Symbol and Interpretation in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter
Symbol and Interpretation in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter
By Dr. Stephanie Carrez
paper delivered at the conference of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society, celebrating
the Hawthorne bicentennial in Salem, MA, July 1-4
Dr. Stephanie Carrez, France
When Hester comes back to New England, Nathaniel Hawthorne comments upon her return
with this sentence: she "resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a
tale."(227)1 The letter, as a "symbol," is thus the central
subject of the book; Hester's story itself only corresponds to the "small roll
of dingy paper" (32) that provides an insight into the elusive meaning of the
letter. The reader is thus invited to consider the whole story as a progressive
uncovering of the "truth" of a symbol that constitutes one of the most enigmatic
elements of American literature. Critics over the years focused on this search
for a hidden significance, and put forward their own interpretation of this "truth."
The scarlet letter has thus been assigned almost as many different meanings as
there are words beginning with the letter A in the English dictionary. Instead
of offering my own A-word as a key to understanding Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece,
I would like to focus on the notion of symbol itself, and on the way the author
organizes this search for a meaning. The narrator frequently uses this word throughout
the romance, and its various occurrences enable us to shape a definition that
corresponds to his personal use of symbols. From this starting point, I would
like to show how Hawthorne stages the interpretative process within The Scarlet
Letter, and how this provides keys for the reader on how to read them.
I. The word "symbol" and its meaning in The Scarlet Letter
First, I would like to provide a few basic elements on the definitions of allegory and symbol as I will use them in this analysis. Starting from that definition, Poe's analysis of Hawthorne's works as "allegorical" can be qualified, especially in The Scarlet Letter in which Hawthorne blatantly refuses some key aspects of an allegorical mode of representation. I will try to demonstrate that the scarlet "symbol," as well as its full-fledged equivalent Pearl, pertains on the contrary to a symbolic mode of representation.
1. Allegory vs. symbol: the relevance of the German controversy
Allegory and symbol are historically two forms of the same stylistic figure that consists in a transfer of meaning: the first meaning gives way to a secondary, figurative one, but without entirely disappearing. Both partake of the creation of a spiritual meaning, and enable the author to provide several layers of interpretation. The distinction between the two figures appeared later and was shaped mainly by German romantics.
The distinction between symbol and allegory can be organized around three main
- An allegory only aims at indicating a second level of meaning; it provides a link between an object and an abstract meaning. The two elements remain distinct and the object's sole function is to suggest the secondary meaning. Justice as a blindfold woman carrying scales and a sword can be used as an example to clarify matters. The woman does not exist at the first level of understanding; she does not have a name or a personal history. Using such an image only aims at indirectly referring to the abstract idea of justice which exists outside of such a representation. On the other hand, the symbol has a syncretic value: it represents and signifies at the same time, it fuses the object and its secondary meaning.
- An allegory therefore represents an idea that could be expressed in abstract words, whereas a symbol represents something inexpressible, and cannot be replaced by the abstract idea it points to. The interpretation of allegory is finite, whereas that of symbol is infinite. The blindfold woman represents the concept of justice, and that figure could be replaced by the concept without losing any meaningful element. On the contrary, if a symbol is assigned one definite meaning, some of its reality as a literary object is ignored.
- As a consequence, an allegory addresses the intellection of the reader and has one clear meaning, whereas a symbol is enigmatic, mystic, and appeals both to intellection and to sensitivity. Understanding allegories requires cultural knowledge, whereas the comprehension of symbol is intuitive. One must learn what the blindfold woman stands for, or to guess one must reflect upon her various attributes and relate them to the cultural idea of justice. The figure does not appeal to sensitivity, and emotions are not part of the understanding process.
