What is Hester’s choice in The Scarlet Letter? Either heading west into the forest or east over the ocean? Both options come to nothing and her dreams of escape with Arthur are thwarted: she is “trapped in the circle of ignominy” (SL 260), bordered by the “snake-like black eyes” of the Indians (SL 259), and the “desperado-looking faces of the sailors” (SL 259). After Arthur’s death, her decision to escape to the Old Continent may appear as a victory, perhaps “her triumph over the American wilderness by expatriating to Europe” (Elbert 95). In Europe, Hester is free and looked up to, before she comes back to submit to the letter again.
A similar ambivalence could be detected in Seven Gables, with Alice’s European seeds of apparent weeds that cyclically turn into poetic posies. Is the quest a desire to escape or an aspiration for enrichment or recognition, ultimately for self-awareness? Hester’s final return is a source of ambiguity, perhaps the form taken by the writer’s personal quest, the meaning of his transatlantic pilgrimage. This apparent paradox might be approached in a movement that will duplicate Hawthorne’s own peregrinations: his long stay in America, his return to Europe, before he finally came back home.
This analysis will try to put forward, as a hypothesis, seven keys for an interpretation of this vicarious traveller’s forty-nine years in America. Then it will try to decide how deep his seven years in Europe changed his vision, and eventually to decide how far the previous hypothesis is validated by reality: the transatlantic quest for truth might open onto the place and purport of the Atlantic, the sense of a trans-experience, or the looming presence of death.
Travelling through time
Travelling through time could be regarded as the abscissa of an imaginary graph, the vertical aspiration of a writer who had to wait so long before actually visiting “the Old Home”. Oberon, the travelling story-teller, showed some tentative desires to escape, in The Seven Vagabonds or in Passages from a Relinquished Work, but he soon fell into the trap of the mother’s home, the notorious Haunted Chamber. Oberon, Hawthorne’s nickname in Bowdoin, is neither Peregrine, nor Roderick, nor Tristram, and his destiny is not to participate in the European Grand Tour. As illustrated in The Custom House, escape is a temptation, but again, the European romantic trance is not available and the writer has to turn to various combinations of the Latin prefix trans as a substitute. He will travel in time, through history, in search of American roots. In that sense, the three American romances can be interpreted as arrangements for a personal quest and preparations for future travels.
In order to go through the Hawthornean maze, this study can now take the form of a peregrination, going along several lines or threads, hopefully seven of them, to be woven into a meaningful texture. First, the direction is clearly shown, the East, and the voyage will be a return back to Europe. The three romances also follow a similar axis of verticality, the pre-requisite for transcendence: from the scaffold down to Arthur’s grave, from Maule’s cave up to Clifford’s arched window, or from Miles’ vantage point up in the pine-tree down to the bottom of the river. The third step sees the Hawthornean traveller going on an inward-bound and solitary journey. Conversely, any traditional traveller would go along the streets, on the road, in order to meet the others, to store up experience, to enlarge existence or perhaps to escape his own self. Here, obstacles turn the quest into a compensation: the solitary search in the arcane convolutions of the unconscious eventually leads to ancestry and, farther beyond, to universal archetypes. In either case, this individual retreat into the self opens onto collective considerations and emphasises the importance of the other along the way. Furthermore, a traditional pilgrimage would often follow a linear route, but the pattern here is cyclical, based on return and repetition, evocative perhaps of Carl Jung’s circumambulations of the unconscious or Jacques Durand’s constellations of the imaginary. The repeated visits to the caves of the soul are as many homecomings and the traveller’s progress, if any, takes the form of “an ascending spiral curve” (Waggoner 404). In that sense, the journey now takes on a clearly feminine dimension: in The Odyssey, Ulysses is the male explorer who claims victory over water and femininity (Durand 103), while Penelope stays at home. Roger Chillingworth is also a great traveller in The Scarlet Letter, but he is not Pearl’s father and his assumed name is not meant for restoration but for revenge. