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The Passions of Hawthorne's New Eve: Female Desire in The Scarlet Letter

by Dr. David Greven
Connecticut College, New London, CT

Dr. David Greven, Assistant Professor of English at Connecticut College
Dr. David Greven, Assistant Professor of English at Connecticut College (courtesy of David Greven)

Both Milton and Hawthorne create heroines in whom antithetical qualities vie for dominance. One could say of Milton's Eve and Hawthorne's Hester Prynne both that they combine humility and vanity, eroticism and chastity, intelligence and wild sensual abandon, vulnerability and toughness. Both Eve and Hester violate linked cultural taboos against women's sexuality, and both characters suffer a powerful chastening of their erotic desires that results in a profound subduing of their intransigent spirits. We can say that Paradise Lost and The Scarlet Letter both normalize their respective transgressive heroines, in the typical maneuver referred to as subversion and containment. Eve, rebuked by Adam as herself the serpent, must come to accept the error of her ways, her desire to desire, facilitated by Satan in the form of the serpent, and Hester, must accept the error of her desiring impulses: Dimmesdale rebukes her for and dashes her final desperate hope, expressed to Dimmesdale as he dies on the scaffold, that perhaps in heaven they may satisfy their erotic longings for each other. Both women desire only to despair. Both women undergo a profound transformation of their essentially active desiring agencies. Milton and Hawthorne's feelings towards these heroines can best be described as ambivalent, as both authors depict extraordinarily daring and beguiling female characters with commingled feelings of empathy and skepticism. But, I would argue, there is far more empathy than skepticism on the part of these authors, and this skepticism must be contextualized as a broader political critique of patriarchy's fundamentally hostile disposition towards not only women's desire but desire itself. In other words, neither Milton nor Hawthorne believe their heroines' erotic projects have a chance. Milton and Hawthorne are also authors often accused of misogyny while also seen in complex relationship to femininity. By considering these authors' essentially pessimistic view towards their heroines' abilities to realize their desires, we can also better understand how these authors position themselves in terms of the construction of gender and sexuality, especially as it pertains to femininity.

Eve's relationship to her own desires remains a highly fraught and difficult one, both in the poem and in ongoing critical debate. When Eve recounts her own birth (before Adam offers an account of the same process in Book VIII), she also recounts her own assimilation into normative sexuality:

As I bent down to look, just opposite
A shape within the watery gleam appeared,
Bending to look on me: I started back,
It started back; but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love: There I had fixed
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warned me; 'What thou seest,
'What there thou seest, fair Creature, is thyself;
'With thee it came and goes: but follow me,
'And I will bring thee where no shadow stays
'Thy coming, and thy soft embraces, he
'Whose image thou art; him thou shalt enjoy
'Inseparably thine, to him shalt bear
'Multitudes like thyself, and thence be called
'Mother of human race.' What could I do,
But follow straight, invisibly thus led?
From a modern perspective, Eve here articulates a position towards the construction of desire that combines Freud and Adrienne Rich. It is Freudian in that it narrativizes the normative process of sexualization from primary narcissism to heterosexual object choice. It resembles Adrienne Rich's thesis in "Compulsory Heterosexuality" that women, denied autonomous desire, are conscripted into institutionalized heterosexual roles of wife and mother-"What could I do," says Eve, "but follow straight, invisibly thus led?"

Eve remains always intransigent, questioning, resistant even within the process of her own proper paradisiacal socialization, as evinced by the discussion over the division of labor (she's for it) that precipitates her solitary position when Satan as serpent seduces her into eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The eating of the fruit at the serpent's behest-"Greedily she engorged without restraint/And knew not eating death…" (IX. 791-92)-produces a remarkable clarity for Eve about her social position. This clarity seems to intensify, to reawaken, what was her initial position of resistance to and ambivalence towards heterosexual relations with Adam; to provoke a deep insecurity about Adam's feelings towards her; and to activate a positively Machiavellian instinct in her towards self-preservation by any means necessary, including bringing Adam down with her should God's wrath indeed be too onerous to handle alone.

