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Celestial Hieroglyphics

by Hiroko Washizu
University of Tsukuba, Japan

We know well that, in The Scarlet Letter, the pattern of a red letter A against a black background is repeated over and over again and then inscribed in words as the epitaph at the end. One of its variations is the meteor against the midnight sky in Chapter 12 "The Minister's Vigil." The scene is an important one as it is the middle one of the three scaffold scenes and that the letter A soon after transforms its original significance: the sexton on the next morning interprets it as Angel. Chapter 13 (the very next chapter) "Another View of Hester" mentions that it now comes to bear the meaning of Able to represent Hester's helpfulness.

The meteoric A has often been discussed in terms of symbolism, for example, the chiasmus Sun of Righteousness (Richard Kopley). It is Dimmesdale's sick imagination that reads his sin made public. Taken for granted in most cases is the superstitious bent of mind of those living in Boston in the mid-seventeenth century and Hawthorne's elaborate use of their mind set. Note, however, that the meteoric appearance on the night of John Winthrop's death in 1649 is itself a fiction. There is no record of comet or meteor in the year of 1649, though there was one in the year of John Cotton's death in 1652. More than a simple rhetorical device is needed to explain this fictitious meteor.

This essay attempts to situate the meteoric scene in its double historical backgrounds--one in the mid-seventeenth century and another in the mid-nineteenth century. The two dates, two centuries apart, incidentally correspond to two important transformations in epistemological frameworks--one often referred to as the Scientific Revolution and the other characterized by the establishment of the modern sciences. The word "scientist," for example, was invented by William Whewell in the 1830s, whereas the word "technology" was proposed by Jacob Bigelow to replace the traditional useful/practical arts around the same period. (Both terms were very unpopular then and they took time to be accepted.) The meteor, then, may serve as an example to compare two astronomical worldviews separated by two centuries.

Though there were no significant differences between meteors and comets until the last century, in the history of astronomy they underwent changes in their theoretical or natural philosophical explications. In the Middle Ages, when the earth was still considered the center of the universe and the planets moving around it on their respective spheres (and playing the "music of the spheres" inaudible to human ears), meteors and comets were sublunar (below the moon) phenomena, atmospheric effluvia and therefore subject not of astronomy but of meteorology (originally "study of atmospheric change"). Tycho Brahe, in late-sixteenth century, measured the parallax of comets and concluded that they were far above the moon. Galileo Galilei, displacing the earth from its central position in the universe, still denied comets' periodicity, even though suspicious of their portentous meanings. Then came Edmund Halley, who actually calculated the orbit of a comet (which now bears his name) as an object beyond the Solar System.

Of course, these were intellectuals supported by a Danish king, belonging to the Lynx Academy or the Royal Society and they did not share common belief about comets and meteors. Two lines from Act II, 2 of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1599) reflects a common reaction to comets: "When beggars die there are no comets seen;/ The heavens themselves blaze forth with the death of princes." Comets and meteors were favorite subject material for William Blake, both in poems and pictures. As late as 1840, John Martin's picture The Eve of the Deluge portrays a comet as an ill omen.

On the other side of the Atlantic, astronomy enjoyed its own popularity. The Governor's son, also named John Winthrop, elected Fellow of the Royal Society, was the first to own telescopes in the colony; he observed the great comet of 1680. Another colonial contribution worthy of note is Samuel Danforth's An Astronomical Description of the Late Comet (1665). Although evincing his knowledge of the latest astronomy (such as the comet's supralunar character) he nevertheless ends with "a brief theological application of this strange and notable appearance in the heaven," including John Cotton's death in 1652. Increase Mather's Kometographia (1683) also contains the latest astronomical knowledge but lists "divine providence" attending them from Chapters III to X (the book has only ten chapters). There he certainly notes the comet of 1652, perhaps the first notable one in his own lifetime, but fails to mention the death of John Cotton, an in-law relative whose family name he used in naming his own son.

Sometime between the generations of the father and the son a change in the view of comets must have reached the colony. Cotton Mather's The Christian Philosopher (1720) cites Isaac Newton's authority to explain the comet to prove God's providence (hence "Christian" Philosopher), though the book's over-all structure still follows the classical model--starting with elements from the supralunar world of light and stars, heat (i.e. fire), the sublunar atmosphere (i.e. air), water to earth--to be followed by a chain of being on earth from minerals to man. By the 1760s, though, comets and meteors became, at least to the intellectuals, subjects of observation rather than awe and wonder, to wit, John Winthrop, fourth generation from the Governor, gave two lectures on comets and wrote letters on meteors to the Royal Society of London.

The nineteenth-century (nicknamed "the century of comets") witnessed a boom in observations of astronomical phenomena (encouraged, of course, by the improvement in telescopes and other observational instruments). Some of the examples observed in the early-century American East were the Leonid meteoric shower (1833), the returns of Comet Halley (1835) and Encke's Comet (1833, 1838 and 1842)--the last of which is mentioned in Edgar Allan Poe's "Hans Pfall."