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christiana comes second, but in The Scarlet Letter, all the initiatives come from Hester. She is the pioneer, the one who apparently casts off men’s traditional rule and who clears the way for “the whole race of womanhood” (SL 184). Her fight might stand for the passage from a diurnal order, based on male authority, to another, characterised by euphemisation, cyclical regression or return, the feminine and maternal reversal of imaginary schemes (Durand 195-198). From a social point of view, the excesses of androcentrism are clearly exposed. The Pilgrim Fathers, who once showed the way, have either failed or died and, in The Scarlet Letter, Pearl is seen to dance on their graves (SL 184). The analysis also reveals a similar dramatic construction: the adult male having sway over a younger woman and the presence of a third participant, a young male challenger. This classical oedipian trio shows a transmission of power from aged, absent or blameworthy fatherly figures to young women, ultimately from Patriarchs to Maidens. Along her seven-year pilgrimage, Hester starts as a transgressor, which isolates her from the rest of mankind, and eventually becomes a Sister of Mercy devoted to the others; hers has been a painful way, a via dolorosa, which turns into an ambiguous and positive magic circle, perhaps meant to reverse the traditional male vision of the voyage: a woman on board does not necessarily bring bad luck.
Hawthorne’s search is a man’s quest, which now integrates femininity as it moves on. Sensuality, perhaps the greatest attraction and obstacle, is implicit, in the multiple references to flowers for instance, or through characterisation, for example Clifford Pyncheon’s (7G) or Miles Coverdale’s (BR) eyes. In Gaston Bachelard’s words, cyclical reveries are “epiphanies of sexual rythmics” (Bachelard 389), but Hawthorne creates young male characters who are seldom allowed to indulge in their desires. He builds up one exception, a character, which combines most aspects of the search: the alchemical quest, the exploration of the unconscious, the translation of hermetic metaphors or the search for treasures. In Seven Gables, Holgrave is never portrayed as a hero. A former vagabond coming back home, under an assumed name, a reformer now reformed after his return to sources, he is engaged in a process of individuation and emerges as a new American, perhaps a new Man. The quest is both sensual and spiritual, and intimacy is a key. In basic Jungian terms, the logos-dominated male ego goes in search of the anima, the archetype of Eros, whose highest form is the Sophia, also known as the feminine soul of man. In that sense, Holgrave, the nameless and homeless, is the one who explores the galaxies of the imaginary, who appears as the traveller of the unconscious, the alchemist in search of the golden ring, which is both a token of conciliation between the two parts of his own self and the sign of his new alliance with Phoebe. And the journey, started in solitude ends in a dream of fusion, albeit temporary (SG 305).
Still, the real end of this romance is not in the hands of an imaginary character. Jean Brun considers the work of art as a door meant to open the walls of space and time and to reach eternity, the only possibility to force the way out of the cage of the self. The pilgrim, whether it be the writer or the reader, is “guided by a star, looking for the port where heavens are expected to touch the earth” (Brun 196). In Brun’s analysis, music is vertical time, like a vessel which transports the dreams of migration of the self and reaches the open sea (Brun 170). Other sentences, other words that repeat Hawthorne’s last metaphor in Seven Gables, suggesting the birth of a new star in alchemical vocabulary, the final access to the Grail: “Alice Pyncheon (...) had given one farewell touch of a spirit’s joy upon the harpsichord, as she floated heavenward from The House of the Seven Gables” (SG 319).
1852 was the end of this period of arrangements for travel: Nathaniel Hawthorne had lost office, his mother had died and he had completed his trilogy of American romances. In 1853, the time had now come to move, to go across the Atlantic, to return to the Old Home.
Travelling through space
Travelling through space would then be the ordinate of that imaginary personal graph. After the historical intricacies of the nunc, Hawthorne now turns to the geographical delicacies of the hic.