Hawthorne's definition should be set within the theoretical debate opposing
allegory and symbol that first appeared in Goethe's works. Hawthorne's knowledge
of German, although limited according to his wife, enables us to assume that
he was at least acquainted with these theories. Moreover, the question of understanding
symbols is largely common among intellectuals at the time, since Champollion's
discovery of the meaning of hieroglyphs had a great impact on various authors
of the American Renaissance.3 Hawthorne himself uses this word to
describe Pearl as the "living hieroglyph"(180), thus establishing an embedded
link between the scarlet symbol, Pearl as the "letter endowed with life"(90)
and hieroglyphs. According to John Irwin, Champollion isolated a series of signs
that could not be deciphered and that are tantamount to the symbolic signs per
se; these "anaglyphs" correspond to the lost wisdom of the Egyptians.4 Such a
definition parallels the opposition between allegory as a decipherable sign
and symbol as an enigmatic one, which reinforces the validity of the reference
to the German theory.
Starting from that definition, I would first like to show that the scarlet
letter is endowed with many characteristics pertaining to a symbolic mode. This
contribution aims to describe how, in The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel
Hawthorne ventured far into the realm of romantic symbol, discovered the ambiguities
and uncertainties related to such a mode of expression, and attempted at providing
a number of answers to the problems he encountered. However, it is far from
certain that he considered these answers as satisfactory. I would like to submit
the hypothesis that this is the reason why Hawthorne abandoned such a mode and
returned to a more classic allegorical mode, at least up to the unfinished undertaking
known as The Elixir of Life Manuscripts.
2. Hawthorne's definition of "symbol"
When commenting upon his first volume of Tales, Edgar Allan Poe indicates
that Hawthorne "is infinitely too fond of allegory, and can never hope for popularity
as long as he persists in it."5 In his early tales, Hawthorne clearly and recurrently
employs a technique akin to what the romantics call allegory. Jorge Luis Borges,
in an article devoted to Nathaniel Hawthorne's stylistic technique, refers to
the habit Hawthorne had of writing down in his Notebooks central ideas
that would later constitute the backbone of his tales, thus starting from the
"moral" of the tale to elaborate a narrative that will illustrate this moral.
The example of "Egotism or the Bosom Serpent" is probably the most appropriate.
An entry dated from 1836 in the Notebooks hints at a possible idea
for a tale in such terms: "a snake taken into a man's stomach" corresponding
to "a type of envy or some evil passion." Just as Poe before him, Borges condemns
this predilection for "allegorizing."6 This tale definitely draws upon allegory,
with an image directly representing an abstract idea that is easily expressed
in words, as the very title perfectly shows. But Hawthorne's use of "allegory"
already bears traces of the romantic symbol, and especially puts forward the
idea that the snake has a real existence. He repeatedly insists upon the materiality
of the serpent, especially in the final scene when Roderick is finally delivered:
At that moment, if report be trustworthy, the sculptor beheld a waving motion through the grass, and heard a tinkling sound, as if something had plunged into the fountain.
This fusion of the spiritual meaning - Roderick acted unselfishly and is delivered from his egotism - and the material aspect - the serpent left his bosom - thus presides over the conclusion of the tale, bringing a tinge of romantic flavor to his allegorical dish. But it is interesting to remark that Poe used the term "allegory," whereas Hawthorne preferred that of "symbol" in The Scarlet Letter. This underlines a major inflection in Hawthorne's use of this type of stylistic figure, from the "Allegories of the heart" to The Scarlet Letter. No less than twenty-four occurrences of the noun or the verb can be numbered, delineating a definition of symbol that undoubtedly leans towards that of the German romantics.
According to Goethe's definition, the classical allegory aims at providing the reader with a direct knowledge of what is meant, and establishes a conventional - and therefore immutable - relationship between an image and an abstract meaning. We can find in The Scarlet Letter a blatant refusal of such a mode when he presents Hester during the first scaffold scene with this sentence:
Giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast, […] as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. (71-72)
In this excerpt, it is possible to isolate most of the characteristics of what the German romantics condemn as "allegory." Hester, as an allegory of sin, loses her "individuality," and her only role becomes that of directly representing sin. The letter requires to be interpreted, but its comprehension is not intuitive, its meaning is to be taught by the religious authorities. As to the reception of the symbol by the reader/hearer, it also corresponds to the romantic theory of allegory, since the general ideas of "woman's frailty and sinful passion" constitute the starting point of the preacher's discourse upon Hester; her individuality only serves to illustrate this general idea.