Hawthorne himself was not immune to this craze, as meteors and comets dot his works. Meteors blaze upon Perseus on his way to hunt Gorgon, the Old Apple Dealer rushes to a far-off city "with a meteoric progress," the Select Party is lead to the saloon where a meteor is suspended on each pillar, Issac Newton in "Biographical Stories" is said to spend whole night gazing "at the stars, and the comets, and the meteors." The Hawthornes traveled in Italy with Maria Mitchell, who had discovered a comet in 1847 with a telescope, and they viewed Donati's Comet together in Florence.

With this brief overview of the history of meteoric/cometary astronomy, let us now turn to the second scaffold scene to consider the meaning of the meteor against the night sky. "Maria's Comet" much talked about in and after 1847"? p align="center">2

The art historian Roberta J. M. Olson, discussing the relationship between eroticism and comets during the nineteenth century, notes: "Comets and their cousins, meteors or shooting stars, were discreet allusion to adultery" in The Scarlet Letter. Though her point is persuasive in art, the emphasis in the second scaffold scene is not so much on adultery itself than on Dimmesdale's consciousness about it.

In fact, the meteor in this chapter is first introduced as "a light gleamed far and wide over all the muffled sky"(153)--a medium disfiguring the familiar sight in town. It shines upon Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearl on the scaffold, enabling the last to spot Chillingworth far off. Then follow old supernatural interpretations of the meteor in New England "from the settlement down to Revolutionary times" (true to the history of astronomy). Their credibility, toward the end of the paragraph, comes to be questioned from the mid-nineteenth century viewpoint(155). It is only then and there that Dimmesdale's reading of an immense letter A is mentioned. Note here that even the shape of the meteor itself is vague enough: "Not but the meteor may have shown itself at that point, burning duskily through a veil of cloud"(155). The interpretative authority is transferred to the minister whose "disease in his own eye and heart" is responsible for disfiguring its meaning.

This elaborate narrative strategy shows that Hawthorne was well aware of the transformations in the view of comets/meteors between the ages of 1650 and 1850: he could just as easily be both sympathetic and critical of decoding the celestial hieroglyphics. "Our forefathers" of the infant commonwealth, notes Hawthorne, might feel protected by a celestial guardianship but an individual discovering a revelation in the same event might be demented. Here the communal interpretation is given priority over the personal, as the letter "A" at the end of this chapter comes to bear a shared meaning of Angel and, from the next chapter on, Hester's "A" starts to take on the meaning of Able to the community.

Or take the very passage where the meteor is first mentioned. As soon as the minister replies to Pearl's request, "But the daylight of the world shall not see our meeting!"(153), the meteor's blaze brightens up the midnight town as if it were noon: "It showed the familiar scene of the street-with the distinctness of mid-day, but also with the awfulness that is always imparted to familiar objects by an unaccustomed light"(154). The meteor, then, serves as a substitute for the sun, a virtual daylight that brings strangeness out of the familiar, though it is NOT "the daylight of the world" that makes the hidden secret apparent.

The meteor comes to bear an additional meaning when it is compared to its counterpart in "The Custom-House." This unusually long introduction, fictionalizing the romance writer's inability for imaginative work in the house of bureaucracy, makes a contrast between daylight and moonlight. While the daylight world of daily life suffocates the imaginative faculty, the moonlight, investing the familiar scene with "a quality of strangeness and remoteness"(35), works on imagination. But the moonlight alone is not enough. It takes "the somewhat dim coal-fire" to turn what "the cold spirituality of the moonbeams" summons up into fictional characters. As it is said, "It converts them from snow images to men and women"(36). Here the coal-fire is a virtual sun--warm enough to make snow images humanized but weak enough to melt them. In this sense, the second scaffold scene is a reenactment of the "neutral territory" scene in "The Custom-House."

This correspondence explains why a meteor should appear in the very central chapter of The Scarlet Letter. A medium of light, illuminating but not dazzlingly bright, is necessary to bring out a transformation suitable for characters and thus for the romance itself. The meeting under the meteor gives Hester "a new theme of reflection"(166) and, with it, a new relationship is formed among the main characters: "Hester and the Physician"(Chapter 14), "Hester and Pearl"(Chapter 15) and "The Pastor and His Parishioner"(Chapter 17).

This also explains why the fictional meteor should appear on the night of John Winthrop's death and not John Cotton's. It signifies the end of the first generation of the Puritans and thus signaled the change in the communal attitude toward the letter A on Hester. It also signifies the weakening of the influence of the imaginary Puritan forefathers in "The Custom-House" for the romance writer who can hear their scorn: "Who is he? [...] A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,--what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,--may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!"(10).

The last question: did Hawthorne know the difference between meteors and comets? The answer is most probably yes, taking account of the famous "Maria's Comet" much talked about in and after 1847. The answer is again yes, when comets circulate around the sun and return to the field of our vision years later, meteors are, as described in the text itself, those objects being observed "burning out to waste, in the vacant regions of the atmosphere"(154). The meteor cannot be repeated, just as the corporal relations between Hester and Dimmesdale cannot be repeated despite the former's declaration: "What we did had a consecration of its own"(195).

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12323/


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