He first puts to the test what he calls himself his “transatlantic fancies of England” (EN v.1 9). Likewise, in Our Old Home, he refers, in more general terms, to American longings for the mother country and the deep-rooted desire for this voyage in return. Hawthorne’s aspiration to wander back to England, which is partly romantic and naive, is not original, then, but it is made more acute as English literature is still the key reference for American writers.
This voyage is hardly in favour of his transatlantic cousins and the mother country: “I have spent four years in a gray gloom” (EN v.2 182). Englishness is reviled: “(for) I like (Mr. Bennett), though it seems strange to see an Englishman with so little physical ponderosity and obtuseness of nerve” (EN v.1 336), or “(The English) are mean in petty things” (EN v.1 368), and he looks down on “John Bull and his wife and family” (EN v.1 359). Nature participates in this disappointing mood: “The English oak is not a handsome tree, being short and sturdy, with a round, thick mass of foliage, lying all within its own bounds” (EN v.1 110), and even Oxford is slashed: “Oxford is an ugly old town, of crooked and irregular streets; gabled houses, mostly plaistered of a buff or yellow hue” (EN v.2 43). His opinion will gradually change: “If England were all the world, it still would have been worth while for the Creator to have made it; and mankind would have had no cause to find fault with their abode – except that there is not room enough for so many as might be happy here” (EN v.1 274), and reconciliation becomes possible through the union of ivy and hawthorn: “I saw, in the outer court of the castle, an old hawthorn tree to which (no doubt a hundred years ago, at least) a plant of ivy had married itself, and the ivy-trunk and the hawthorn-trunk were now absolutely incorporated, and, in their close embrace, you could not tell which was which” (EN v.2 378). In fact, The English Notebooks, and to a lesser extent, Our Old Home, also point to the specificities of Americanness and the changes that have occurred over the previous three centuries after the transatlantic migration. In literary terms, this period will give birth to the abortive Septimius Felton, whose major themes had already been treated in The Scarlet Letter and Seven Gables. The letter is now stained with blood and the words are in old English, Latin and Greek, with the addition of ciphers and hieroglyphs: it is hardly legible, and its colour has changed from scarlet to crimson. Furthermore, an Indian or primitive vein can now be detected in the search for roots: the American native soil has changed the nature of European seeds and a return which would be limited to English roots is not an altogether reliable means to decode the Hawthornean riddle. In Septimius Felton, nature and culture have combined, but a change has occurred in the process and the original secret, transplanted in America, should now be transported back over the ocean and returned to England again.
While The English Notebooks have failed to produce a full-fledged romance, The French and Italian Notebooks will succeed in giving birth to a novel that will appear under two different names on both sides of the Atlantic, The Transformation and The Marble Faun. The move from reality to fiction is similar but this study in American nature and innocence, interpreted in the light of Latin and Greek roots, is a literary achievement. The bases of what Jacques Derrida will later call la mondialatinisation prove more effective than the closer and perhaps too intimate connections with England. A major change has occurred, though. The sign has changed, from the letter, common to most other romances, to the mineral world of lifeless marble and its iconic sculpture, perhaps the indication of the writer’s desire to escape from literary impotence or go beyond the limits which are inherent in writing.
A series of questions now materialises: what do Septimius Felton and The Marble Faun have in common? Was Hester’s choice premonitory? What was the meaning of her coming back to Boston, anticipating and echoing Kenyon’s plea, in The Marble Faun: “Oh, Hilda, guide me home!” (MF 461). Eventually, how far is the original hypothesis and its seven steps validated? If it is admitted that return is the basis of Hawthorne’s quest, is it a return to Europe or to America? Is Europe a deception? Is the transatlantic voyage a lure?
