The Scarlet Letter - Pt 3

The Prison Door Chapter 1

As promised, I’m slowing down. If I may make a suggestion; why don’t you find a quiet spot, take a deep breath, and (at least) halve your reading speed for the moment. Nothing actually happens in this chapter, and we don’t even have any of the main characters on the scene, but this chapter is rich and worthy of thoughtful attention. Read and re-read the chapter (it’s only two pages), then stop and think about it for a few minutes.

My thoughts came in the form of questions to myself which went something like this:

• Hawthorne is being ironic about the need for a graveyard and prison in this supposed Utopia. Who is the target of the irony? Who is he laughing at?
• What is the meaning of the rose?
• Will this story have a moral, a single meaning that I can take away from it?

And here are my answers to my own questions (if only all exams were so easy):

1. Hawthorne is very gently laughing at his compatriots (past and present) who imagined that a perfect civilisation was possible in North America. He seems to include the Puritans in this, but this doesn’t sound quite fair to me. Puritans were very aware of human capacity for crime, and the reality of death in a fallen world. More likely, it was his present compatriots who are the target of Hawthorne’s irony. The rise of national pride is a good target for this reminder — colonial New England still needed prisons and graveyards; why are we nineteenth-century Americans so hopeful that our country can be perfected? Another target of this irony might have been those people influenced by “Transcendentalism” (more on this later) who tried setting up little communities (kind of early socialist communes) in order to get back to nature and create perfect communities. Utopian socialist projects were something of a craze in New England among Hawthorne’s friends at the time, and he himself had spent some time at one, ‘Brook Farm’, although he concluded that ‘It is my opinion that a man's soul may be buried and perish under a dung-heap, or in a furrow of the field, just as well as under a pile of money.’ (Letter from Brook Farm, 1 June 1841.)

2. The rose — tricky. The rose ‘may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.’ I’ve never read such an uncertain sentence in all my life! It ‘may’ (or may not) symbolise some ‘sweet moral blossom’ (not quite sure what exactly), and if it does it only ‘may’ (or may not) be found, or else (if we don’t find it — which seems likely since we don’t know what it is yet) it might (perhaps) make us a little less depressed in the end. This is what the famous critic, F. O. Matthiessen called Hawthorne’s ‘device of multiple choice’ — Hawthorne very literally allows us, the reader, to choose what hope we will take out of the story. He gives us a symbol with one hand and takes it away with the other. Most unsettling!

3. Yes and no. If Hawthorne is so vague about the rose, I’m not too sure he’s going to offer me much by way of a moral as such. However, as we read on, it becomes clear that if Hawthorne has a guiding ethical principle, a ‘moral’ to the story, it would have to be the idea of ‘sympathy’, kindness. The rose, if it offers anything, may offer pity. And that seems to be what Hawthorne is asking us to offer too.

And who, you may ask, was ‘the sainted Ann Hutchinson’? Mrs Anne Hutchinson, born in England, come from England to Massachusetts in 1634. While she began life there as a respectable church member, her ministry to women grew into organised meetings and began to draw the attention of the authorities. After debates among the ministers, some inflammatory preaching by John Wheelwright (Hutchinson’s brother in law), and a final court hearing, she was banished from the colony, and was killed several years later in an Indian raid. John Cotton, her minister, was one of the only ministers to have Hutchinson’s public approval, but he was orthodox enough to escape censure by the court. You can’t believe everything you read about her on the internet — she’s often touted as a proto-feminist figure, which doesn’t really work — her objections seem to have been more about theology than about the place of women in society. As a figure of rebellion she is always hovering in the background of the story of Hester Prynne — whom the next chapter introduces.

From here, posts will be shorter, and the chapters will be longer — less of me, and more of Hawthorne.