Nathaniel Hawthorne (18041864). The Scarlet Letter & Rappaccinis Daughter.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
II. By George E. Woodberry
IT is noticeable that the clergyman, the physician, and the artist are the only specific types that attracted Hawthorne; he held them all romantically, and science he conceived as alchemy. This same predisposition appears in Rappaccinis Daughter; she was the experiment of her father in creating a live poison-woman, a vitalized flower, the Dryad as it were of the poison-tree humanized in mortal shape; the physical object is here the flowering tree, with its heavy fragrance; and the plot lies only in the gradual transformation of the young man by continuous and unconscious inoculation until he is drawn into the circle of death to share the womans isolation as a lover, both being shut off from their kind by the poison atmosphere that exhales from them; the catastrophe lies in the moral idea that for such poison there is no antidote but death, and the lady dies in drinking the draught that should free her. The fact that Hawthorne, when writing the story, said he did not know how it would end, is interesting as indicating that his literary habit was to let the story tell itself from within according to its impulses, and not to shape it from without by his own predetermined purpose; a pure allegorist, it may be observed, would have followed naturally the latter method. This may account for the indefiniteness and mystery of effect often felt, as well as for the inartistic didacticism in the concluding sentences, frequently to be observed, where it appears as one or more afterthoughts possibly to be drawn from the story, but not exhausting its moral significance. In this case, powerful as the tale is, the moral intention is left vague, though except as a parable the invention is meaningless.
The Scarlet Letter is a great and unique romance, standing apart by itself in fiction; there is nothing else quite like it. Of all Hawthornes works it is most identified with his genius in popular regard, and it has the peculiar power that is apt to invest the first work of an author in which his originality finds complete artistic expression. It is seldom that one can observe so plainly the different elements that are primary in a writers endowment coalesce in the fully developed work of genius; yet in this romance there is nothing either in method or perception which is not to be found in the earlier tales; what distinguishes it is the union of art and intuition as they had grown up in Hawthornes practice and had developed a power to penetrate more deeply into life. Obviously at the start there is the physical object in which his imagination habitually found its spring, the fantastically embroidered scarlet letter on a womans bosom which he had seen in the Puritan group described in Endicott and the Red Cross. It had been in his mind for years, and his thoughts had centred on it and wandered out from it, tracking its mystery. It has in itself that decorative quality, which he sought in the physical objectthe brilliant and rich effect, startling to the eye and yet more to the imagination as it blazes forth with a secret symbolism and almost intelligence of its own. It multiplies itself, as the tale unfolds, with greater intensity and mysterious significance and dread suggestion, as if in mirrors set round about itin the slowly disclosed and fearful stigma on the ministers hidden heart over which he ever holds his hand, where it has become flesh of his flesh; in the growing elf-like figure of the child, who, with her eyes always fastened on the open shame of the letter on her mothers bosom or the hidden secret of the hand on her fathers breast, has become herself the symbol, half revealed and half concealed, is dressed in it, as every reader remembers, and fantastically embodies it as if the thing had taken life in her; and, as if this were not enough, the scarlet letter, at a climax of the dark story, lightens forth over the whole heavens as a symbol of what cannot be hid even in the intensest blackness of night. The continual presence of the letter seems to have burnt into Hawthornes own mind, till at the end of the narrative says he would gladly erase its deep print from the brain where long meditation had fixed it. In no other work is the physical symbol so absorbingly present, so reduplicated, so much alive in itself. It is the brand of sin on life. Its concrete vividness leads the author also by a natural compulsion as well as an artistic instinct to display his story in that succession of high-wrought scenes, tableaux, in fact, which was his characteristic method of narrative, picturesque, pictorial, almost to be described as theatrical in spectacle. The background, also, as in the early tales, is of the slightest, no more than will suffice for the acting of the drama as a stage setting sympathetic with the central scenea town, with a prison, a meeting-house, a pillory, a governors house, other habitations on a street, a lonely cottage by the shore, the forest round about all; and for occasion and accessories, only a womans sentence, the incidental death of Winthrop unmarked in itself, a buccaneering ship in the harbor, Indians, Spanish sailors, rough matrons, clergy; this will serve, for such was Hawthornes fine economy, knowing that this story was one in which every materialistic element must be used at its lowest tone. Though the scene lay in this world, it was but transitory scaffolding; the drama was one of the eternal life.From Nathaniel Hawthorne (1902).