Jacques Lacan’s interpretation of the return theme might be of great help at this stage. Septimius’ letter has come from England, over a period of three centuries. His yellowish, bloody and almost undecipherable letter has eventually reached its addressee, over time and space, which it fuses in one movement. Return appears as a chronological reversal, a symbolic force which retroactively structures the imaginary and the real, the lifelong urge to come back to the pre-imaginary stage of primary narcissism when self and other were one. As Slavoj Zizek wrote: “The subject takes a journey into the past, intervenes in the scene (...). And it is only through his intervention that the scene from the past becomes what it always was” (Zizek in Budick 210). That is a feeling that Nathaniel Hawthorne experiences in The English Notebooks: “I sometimes feel as if I myself had been absent these two hundred and eighteen years - leaving England just emerging from the feudal system, and finding it on the verge of Republicanism. It brings the two far separated points of time very closely together, to view the matter thus” (EN v.1 138).
The arbitrary abscissa and ordinate mentioned above could make up Hawthorne’s imaginary graph, but what are the elements that provide the impetus, that keep the graph moving?
The Transatlantic Quest
Transatlanticism is a convenient intellectual construction: within the scope of this analysis, three points could help decode its impact.
First, the Atlantic Ocean plays an important role, both in Hawthorne’s personal life and his works and, one way or another, influences most major characters, from The Scarlet Letter to The Marble Faun. It could almost be regarded as a transversal character of its own. The Ocean had long been deep in Hawthorne’s mind, as a source of attraction and repulsion. He always preferred a house facing the open sea, but the ocean is also the cause of his father’s death, or the force that killed Margaret Fuller on her return to America; The English Notebooks, which abound in references to sailors, ports and life at sea, also portray a world of brutality and cruelty. Before 1853, Hawthorne’s ocean made up much of his imaginary world, and the sea may have been his own insuperable obstacle, his ultimate frontier. The sea and its restless waters have been a potent temptation. In a letter to his mother, he wrote in March 1821: “Oh no Mother, I was not born to vegetate forever in one place, and to live and die as calm and tranquil as – A Puddle of Water” (Letters 1, 138-139). His choice is original, quite different from Edgar Poe’s attraction to motionless waters in Arthur Gordon Pym, or Joseph Conrad, for instance, who regarded the boat as a maternal symbol and the sea as a metaphor for writing. His friend Henry Thoreau had quite a different vision. In Thoreau’s eyes, the future and progress implied a move westward, while the east was a synonym for past and regression: “The Atlantic is a Lethean stream, in our passage over which we have had an opportunity to forget The Old World and its institutions” (in Dolis, 132). The Scarlet Letter, again, sounds like a premonition, when he mentions his: “(…) emotions when I read the last scene of The Scarlet Letter to my wife, just after writing it – tried to read it, rather, for my voice swelled and heaved, as if I were tossed up and down on an ocean, as it subsided after a storm” (EN v.1 339-340). England, all through his stay, will be connected to the sea, water, or more generally the liquid element: “How misty is England!” (EN v.2 182). London itself breeds similar metaphors. On his first visit, he wrote: “ (…) but all that I had heard, and felt, about the vastness of London, made it seem like swimming in a boundless ocean, to venture one step beyond the only spot I knew (…/.). Yesterday forenoon, I went out alone, and plunged headlong into London, and wandered about all day, without any particular object in view, but only to lose myself, for the sake of finding myself unexpectedly among things that I have always read and dreamed about” (EN v.1 306). England is connected with water and the past: “(for) the tombstones were all modern, (the humid English atmosphere, giving them their mossy look of antiquity,) …” (EN v.2 189). When visiting an English cave, he wrote: “ (…) but, on the whole, I felt like a mole as I went creeping along, and was glad when we came into the sunshine again. I rather think my idea of a cavern is taken from the one in the Forty Thieves, or in Gil Blas; a vast, hollow womb, roofed and curtained with obscurity” (EN v.2 258). England, water, the transatlantic voyage and the maternal womb combine in order to reach the world of smell and discover unknown scents. On a visit to Edimburgh, he wrote: “ I have had some experience of this ugly fragrance in the poor streets of Liverpool; but I think I never smelt it before crossing the Atlantic. It is the odor of an old system of life; the scent of the pine-forests is still too recent with us for it to be known in America” (EN v.2 16).
