Nathaniel Hawthorne (18041864). The Scarlet Letter & Rappaccinis Daughter.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
V. By Andrew Lang
SAINTE-BEUVE says somewhere that it is impossible to speak of The German Classics. Perhaps he would not have allowed us to talk of the American classics. American literature is too nearly contemporary: Time has not tried it. But, if America possesses a classic author (and I am not denying that she may have several), that author is decidedly Hawthorne. His renown is unimpeached: his greatness is probably permanent, because he is at once such an original and personal genius, and such a judicious and determined artist.
Hawthorne did not set himself to compete with life. He did not make the effortthe proverbially tedious effortto say everything. To his mind, fiction was not a mirror of commonplace persons, and he was not the analyst of the minutest among their ordinary emotions. Nor did he make a moral, or social, or political purpose the end and aim of his art. Moral as many of his pieces naturally are, we cannot call them didactic. He did not expect, nor intend, to better people by them. He drew the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale without hoping that his Awful Example would persuade readers to make a clean breast of their iniquities and their secrets. It was the moral situation that interested him, not the edifying effect of his picture of that situation upon the minds of novel-readers.
He set himself to write Romance, with a definite idea of what Romance-writing should be; to dream strange things, and make them look like truth. Nothing can be more remote from the modern system of reporting commonplace things, in the hope that they will read like truth. As all painters must do, according to good traditions, he selected a subject, and then placed it in a deliberately arranged lightnot in the full glare of the noonday sun, and in the disturbances of wind, and weather, and cloud. Moonshine filling a familiar chamber, and making it unfamiliar, moonshine mixed with the faint ruddiness on walls and ceiling of fire, was the light, or a clear brown twilight was the light by which he chose to work. So he tells us in the preface to The Scarlet Letter. The room could be filled with the ghosts of old dwellers in it; faint, yet distinct, all the life that had passed through it came back, and spoke with him, and inspired him. He kept his eyes on these figures, tangled in some rare knot of Fate, and of Desire: these he painted, not attending much to the bustle of existence that surrounded them, not permitting superfluous elements to mingle with them, and to distract him.
Hawthornes way was never too ruddily and robustly human. Perhaps, even in The Scarlet Letter, we feel too distinctly that certain characters are moral conceptions, not warmed and wakened out of the allegorical into the real. The persons in an allegory may be real enough, as Bunyan has proved by examples. But that culpable clergyman, Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale, with his large, white brow, his melancholy eyes, his hand on his heart, and his general resemblance to the High Church Curate in Thackerays Our Street, is he real? To me he seems very unworthy to be Hesters lover, for she is a beautiful woman of flesh and blood. Mr. Dimmesdale was not only immoral; he was unsportsmanlike. He had no more pluck than a church-mouse. His miserable passion was degraded by its brevity; how could he see this womans disgrace for seven long years, and never pluck up heart either to share her shame or peccare fortiter? He is a lay figure, very cleverly, but somewhat conventionally made and painted. The vengeful husband of Hester, Roger Chillingworth, is a Mr. Casaubon stung into jealous anger. But his attitude, watching ever by Dimmesdale, tormenting him, and yet in his confidence, and ever unsuspected, reminds one of a conception dear to Dickens. He uses it in David Copperfield, where Mr. Micawber (of all people!) plays this trick on Uriah Heep; he uses it in Hunted Down; he was about using it in Edwin Drood; he used it (old Martin and Pecksniff) in Martin Chuzzlewit. The person of Roger Chillingworth and his conduct are a little too melodramatic for Hawthornes genius.From Adventures Among Books (1905).