However, the narrative itself contradicts this declaration, since the meaning of the A evolves in the mind of the community:
Such helpfulness was found in her, - so much power to do, and power to sympathize, - that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength. (141)
The narrator thereby condemns such a petrifaction of meaning. If the discourse of the preacher is allegoric, that of the author is on the contrary symbolic.
Hawthorne not only refuses the allegorical mode, he also endows Pearl with attributes that confirm the relevance of the romantic definition of symbol. This is particularly obvious in the following quotation:
In her was visible the tie that united them. She had been offered to the world, these seven past years, as the living hieroglyphic, 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 character of flame! And Pearl was the oneness of their being. Be the foregone evil what it might, how could they doubt that their earthly lives and future destinies were conjoined, when they beheld at once the material union, and the spiritual idea, in whom they met, and were to dwell immortally together? (180).
The symbolic quality of the letter is transferred to Pearl in this excerpt,
which reinforces the idea that the symbol combines the reference to an abstract
idea with a material existence. Of course, the character of Pearl remains largely
determined by its role as a representation of her mother's sin, and hence as
an allegory of Guilt. The child's personality and evolution corresponds exactly
to the movement of her parents' culpability: in this quote, she is the "secret
they so darkly sought to hide;" she remains so until her "liberation," after
Dimmesdale's confession. She is the scarlet letter under another guise, and
as such her place in the novel may seem limited by the "office" she has to perform.
However, Hawthorne chose to develop her character into a full-fledged one, with
her own features. The fact that Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter, Una, served
as a model for the character of Pearl also corresponds to this attempt to make
her as lively a character as possible. Pearl consequently functions on two different
levels within the narrative, both as a child and as an allegory. Her character
provides a "connecting link" (135) between her parents, but also between the
two levels of understanding. Hawthorne goes even further in the use of the romantic
characteristics of symbol through the use of the expression "oneness." In this
conception, the symbol then enables a fusion of contraries, and especially between
matter and thought. This also echoes the origin of the word "symbol," since
the Greek word "symbolon" referred to a coin divided into two halves that was
used as a recognition sign. Pearl is thus more than a link; she represents the
ideal combination of the various levels of understanding.
But the most definitely romantic element is probably the mystery attached to the letter and the multiplicity of meanings it can be assigned. The expression "ignominious letter," used in three different occasions, hints through its etymology at something that cannot be expressed (52, 58 and 63). Moreover, the word "symbol" is often associated with the adjective "mystic," which underlines the idea that it constitutes a mystery that can be deciphered only by the initiated. The rosebush at the "threshold" of the prison-door - and of the narrative - was by the way a symbol of initiation into mysteries during the Antiquity. Hawthorne creates a web of references around the letter, both directly and more discreetly, which leads his reader to consider it as a romantic symbol.
II. Symbol and truth: the question of interpretation
If the major characteristic of the symbol is its enigmatic nature, it is not
surprising that the question of its understanding should be of major import.
Interpreting signs is by the way a pervasive concern in Hawthorne's work throughout
his career. On the market-place, a villager tells Chillingworth that the name
of the child's father remains unknown and that "the Daniel who shall expound
it is yet a-wanting" (58). The explicit reference to the prophet Daniel, who
interprets the writing on the wall for King Belshazzar, introduces this question
of interpretation in The Scarlet Letter. It provides a link between
the interpretative process within the story - the discovery of the identity
of Pearl's father by Chillingworth - and the interpretative process at work
in "The Custom-House" - the discovery of the meaning of the scarlet letter by
the narrator. Hawthorne's story is double, as the fact that the manuscript was
found "in the second story of the Custom-House" suggests (28): on the one hand,
the story relates the progressive uncovering of the truth by Chillingworth,
and on the other it stages the discovery of such truth by the narrator, who
is the first reader of the story as well as its teller. It is no surprise then
to see him place the letter on his breast, as Daniel's reward is to be "clothed
with scarlet, and have a chain of gold around his neck" (Daniel, 5:7).