The liquid element turns him into a new Ulysses, leaving the newborn America to return to the mother-island. The voyage from New England, the offspring, to England, the breeder, is expected to provide some answers, just as the child tries to find the keys that have been left in the mother’s womb. The child retraces its steps along the imaginary cord, the Atlantic thread. In all cultures, the sea is a maternal symbol, as Gilbert Durand explains: “The supreme primordial swallower is the sea. (…/.) The feminized, maternal abyss is, for numerous cultures, the archetype of descent and of the return to the original sources of happiness” (Durand 218). England, the original island, is a symbol of woman and mother, and the return to the roots may then appear as a regressio ad uterum, the desire to reach the primal source again. Alchemy, which often makes sense in Hawthorne’s work, would then speak of Mother Lousine, the proper name for the Aquaster, “…. a projection of the unfathomable, undifferentiated and original unconscious” (Durand 220). The ocean and its black and unfathomable waters are linked with blood, femininity, and ultimately death: “Blood is overpowering both because it is the master of life and death, but also because in its femininity it is the first human clock, the first human sign connected with the lunar drama” (Durand 109).
This return to the mother, soon evocative of death or the tomb, implies to reverse the tide, to swim upstream, in a sort of positive transgression. In that sense, Transatlanticism means far more than merely crossing the ocean: Hawthorne’s quest leads him to explore the innumerable combinations of the Latin prefix trans, while the twentieth century, for instance, will prefer its Greek equivalent, meta. The manuscript that Septimius finds in a parchment cover requires a translation, on account of the various languages used. That letter implied a transmission: “(…) as if – so secret and so important was it – it could not be within the knowledge of two persons at once, and therefore it was necessary that one should die, in the act of transmitting to the hand of another, the destined possessor, inheritor, profiter by it” (SF 49). It also meant change: the Atlantic is the place for transformation, and Nathaniel Hawthorne had to leave America to better comprehend what Americanness signified. He broke moorings, as he suggested in The English Notebooks: “It is a strange, vagabond, gypsey sort of life, this that we are leading (…/.). I do not know what sort of character it will form in the children, this unsettled, shifting, vagrant life, with no central home to turn to, except what we carry in ourselves” (EN v.2 149-151).
Without an anchor, in Lacan’s terminology, or a centre in Derrida’s, he has now distanced himself from a purely American vision; from Puritans for example, for whom America was sacred but immutable, but also from Transcendentalists, whose vision ”should be seen as interwoven systematically with the belligerent Anglophobia of this era” (Giles in Dolis, 131). Hawthorne’s trans-position may be regarded as an oblique or trans-historical way to reach reality, but it requires going through a stage of temporary regression. When the pilgrims struck roots in America, they started a process of mutation, and the core of Americanness can only be approached by analysing that new combination of culture and nature, as in Septimius’ character for instance: “(…) for the present, the little world, which alone knew of him, considered Septimius as a studious young man, who was fitting for the ministry, and was likely enough to do credit to the ministerial blood that he drew from his ancestors; in spite of the wild stream that the Indian priest had contributed and perhaps none the worse, as a clergyman, for having an instinctive sense of the nature of the devil, from his traditionary claims to partake of his blood” (SF 45). Some critics will use, in turn, their own combinations of words to explain the process. John Dolis, for instance, writes: “Hawthorne’s handiwork engenders a transnational context within which to examine the historical interface of England and America” (Dolis 135). Returning to England is a necessary condition: “given this displacement, the ‘nation’ herein occupies the site of transference: through the locus of the Other, cultural identity and the identity of cultural difference are reincribed within the very same event” (Dolis 135-136). In a different context, Lucien Dällenbach would speak of a retro-prospective approach (Dällenbach 93).
Hawthorne’s new vantage point permits moments of effervescence and allows fleeting incursions from the visible into the invisible. Art is the passageway that is used to go through time and space, to reach the universal and the timeless; the aesthetic aspiration for transcendence is transparent in The Marble Faun. That form of sublimation enabled the writer to transfigure the common or trivial into artistic material, “to transpose from the phenomenal to the noumenal” (Elbert 111), and Hawthorne was conscious of the necessity for an artist to transfigure what he created: “Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity thereby” (in Elbert 111).