During her impassioned apostrophe to the Tree that has given her the "Experience" that wipes out her "ignorance," Eve begins to ponder Adam's possible responses to her transformation:

…But to Adam in what sort
Shall I appear? shall I to him make known
As yet my change, and give him to partake
Full happiness with me, or rather not,
But keeps the odds of knowledge in my power
Without copartner? so to add what wants
In female sex, the more to draw his love,
And render me more equal; and perhaps,
A thing not undesirable, sometime
Superiour; for, inferiour, who is free
This may be well: But what if God have seen,
And death ensue? then I shall be no more!
And Adam, wedded to another Eve,
Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct;
A death to think! Confirmed then I resolve,
Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe:
So dear I love him, that with him all deaths
I could endure, without him live no life. (IX. 816-33)
While Eve's expressed views towards Adam have been heretofore marked by ambivalence, here she reveals the depth of her feelings for him, even as she unflinchingly evaluates the politics of her own subordinated social position, using shockingly feminist rhetoric "for, inferior, who is free"? Her desire becomes, like Satan's, "fierce." She decides that Adam will be with her even if he is against her, in bliss or woe, life or death.

The breathtaking clarity Eve experiences here turns her into a cunning erotic strategist who will do anything to keep Adam for herself, even defy God if she must. The fusion of death and eroticism here, the willingness to imagine death as the only province in which desire can live, directly anticipates Hester's actions and words in the forest scene in The Scarlet Letter.

If Sacvan Bercovitch has established the current paradigms through which Hawthorne's novel is read-as an act of political conformity, Hawthorne's multiplicities of ambiguous meaning all essentially boiling down to a rigidity of resolution that quells all political action, as we voluntarily accept our own political domestication as Hester ostensibly does (585, 587): "The Scarlet Letter is a novel of endless points of view that together conspire to deprive us of choice" (589)-he has also failed to account for the intensity of Hester's desire for Arthur, the first letter of whose name she fetishistically pins to her breast. What Bercovitch refuses to see is the depths of Hester's obsessive, even frightening, desire for Dimmesdale. Whereas he sees the ultimate proof of Hester's political conformity and relinquishment of any possible radicalism in her return to New England at the end of the novel, I see a different project, her haunting of the precincts of her own ruined and ruining desire, her allegiance to the sites of what has amounted to a life reconceived as an ongoing vigil for and shrine to a hopelessly unrealized and unrealizable desire for Arthur. She bears more in common with the Scottie of Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo, who obsessively haunts the great city in which we are now gathered together, to hold onto the fading glory of his elusive and wholly ephemeral love.

It might be, too--doubtless it was so, although she hid the secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hole--it might be that another feeling kept her within the scene and pathway that had been so fatal. There dwelt, there trode, the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union that, unrecognised on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage-altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution. Over and over again, the tempter of souls had thrust this idea upon Hester's contemplation, and laughed at the passionate and desperate joy with which she seized, and then strove to cast it from her. She barely looked the idea in the face, and hastened to bar it in its dungeon. What she compelled herself to believe--what, finally, she reasoned upon as her motive for continuing a resident of New England--was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost: more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom. (56)
Intriguingly, this passage appears in the chapter called "Hester at her Needle," which combines several important aspects of her identity, her role as artist, needling presence to the conscience of the patriarchal Puritan community, and the phallic nature of her desire.

In his most famous case study, Dora, Freud, like Milton and Hawthorne an artist whose identification with femininity is troubled, troubling, and vital, argues, perhaps against himself, that it is Dora's enforced relinquishment of her phallic sexuality that plunges her into a despair that will eventually manifest itself as hysteria. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne very deliberately reverses gendered roles in terms of desiring. It is Hester for whom hell would endurable were she to find Dimmesdale there, she who proposes an escape plan to Dimmesdale in the rapturous scene in the forest, he who trembles and quails, he who shrieks "Pacify her if thou lovest me!" at the terrifying spectacle of Pearl, the emblem of their consummated sexuality. The Scarlet Letter is like Dora in reverse, with Hester as the active sexual desirer and Dimmesdale as the hysteric. This gives new meaning to such oft-remarked upon Hawthorne descriptors of Hester, such as the moment in which he likens her to "manlike Elizabeth." In the assertion of her desire, Hester is manlike, whereas in the renunciation of her desire for him, flailing Dimmesdale increasingly resembles an effeminated hysteric.

