The narrator in The Scarlet Letter is the lens through which the reader interprets the narrative. A reading of the novel, however, becomes complicated since there are, possibly, different narrative perspectives. The novel is set in the seventeenth-century; therefore characters cannot see beyond the religious ideology of the time, Puritanism. Yet, The Scarlet Letter was written in the nineteenth – century; thus the narrator in the novel enlightens the story from a perspective two hundred years ahead of when the “manuscript” for the novel was found. Hawthorne perhaps created “The Custom House” as a narrative technique that directive his readers to consider how the two viewpoints create meaning throughout the novel. Hawthorne, perchance understood that only a visual symbol could communicate the ideas from one generation to the next. Ann Hutchinson, Hester, and Pearl, as characters in Hawthorne’s fiction, therefore, communicate to one another through the rosebush that Hester encounters in the first chapter of the novel. The roses that flourished under Hutchinson’s feet unite two new generations of New England women, Hester and Pearl, both of whom encounter the symbolic inference of the roses throughout the novel.
Two narrative voices describe Pearl throughout The Scarlet Letter; one narrator represents her from a seventeenth-century Puritan perspective and the other sees her from a nineteenth-century Transcendentalist point of view. Hester reads evil into the child’s nature, and, as is reliable with Puritan beliefs, she believes that Pearl is not sanctified.
The reader sees Pearl through Hester’s “impassioned state,” and such a state does not allow for an objective portrayal of Pearl. There are two filters by which the reader may see Pearl: one is “white and clear” and the other is enigma with “stains of crimson.” This is a clear indication by the narrator that Hester’s portrayal of Pearl is clearly muddled by Puritan beliefs.
Hawthorne makes these two drastically differed Dimmesdale, the adults look at Pearl with dread, and the child laughs and merrily runs off, Puritans see the “eccentricities” of a child as a “crime,” and the narrator clearly explains how this observation of her is ridiculous. The narrator clearly reveals nineteenth-century ideals that elevate a person’s individuality as a substitute of condemning an individual’s peculiarities. The narrator detains Pearl’s youth and novel approach to life. “Hawthorne does not see the interpretive shift from Puritan typology to Transcendentalist symbolism as an improvement, or even a change, since he continues, “both views are “a dangerously mechanistic model of the continuity between world and mind, body and soul”.
Although the nineteenth-century narrator does seem naïve, perhaps overly-optimistic in his hope in a new generation of Puritans such as Pearl who are more natural than judgmental, this view is less “[dangerous]” than a meticulous, judgmental Puritan perspective. Where a child such as Pearl would perchance grow to know that despite romantic ideals, there is a limit to the “soul,” Puritan notions would have kept such a child as Pearl from believing anything other than that the soul was destined to eternal damnation. This perspective men had of women as dangerous to the community is obviously destructive to women because Puritan society was so male-centered. Males were heads of the church and the state; therefore women had no power within the Puritan culture.
Hawthorne plays on the fear of female sexuality to make a statement about the domineering patriarchy in Puritan society. Michael J. Colacurcio claims that instead of complying with the traditional view of woman as a stable, “safe and conserving social force,” in Hawthorne’s fiction “female sexuality seems, in its concentration and power, both a source for and a type of individualistic nullification of social restraint”. Hawthorne’s characterization of women perhaps reveals his idea that even the most powerless figures in society are also “individualistic” in nature because they refuse to abide by their positions within their socially constructed place in a patriarchal community.
Hester alone, as a powerful female character, draws attention to the idea that women can make a break from “social restraint”; but in conjunction with an equally powerful historical figure, Hawthorne solidifies the hallucination that women can be independent. There is a definite link between Ann Hutchinson and Hester Prynne, but the narrator in The Scarlet Letter is doing more than merely basing his fictional character on a historical figure. Hawthorne artistically links both women; the most obvious symbol being the rose-bush that Hester passes by in front of the prison that perhaps did “spring up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson” (SL 48). Colacurcio explains that an audience is “free to ignore this critical invitation,” but the reader may miss author’s link between history and myth that allows him and his audience an artistically detached view of history.
Several analogous can be drawn between Hutchinson and Hester. First of all, they were both female figures who were expelled from their Puritan communities. Hutchinson was barred from her community since she was a major female participant in the antinomian hullabaloo while Hester was barred from Boston for conceiving a child out of wedlock Secondly, both women can be labeled as “adulteresses.
Hawthorne, clearly reveals the link between Hutchinson’s Calvinism and Transcendentalism when he reveals Hester’s fretful thoughts about Pearl’s nature. Hester and Hutchinson are dissimilar in their perception of an individual’s outward appearance. Hutchinson argued that an individual’s outward acts could not reveal whether or not that individual had inherited God’s grace. Hester, on the other hand, is constantly worried that the evil nature she perceives in Pearl is evidence of her child’s damnation. If Hester shared this belief, she would not have been convince that her adulterous relationship with a minister was evidence of her lack of God’s grace, nor would she attempt to redeem herself from this sin by wearing the scarlet A since these actions would do nothing to assure her salvation. Though Hester refers to Pearl as an “elf child,” she would not have been convinced that Pearl was damned, because she appeared evil, had she agreed with Hutchinson’s orthodox Calvinism.