The letter has been turned into a carved object that encapsulates part of the truth and the faun is the oldest trace he could lay hands on. This return to the hand that carves, rather than the hand that writes letters, may be a way to get closer to the phenomenal world. The faun, taken out of its Greek environment is re-interpreted in a post-puritan nineteenth century context but it can still be construed or turned into words. Chronologically, The Marble Faun is inserted between Hawthorne’s two attempts at writing Septimius Felton; it may be his ultimate and successful aspiration to escape in and through art.
The writer’s quest has now taken the form of a conquest, the best example being his capacity to defeat what once was his ultimate obstacle, the ocean. The trans-phenomenon experienced in this transatlantic voyage and stay in Europe has enabled him to conquer part of his fear and discover new territories, in more senses than one. So far, Hawthorne has appeared as a brilliant advocate of a form of transcendence, and that could hardly be farther from Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction theory: still, some Derridean concepts could be of great interest at this point. The sense of different and often conflicting layers of sedimentation that make up a text applies to both The Marble Faun and Septimius Felton, in various ways though. Nathaniel Hawthorne had always been conscious of intertextual dependencies. The search for traces or ashes from the past, the recourse to different contextual layers, - Greek sculpture, Roman architecture, Renaissance paintings for instance -, or the Gothic-like excavation of ghost-like characters, buried in Latin crypts, all those elements make sense in The Marble Faun, insofar as he managed to conciliate its various ingredients and make up an original and unmutilated text. But the Transatlantic experience has only delocated the basic sensation of fear.
Septimius Felton is left unconstructed: the writer has been unable to twine together the different threads that make it up, and the texture is left unstitched. Unity and harmony are beyond reach, and the different layers of the text are left bare and open to scrutiny; fiction and the real are getting closer to one another. In Hester’s story, the glamourous letter had been turned into a meaningful icon, turning like a luxury object on its display stand; in Septimius Felton, the phial and the flower escape the writer’s grip, just as the soiled letter fails to provide any relevant answer. The writer’s desire to get closer to the essence of permanence and immutability leads him on to an investigation into the only aspect of the real that can be approached: death has become the object of Hawthorne’s quest.
Death is present in The English Notebooks, through the great variety of graves and tombs visited, or the English ivy which is meant to support a decaying nation: “Oh, that we could have ivy in America! What is there to beautify us when our time of ruin comes“ (EN v.1 123); Old Scarlet, the sexton, arouses similar feelings: “I think one feels a sort of enmity and spite against these grave-diggers, who live so long, and seem to contract a sort of kindred and partnership with Death, being boon-companions with him, and taking his part against mankind” (EN v.2 240). Beyond the world of symbols or letters, England’s atmosphere is permeated with the odor of dead men: “(The church) had the true musty smell which I never conceived of till I came to England – the smell of dead men’s decay, garnered up and shut in, and kept from generation to generation; not disgusting nor sickening, because it is so old, and of the past” (EN v.2 189-190). The persistence of dead odours was already a preoccupation in Seven Gables, and Holgrave’s temptation and attraction to death clearly surfaced after the Judge had died. He came close to a reality that made him desperate and dizzy but he was taken back by Phoebe’s voice and light. Similar perceptions are going to recur in Septimius’ ordeal, but, in his case, nobody will hold him back and the seventh vagabond comes too close to the borderline: the death impulse is now bound to win. As often in Hawthorne’s binary approach, the positive sides of the metaphors, as in The Elixir of Life and The Romance of Immortality, call to mind their negative counterparts. In many respects, Septimius Felton, which is