Though associated with the phantasmagorical form of the American romance that he essentially invents, Hawthorne is as much a realist as he is a romancer when it comes to representing Hester. What he gives us in The Scarlet Letter is an extremely carefully sustained portrait of a vital, powerful woman artist who struggles with her desires, desires made excruciatingly public, visible, in a deeply repressive culture whose messages about gender and sexuality she chafes against, critiques, but has essentially incorporated. Intransigent though she is, Hester is nevertheless uneasily a woman of her times, and even more uneasily one of her creator's time. The antebellum period's version of True Womanhood rigidly saw women's sexuality in strictly procreative terms, though there was a concomitant idealization of heteroerotic intimacies between husband and wife through the cult of companionate marriage. The only woman allowed a desire was the fallen women, and, as even great radicals such as Margaret Fuller would write, her desire was that of the succubus to drain men of their very life force. Hawthorne's endowment of great erotic intensity and desire in Hester speaks to a highly complex view of women's sexuality on the part of the author, to say nothing of his own, since, I argue, it is through his female characters that Hawthorne mediates his own desires, which are as narcissistic as they are bisexual in nature.

While the multivalent register of the "A" is certainly not exhausted by seeing it as "A for Arthur," and while something about this very designation seems too limited for Hawthorne's erotic and philosophical imagination, it is nevertheless crucial that we see in Hester Hawthorne's portrait of a desiring woman who must find a way to make sense of her desires in a cultural continuum in which these desires are relentlessly calumniated. It is no accident that Hester endures the whispered provocations of the Tempter. Hester is Hawthorne's Eve, but an Eve forced to make sense of her position in strictly human terms. Moreover, Hester's desire is almost entirely experienced in isolation in the temporal world of the novel. If Dimmesdale is Hawthorne's dim Adam and Chillingworth Satan, The Scarlet Letter is a version of Paradise Lost in which Satan has very little interest in Eve, his chief business being with Adam, with burrowing into the diseased male heart. Hester is Eve as a modern woman. In the novel Hawthorne reopens Eve's case file, determining the exact fate of a woman who dares to desire. That his skepticism cannot permit the satisfaction of these desires says very little about his empathy for Hester and a great deal about his unsentimental awareness of the sexual strictures of his own era. If Hawthorne was freaked out by sexuality in life-his object choice of invalid Sophia, his revulsion at same-sex sleeping arrangements of a Shaker community can be offered as examples-he continually kept examining it in his fiction, living out desiring urgencies through characters who both desire defiantly (Xenobia, Miriam), even if these desires are unsatisfiable.

Hester's return, then, should be read less as the novel's achievement of social conformity, that the Scarlet Letter has at last done its office, than as evidence of Hawthorne's empathy with Hester. Without her love for Arthur, Hester can, like Milton's Eve, live no life. Nothing without him has liberating savor, and her return at the end seems to me strong evidence of her desire to be close to the scene of her desire, even if this desire has wrecked her life. It makes very little difference to her how deeply unworthy of her desire Dimmesdale has shown himself to be. Vanquished by Dimmesdale's rejection of her asserted desires for him, Hester is a casualty of her own erotic war, and, finally, a revenant honoring its memory. Hawthorne's ambivalent sympathy for Hester makes way for James's Isabel Archer, but James may also be said to evacuate his heroines of the erotic, since Isabel is almost entirely a creature of ambitious mind. Hawthorne has more in common with the Hitchcock of Notorious and the Truffaut of The Story of Adele H., two other works about the consequences of asserted and active female desire. His tragic realism finds its fullest expression in his empathy for Hester Prynne and, to echo film theorist Mary Ann Doane, her embattled desire to desire.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12264/

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