In this respect, we can oppose Chillingworth's diabolic reading of
the story to the narrator's symbolic one. "The Custom-House" is first and foremost
an account of the narrator's reading of the story of Hester, and as such can
be understood as providing instructions to the reader on the proper way to read
1. Interpretation within the narrative
On this matter, the emphasis on the romantic theory of symbol is less definite. As a romantic symbol, the scarlet letter appeals to both intellect and sensitivity. However, the interpretative process as Hawthorne presents it in The Scarlet Letter is complex, and the link between feeling and understanding is far less direct than it may seem at first sight. Although the idea of intuitive comprehension may be considered as an ideal, Hawthorne's pragmatism leads him to qualify it and to take into account the impact of social conventions on the understanding of the symbol.
What the narrator of "The Custom-House" tells the reader about the letter confirms the link with the romantic conception:
Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind. (32)
The greater importance given to sensitivity corresponds to the romantic theory, but what is striking here is that intellectual comprehension does not immediately follow. In Hawthorne's vision, the two elements are disconnected, and the ability of the symbol to convey emotions does not lead to any direct comprehension of its meaning. This idea is also clearly staged through the discovery of the scarlet letter. The narrator relates an emotional experience as he places the letter on his breast:
It seemed to me, - the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word, - it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. (32)
Some part of the signification of the letter is conveyed through this sensation, since the letter Hester bears in fact replaces the letter that should have been branded on her breast. But the narrator also insists on his inability to decipher the meaning of the letter because it belongs to another time and therefore to another set of values:
It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. (31-32)
Hawthorne also refers to the conventionality of the interpretation, even when the viewer belongs to the same social context when he ironically describes the reaction of Governor Bellingham's servant:
The bond-servant, perhaps judging from the decision of her air and the glittering symbol in her bosom, that she was a great lady in the land, offered no opposition. (92)
The narrator persistently reminds his reader that the interpretation of this
"mystic symbol" in the novel itself is only made possible thanks to the context
- in the literal sense of the word, what accompanies the text - provided by
Surveyor Pue's manuscript. When the narrator takes up the letter, it is mute,
and the whole story can be read as a possible exegesis of the letter offered
by the narrator to his reader. This is by the way a divine mission, as the discourse
that Surveyor Pue pronounces from his grave underlines (33-34). But the narrative
contract establishes afterwards the latitude of the narrator, since Surveyor
Pue's manuscript is "the authority which we have chiefly followed"
(224, my emphasis). Nathaniel Hawthorne thereby establishes his very narrative
as one possible insight into the scarlet symbol, but at the same time unsettles
the certainties of the reader as to the validity of his interpretation.
2. Interpretation of the symbol by the reader
The symbol has the capacity to convey impressions, but the importance of the social context is prominent in interpreting this impression. What the author suggests concerning the interpretation of signs by the various characters within the narrative can also be applied to Hawthorne's readers. His rhetorical strategy aims at emphasizing the idea of a negotiation between the narrator and the reader on the meaning that should be assigned to the letter.
After many days, when time sufficed for the people to arrange their thoughts in reference to the foregoing scene, there was more than one account of what had been witnessed on the scaffold.
Most of the spectators testified to having seen, on the breast of the unhappy minister, a SCARLET LETTER - the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne - imprinted in the flesh. As regarded its origin, there were various explanations, all of which must necessarily have been conjectural. Some affirmed that the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, on the very day when Hester Prynne first wore her ignominious badge, had begun a course of penance, - which he afterwards, in so many futile methods, followed out, - by inflicting a hideous torture on himself. Others contended that the stigma had not been produced until a long time subsequent, when old Roger Chillingworth, being a potent necromancer, had caused it to appear, through the agency of magic and poisonous drugs. Others, again, - and those best able to appreciate the minister's peculiar sensibility, and the wonderful operation of his spirit upon the body, - whispered their belief, that the awful symbol was the effect of the ever active tooth of remorse, gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly, and at last manifesting Heaven's dreadful judgment by the visible presence of the letter. The reader may choose among these theories. (223)
The author first insists on the multiplication of narrative voices in the opening sentence, and then uses partitives to structure this paragraph. This narrative technique parallels Hawthorne's frequent use of narrative delegation: in all of his romances, part of the story is told indirectly by one of the characters, who is temporarily in charge of the authorial voice. The very phenomenon is put into doubt by the use of "most" at the beginning of the paragraph; afterwards, the narrative is organized into a series of various testimonies, none of which are entirely reliable. The narrator then feigns to be neutral and finally appeals to the reader to choose his own truth in the last sentence. As a consequence, the letter appears as a void that needs to be filled by each viewer, and the "truth" of the symbol is first and foremost a negotiation between the symbol and its viewer.