Hawthorne’s posthumous novel, may appear as a dialogue with death, his last attempt perhaps to domesticate it. Death oozes through every line of this uncompleted work: the letter is not only undecipherable as such, but it is also torn and partly covered with blood. Septimius, ironically made Minister of the Word, broods over death: “(A dead man is) a pinch of dust, a heap of bones, an evil odor” and death “an alien misfortune, a prodigy, a monstrosity” (SF 15). The connections between the bloody letter and death are constant. Septimius gets the letter from a dying man, as a reward for his death. When Septimius buries the English officer, almost the English part of himself, “he and his dead man were alone together” (SF 33). But words, or letters, soon fail him and he is gradually confronted with the contingent, the real in Lacanian terms: “Well; there was the grave; (...)” (SF 42-43), and trying to decode the hieroglyphic letter drives him to an almost Faustian lunacy: “For the next century we will get ourselves made rulers of the earth (.../.). and when this is effected, we will vanish from our loving people, and be seen no more, but be reverenced as gods” (SF 172-173). Death becomes the ultimate recourse, “(Death is) the remedy for many evils that nothing else would cure” (SF 176); it is, in fact, Septimius’ last interlocutor: “we will call Death as the friend to introduce us to something new” (SF 176). All the new roots that have been developed shackle Septimius to death. The instructions in the letter seem to be clear: “Set the root in a grave, and wait for what shall blossom”, and eventually the dregs left by the Sanguinea Sanguinissima in the deadly phial “look like blood-root” (SF 115). Sibyl, the snake-like maiden and ambassador of death, takes up the striking metaphor of a creeping plant again: “I am a being that sprang up, like that flower, out of a grave; - or, at least, I took root in a grave, and growing there, have twined about your life, until you cannot possibly escape from me” (SF 187).
Nathaniel Hawthorne was conscious of the deceptions of apparent reality and the ambiguous nature of writing, made ponderous through the historical sedimentation of language. His exploration of the letter gradually changed his vision. His desire to capture, were it only a particle of truth, is thwarted by the nature of discourse, which skips from one word to another in an endless shift. Words make up a flow which constantly defers any real meaning and bars access to truth, if any. Hester is the wearer of a conspicuous letter, but Septimius shows off its wear and tear: the text discloses gaps and failings, holes in the texture. Words lead on to other words that are all pregnant with the ghosts and traces of long-dead writers. They make up an endless and contaminated chain that prevents access to the real thing of death. This real thing cannot be coded into symbols and is only approached in an indirect way: Septimius is the ultimate wanderer who tries to lift the seventh veil, but his last dance is left unfinished. His desire to return to the primal plenitude, whose echo had driven him onward, was inextricably twined with a potent death-drive.
Death is immutable, the most striking part of the real, which can only be approached in an oblique way. It escapes symbols, or words, which are submitted to constant change. Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to have had some prescience of the real. His foresight is impressive and strangely evocative of the Lacanian three orders, - reality, imagination and symbol -, when he writes: “The change symbolized the difference between a poet’s imagination of life in the past – or in a state which he looks at through a colored and illuminated medium – and the sad reality” (EN v.2 324). He has perceived that the world of symbols, letters or words, operates like a veil, at once a medium to approach the real and its major obstacle. The word is likely to murder the thing itself, and death, his ultimate crimson letter, is what resists this symbolic order. In that sense, Septimius Felton may be one of Hawthorne’s last steps in a quest towards the sign. Septimius’ letter is a combination of written material, ciphers and blood: his English letter is illegible. The world of painters and sculptors may have been a temporary relief in The Marble Faun, until the ivy eventually stifled its host.
