her "A" and her cap back on-to remind her that, at heart, her identity is maternal and not sexual. And finally, when Hester begs Dimmesdale to say whether they will meet again in another realm, he tells her to "hush," reminding her that a woman out of sexual currency cannot strike a bargain with a man, even if he is on his way out! Hawthorne has made sex safe and uninteresting by spiritualizing the body and by secularizing the spirit (265-66).