Hawthorne goes even further along the lines of romanticism by underlining that the truth of the symbol does not even exist outside of the relationship between the sign and a given reader. Hawthorne emphasizes the subjectivity of the interpretation of the meteor in the sky, but this highly subjective interpretation is nevertheless true regarding the position of the viewer. Because of the enigmatic character of the symbol, the notion of truth itself becomes fragmentary.
We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own eye and heart, that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter, - the letter A, - marked out in lines of dull red light. Not but the meteor may have shown itself at that point, burning duskily through a veil of cloud; but with no such shape as his guilty imagination gave it; or, at least, with so little definiteness, that another's guilt might have seen another symbol in it. (136)
This constitutes an interesting variation upon the romantic theory: if the
comprehension of the symbol is direct, intuitive, it varies with the
social position of the viewer. Hawthorne thus qualifies the romantic idea that
the symbol has one natural signification: it has as many valid meanings as there
are viewers. The chapter ends with another interpretation of the symbol that
appeared in the sky: an old sexton recounts the appearance of the letter A in
the sky, and indicates that he and the villagers "interpret [it] to stand for
Angel" because of the death during that same night of Governor Winthrop (138).
The narrative strategy implemented by Hawthorne once again parallels his blatant
remarks about the interpretative process of the symbol. The various interpretations
given over the years to the symbol by critics by the way confirm the success
of this strategy. The interpretation is highly social and easily varies with
the concerns of the reader, from feministic interpretations to psycho-analytic
ones to choose but two examples.
As a consequence, Hawthorne places the reader at the heart of the artistic
process, as he explained later in his Notebooks:
But, as regards the interpretation of this, or of any other profound picture,
there are likely to be as many interpretations as there are spectators. It is
very curious to read criticisms upon pictures, and upon the same face in a picture,
and by men of taste and feeling, and to find what different conclusions they
arrive at. Each man interprets the hieroglyphic in his own way; and
the painter, perhaps, had a meaning which none of them have reached; or possibly
he put forth a riddle without himself knowing the solution. There is such a
necessity, at all events, of helping the painter out with the spectator's own
resources of feeling and imagination, that you can never be sure how much of
the picture you have yourself made.7 (my emphasis)
However, Hawthorne is then confronted with what I chose to call the limits of this romantic conception of symbol: if any one can - and must - define what its truth is, the multiplication of possible meanings puts into question the very notion of truth itself.
III. The limits of the symbolic mode of representation
On the question of interpretation, Hawthorne leans towards a romantic conception
of symbol, which entails a multiplication of subjective truths. However, the
question of symbol is bound to be set against that of understanding the Bible
in a society impregnated with religious feelings. The romantic use of symbol
goes against the classical conception of truth and leads Hawthorne to question
the importance of religion and of the Bible in the society he lives in. Hawthorne
has been fascinated by the question of the proper reading of the Bible throughout
his life, and this fascination certainly has to do with his early reading of
Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. This leads Hawthorne to a double interrogation,
one on a metaphysical level, and one on a social level. One of the keys of Hawthorne's
ambiguity towards the symbol can be found in his incapacity to reconcile both
aspects of the symbol, on the one hand its multiple truths, and on the other
the existence of a unique truth that should be hidden in the text and revealed
to the reader through the agency of an author-prophet.