How far was the original hypothesis relevant? The quest, as it appeared in the American romances revealed several aspects, which seem to have been partly confirmed in Hawthorne’s transatlantic experience. He limited his tour to England and Italy, in order to get back to English roots and farther beyond, to Latin and Greek origins. Transcendence remains a crucial issue in the two romances that were started on the old continent, and even if Hawthorne travelled with his wife and children, solitude and introspection still mattered a lot. The theme of return structures The English Notebooks at various levels, from feminine waters to the maternal island. Hawthorne regarded himself as a vagabond, a wanderer, but his search has changed its object: the couple made up of Phoebe and Holgrave seems to have been repeated in the foretold union between Hilda and Kenyon, but the context has changed. The happy mood that prevailed in Seven Gables has become considerably gloomier, and the author, who seems to have been so close to Holgrave, is now standing at a distance from his protagonists in The Marble Faun. The metaphor of the rising star, Alice’s redemption, may be the real conclusion in Seven Gables. That quest provisionally ends in a positive and hopeful transmutation; but through and after the transatlantic voyage, the writer has come to grips with an ultimate and fiercer opponent. In The Marble Faun, Europe is left behind, scarred and bruised by legacy, but American innocence has been damaged by this European experience.
Hawthorne’s transatlantic quest is a delocation, or relocation, both geographically and historically. The wanderer has broken moorings and explored new contexts: England and Italy, far from providing new and safe havens, have become his archives, but the vaults that have been disclosed are also haunted. His original quest was for roots or origins, perhaps the mother-country, but the expected return to primary unity may have been a temporary delusion. The quest has changed its object and the sense of wholeness is definitely irretrievable. The dizzy traveller has lost bearings and the drift leads him onto the verge of the unnameable. From another perspective, the unattainable is definitely beyond reach, access is denied, and the quest is then left unended. Still it has not been fruitless: the statue offered a temporary refuge, though not really extratextual. The writer has put his letter to the test of various contexts; Hester’s conspicuous and artistic letter, Holgrave’s missing letter, or Septimius’ ultimate and ruined letter, are illustrations of different steps of the mutation, or the alteration of writing. The writer investigates into different worlds, where he inserts his letter, so as to observe its transformation. He repeats his sign and by so doing, he alters it. As there is no end to the quest, the sense is constantly postponed.
Septimius Felton may be read as Hawthorne’s last attempt at a return: the secret, once transferred to America, has to be taken back to England where it was conceived. In literary terms, gradual regression is visible in the letter, from Old English to Latin and Greek, ciphers, eventually the family or blood ties and the omnipresence of death. In the process, distance has cleared up the nature of American specificities. The transatlantic voyage has proved useful as it has allowed a better awareness of differences. Hester’s return may then be a sign of recognition, the token of her submission to this newly created order, the American Law. The spell and magic that come out of a purely American novel, Seven Gables, have been singularly darkened along the following years. The skies have changed their colours, too: from scarlet to purple, then crimson, and eventually black in Septimius Felton, or cold like stone in The Marble Faun. Septimius Felton, however, though or because it was left unfinished, sounds like a voice from beyond the grave, but who is the addressee? Could it be the present reader, the one who goes on another voyage, expecting an answer, in Oxford perhaps? Fortunately enough, Nathaniel Hawthorne did not stick to first impressions. On second thoughts, he wrote in The English Notebooks: “If I remember aright, I spoke very slightingly of the exterior aspect of Oxford (…/.). I am bound to say, that my impressions are now very different, and that I find Oxford exceedingly picturesque, and rich in beauty and grandeur, and in antique stateliness” (EN v.2 109). A rich and lively metaphor is not merely an instrument of language, but it also operates as a source of imagination for discourse, and it pleases the analyst to conclude on the metaphor of ivy again. Rather than imagine the earlier ivy and hawthorn bush in a deadly embrace, my choice would rather be to imagine the ivy “mantling the gray stone - and the infinite repose, both in sunshine and shadow – it is as if half a dozen of by-gone centuries had set up their rest here, and as if nothing of the present time ever passed through the deeply recessed archway that shut in the College from the street (…/.). Such a sweet, quiet, sacred, stately seclusion – so age-long as this has been, and, I hope, will continue to be – cannot exist anywhere else” (EN v.2 114).
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AbbreviationsSL: the Scarlet Letter
SF: Septimius Felton
MF: the Marble Faun
SG: the House of the Seven Gables
EN: the English Notebooks
OOH: Our Old Home