Though Hawthorne may ironically link two conflicting ideologies, the relationship between the two should not be oversimplified. Lang explains that this link between two apparently conflicting ideologies “has encouraged scholars to generalize the problem of antinomianism into one simply influence, of how the claim of the individual is to be balanced against those of the community”. Ann Hutchinson as a historical figure does challenge prevailing Puritan ideologies of her time, yet she is not simply a Transcendentalist because she is an individual thinker. Hutchinson was a promoter of a previous consensus ideology, Calvinism.
Lang’s argument that scholars tend to oversimplify the link between Calvinism and Transcendentalism should be reminded when scholars consider what Hawthorne reveals about how conflicting ideologies reveal two sides of the issue of moral development. Why Hawthorne chose to play these two ideas against each other, however, may have more to do with an individual’s cultural rather than spiritual development. James F. Ragan examines the physical appearance of Puritans in Hawthorne’s novels and notes that they are described as “coarse, rude, or gross”. Their bodies represent what Ragan calls their “moral state”. Puritan’s physical appearance imitates his or her moral state to their belief that individuals could gain God’s grace by exhibiting outward signs of sanctification. When these Puritans condemned Ann Hutchinson, they did so because she argued that individuals could not outwardly exhibit any signs of having God’s grace. Puritan officials argued that individuals could, through good works, show that they might not be degraded and would be in a position to receive this grace.
The narrator highlights the rude appearance of these women when the daylight “shone on the broad shoulders and well – developed busts, and on round and ruddy cheeks, that had matured in the far – off is land, and had hardly yet grown paler or thinner in the atmosphere of New England” (SL 50-1). The Puritan women who are chastising Hester are stout women and the narrator claims that “in six or seven generations American women will be more delicate than their ancestors” (Ragan 420). Then, Pearl represents such future generations since her appearance is refined, especially compared to other Puritan women. When Puritans repudiated to look to other cultures, particularly those associated with Catholicism they became not only closed-minded to other religious beliefs but also to other cultures. The significance of cultural awareness is related to how Puritans thought; if they were not attuned with the aesthetic impact of art, and then they could not read into the significance of symbols.
Dimmesdale correspond with the Puritan community through speech. As a minister, he is a pillar in his community, and his sermons do communicate to a huge Puritan audience. The meaning of Dimmesdale’s words is not as “varied” as the letter A because this symbol is less intangible and more direct than Dimmesdale’s sermons. Sermons are didactic; a minister would interpret scripture in such a way that his community could take instruction from Puritan beliefs. The letter is supposed to remain abstract; the narrator never spells out what it stands for; Hester can be an adulterous just as much as she can be an antinomian or angel. The scarlet A in bleak contrast to Dimmesdale’s spoken words is fluid within the text: at the beginning of the text, the A signifies “Adultery”; by the end it comes to mean “Able” or “Angel,” and ultimately it survives two centuries as a piece of cloth that can be interpreted from different perspectives, as Hawthorne exemplify from the two narrative voices he uses throughout the text.
Hawthorne assures the letter’s immortality within and without the narrative since it becomes a written work that has survived two – hundred years and will live as a narrative for his reading audience; and for the characters, it will survive as an artifact the A on Hester’s tombstone.
Hawthorne links himself to Hester through the symbol of the scarlet letter, and then Hawthorne again uses this technique in the narrative itself when he directly refers to Ann Hutchinson. The rosebush becomes a “symbol of continuity” between Hutchinson and Hester. The action that literally unites a real-life spirit to a fictional character in this case transpires when Hester passes the rosebush that is said to have blossomed under Hutchinson’s feet. Both women, who are excommunicated from their society, are Puritan daughters, and both leave behind living symbols. Hutchinson’s roses continue to flourish as Pearl grows into a woman by the end of the narrative. The symbol of the rose, then, is distressing in this respect since the roses and Pearl are capable of remaining “symbols of continuity.” As the roses blossom every season and Pearl gives birth to another living symbol at the end of the novel, Hutchinson and Hester become immortal symbols.
The rose additionally links those outside the narrative and those within, and what makes the symbol more dynamic is how there are dissimilar readings of it, first of all by the Puritan community within the narrative. After “The Custom House,” the first impression the reading audience has of Hester comes from the Puritan community’s point of view. The narrator, then, describes her in terms of a biblical figure of whom Puritans were well aware. Erlich posits that Hawthorne’s narratives are essentially about the fall and that Hester “is really a very multifaceted version of Mother Eve” (“Deadly Innocence”164). Since the narrative begins after this new version of “the fall,” then the setting of the story is no longer in a Puritan Eden. By excluding Hester, the community is not only punishing her for her transgression, but it is also purifying itself from her sin. These two women are symbols of one of the Calvinist five points, mankind’s decadence.
The symbol of the flower is also applicable to the Puritan community throughout The Scarlet Letter because flowers were considered frolicsome to Puritans. The image of the rose is used in conjunction with the characters of Ann Hutchinson, Hester, and Pearl. Since these women were not part of the Puritan society, flowers are used to represent how intolerant Puritans were of frivolity in their communities. Puritans cultivated plants that would be useful; fruit – bearing trees and herbs were not considered luxuries since they were vital to the community’s well being. There was, however, no practical use for the flower; it represented vanity, pride, and was, therefore, a frivolous plant. Hester and Pearl visit the Governor’s hall, and it is here where