1. Of letter and spirit
According to Augustine, the literal meaning of symbols and allegories is technically a lie, except that it hides a truthful meaning that needs to be deciphered by those who are able to understand this hidden significance. However farfetched - or even fallacious - it may seem to the unbelieving reader, the symbolic meaning yields deeper knowledge. This is exactly what Hawthorne says of his own symbol:
They averred, that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight, whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night-time. And we must needs say, it seared Hester's bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit. (79)
The opposition between letter (lie) and spirit (truth) is not merely a theoretical
question for Nathaniel Hawthorne, it also has a great impact on society, and
it is not staged as a clear-cut contradiction. Paul thus phrases the question
of symbolism in his second epistle to the Corinthians: God "hath made us able
ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the
letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." (2 Cor. 3:6). The importance
given to the word "able" in The Scarlet Letter emphasizes the appropriateness
of the quotation to the romance. The link between symbolism and the interpretation
of the Bible is by the way explicit:
All that they lacked was the gift that descended upon the chosen disciples, at Pentecost, in tongues of flame; symbolizing, it would seem, not the power of speech in foreign and unknown languages, but that of addressing the whole human brotherhood in the heart's native language. (124)
It is interesting to notice that the preachers precisely lack this ability
to enliven the symbol, just as they chose to first present Hester as an allegory
of sin in the first scaffold scene. The expression "characters of flame" (180)
by the way echoes the biblical one of "cloven tongues like as of fire" (Acts,
2:3-4), and recalls Dimmesdale's capacity as it appears during the Election
sermon. The opposition between the preachers and the narrator that I highlighted
earlier takes its whole significance, and the narrator's rendering of Hester's
story is bound to become a form of criticism of the Puritan rule.
The narrator's work then appears as seditious from a social point of view. Once the principle of semantic derivation is accepted, how can authority be established, especially in a society based on textual authority? Hester's capacity to transform the meaning of the letter is dangerous: Hawthorne chooses to emphasize this point when talking about the education of Pearl, as he indicates that Hester does not comply with the educational values prescribed by "Scriptural authority." (82) This echoes the discussion set by the author on the market place as Hester steps out of the prison door, and enables me to venture a hypothesis as to its meaning. Hester should have died, since such is the law, "both in the Scripture and the statute-book" (49). If the punishment chosen is for her to wear the letter, it does not represent the letter of the law, but rather its spirit; although the letter is supposed to be "fatal," (79) Hester will nevertheless live. The interpretation of the symbol entails social consequences, and Hawthorne is highly aware of its dangers. Interpreting words is potentially dangerous: is not the disappearance of the word "adultery" the best proof of the subversive power of the artist?
The author's aim, as Hawthorne defines it recurrently, is indeed to speak the
"truth of the human heart,"8 as he phrases it in the Preface to The House
of the Seven Gables. But in doing so, his reader is laden with the responsibility
of correctly interpreting his text. As the narrator, who is the first reader
and interpreter of the symbol, must possess some insight, the reader must himself
be a "congenial" reader.9 As such, he must be aware of the interpretative process
at work in the narrative itself and reproduce it when reading The Scarlet
2. The question of truth
Hawthorne's use of symbol leads the reader to examine its capacity to convey a truthful significance, which questions the very meaning of writing in the social context of a religion based on revelation: the social concern is paralleled by a metaphysical one.
A second semantic derivation indeed occurred: the scarlet piece of cloth metaphorically represents the brand mark she should have worn, "imprinted in the flesh" (223), as it might be the case for Dimmesdale in the end. As a symbol, the letter functions in the narrative on both levels, and it retains some of its primitive meaning, since the narrator experiences a sensation "as of burning heat" (32) as he places the letter on his breast. The difference between Dimmesdale and Hester lies in the acceptance of the latter of the polysemic nature of the symbol. But to accept it, Hester first has to accept the literal meaning of the letter, and then she is able to have it evolve. But Dimmesdale is trapped in the literal meaning of the letter for the very reason that he refuses it. The second scaffold scene stages this paradoxical movement. Dimmesdale refuses to come back to the scaffold at "noontide" (134), and immediately afterwards his "guilty imagination" leads him to interpret the meteor in the sky as a representation of his sin (136).
Nathaniel Hawthorne shares with the Transcendentalists a form of mistrust regarding
appearances, but he is not certain that there is more to it than meets the eye,
that is to say that some kind of metaphysical truth may be found behind those
appearances. In "The Minister's Black Veil," the very multiplication of possible
meanings finally ends in the absence of significance of the veil. If the narrator,
as it happens in The Scarlet Letter, refuses to guide the reader towards
a given interpretation, this time the enigmatic smile of the dead pastor seems
to mock the efforts of the reader to decipher this riddle. The reader is left
with the impression that he must seek a hidden meaning so elusive that he will
never be able to grasp it, and that he will have to relentlessly pursue it forever,
as it is the fate of Theodore in the parable of the veil in The Blithedale
Romance. The symbol becoming more and more obscure and esoteric, it finally
lost its power to shed light on the world and became a pure sign.
The paradoxical aspect of the "revelation" at the end of the novel reinforces this idea, when the narrator says: "It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation" (221). During the narrative itself, that is to say when the narrator is himself in charge of the story-telling, no description of the phenomenon is provided. The term "revelation" is a purely abstract idea; it is not incarnated by any concrete manifestation, since it cannot be described. The abstract word does not refer to reality, and the reader is confronted with the very opposite of a symbol, with a naked abstraction that presents itself as such.
The only truth that remains lies in the description of the interpretative process,
and not in a hypothetical truth that could be found at the end of the road.
This is probably one of the key links between writing and alchemy, a parallel
that is recurrently staged in Nathaniel Hawthorne's works. The alchemist's quest
for the meaning of words, and for the truth hidden behind undecipherable signs,
parallels that of the reader looking for the meaning of the scarlet letter within
a maze of interpretative possibilities. In Hawthorne's works, the alchemist
always fails in his attempt at achieving immortality, and Nathaniel Hawthorne
himself left The Elixir of Life Manuscripts unfinished, but his scarlet
symbol achieved the kind of fluctuating permanence that alchemists wanted to
find: the interpretative process as Hawthorne staged it recurs each time a reader
opens the book, and each time his interpretation will be different.
To conclude this study, I would like to insist on the idea that the multiplication of interpretations of the "mystic symbol" constitutes the best proof of its nature as a symbol: the various readings proposed by critics over the years keep enlivening this "old rag," and its vital force, more than a century and a half after its creation, seems as strong as ever. As a consequence of such a use of symbols, no definite truth can be established, and truth itself becomes an uncertain concept. The resulting ambiguity of Hawthorne's texts is at the same time a force and a weakness. Hawthorne thus seems to linger over the consequences of using the scarlet letter as a romantic symbol. If scattered and particular visions must be assembled to represent the truth, along romantic lines, he refuses to adopt the radical idea of totally subjective truth, and even sometimes mocks the possibility to do so. The multiplication of possible interpretations is at the same time an artistic necessity and a metaphysical and social threat, and this constitutes one of the keystones of Hawthorne's ambiguity. The modern aesthetic interrogation about writing, and about the role of the reader in the construction of a truthful meaning, unsettled Hawthorne's faith in his own work, but provided the modern reader with one of the best example of the power of art.
1) The references to The Scarlet Letter are taken from the Penguin Classics edition.
2) For this attempt at clarifying the definition of allegory and symbol, I am greatly indebted to Todorov, who devotes an entire chapter to this question in Théories du symbole. (Todorov, 1977, pp. 235-259)
3) John T. Irwin discusses this influence at length in American Hieroglyphics.
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980)
4) Ibid., 9.
5) Poe, Edgar Allan. "Reviews of American Authors and American Literature: Nathaniel
Hawthorne." Poe: Essays and Reviews. Ed. G. R. Thompson. (New York: The Library
of America,1984) 587.
6) Borges, Jorge Luis. "Nathaniel Hawthorne." Nathaniel
Hawthorne's Tales. Ed. James McIntosh. (New York: Norton & Company, 1987) 407.
7) Nathaniel Hawthorne, The French and Italian Notebooks. Ed. Thomas Woodson,
vol. 14 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. William
Charvat et al. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1980) 334.
Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (New York: Penguin Classics, 1986) 1.
9) Although this idea can be found in many of Hawthorne's work, this precise formulation
is to be found in the Preface to The Marble Faun (New York: Penguin Classics,