Examine The Scarlet Letter as an open ended novel.
Narrative in The Scarlet Letter is quite complicated. It encompasses both action and commentary. The commentary is through a narrator, projected in the Introduction, who examines the past from the point of view of a nineteenth century observer. Even the supernatural and the folk beliefs of midseventeenth century New England are subjected to the narrator’s incisive irony and scepticism. In this unit we will also give you an idea of the symmetrical design, form and content and open-endedness of the text.
The Scarlet Letter is a carefully designed work’of fiction in which the supernatural, the marvellous, and the strange have been artistically fused. Although Hawthorne considered himself a romancer rather than a novelist, he aiso admired the well-made novel in which the incidents and scenes are arranged in a symmetrical order, leading to a profound concentration and intensification of meaning. F.O. Matthiessen has rightly observed that Hawthorne has developed in The Scarlet Letter his most coherent plot (Norton Critical Edition, p.279). It is the result of beginning the tale with a scaffold scene and also rounding the tale with a scaffold scene near the end. There is also a scaffold scene right in the middle of the tale. There is no wonder that the scaffold of the pillory comes to acquire a hallowed status for the three major characters in the romance-novel.
While F.O. Matthiessen looks at the structure of the romance-novel in terms of the sequencing of the scaffold scenes, with the second scaffold scene showing Dimmesdale in Chillingworth’s grihJohn C. Gerber makes a four-fold division of The Scarlet Letter. In chapters I-VIII,.it is the community in Boston that initiates the action and the main characters simply suffer the action. While Chillingworth dominates the action in chapters XI-XII, Hester dominates the action in chapters XIII-XX. It is Dimmesdale, the priest, who dominates the action in chapters XXI-XXIV. According to Gerber’s analysis, it is the community–and the state–in Boston that sets the tune and later on Chillingworth, Hester and Dimmesdale seize the initiative. The thrust of the narrative is to show how the community creates a challenging situation and how the major characters respond to the challenge. The nmtive in The Scarlet Letter shows both the authority of the community and the state and also the resilience and resourcefulness of the major characters like Chillingworth, Hester and Dimmesdale. Thus, the form and content are dexterously dovetailed in the romance-novel.
There is also a kind of openended ness of the text because of the use of the device of multiple choice by the narrator who looks upon the incidents and events of midseventeenth century New England from the ironic and sceptical perspective of a midnineteenth century observer. You could recall the narrator’s comment on the meteors .during the second scaffold scene at midnight and also on Dimmesdale’s baring of his chest in the last scaffold scene. While the incidents are visualised in all their awe and mystery, the narrator’s voice is ironic and sceptical. It is the narrator’s voice that makes the superstitions and folk beliefs of mid-seventeenth century colonial New England somewhat credible to a reader of our time.
We have told you that the text of The Scarlet Letter has t’le capacity to encompass diametrically opposite and conflicting outlooks. While for Dimmesdale the sexual relationship between Hester and the priest was a sin, for Hester, “What we did, had a consecration of its own” (The Scarlet Letter, p.236). One can look at the tale as a drama of sin and redemption. One can also look at the tale as a love story and on Hester as an Oriental, a pagan. While the scaffold scenes are grim and sombre, the forest scenes are, by and large, lyrical and joyous. The juxtaposition of opposite and conflicting outlooks, the piety and the passion, creates an open-endedness in the text. Focussing on the ambiguity of the text, Sacvan Bercovitch says, “It entails a sustained open-ended tension between fundamentally conflicting outlooks” (The Office of The Scarlet Letter, p.25). It is a fact that the narrator, by and large, presents the tale of midseventeenth century New England from the ironic and sceptical perspective of a nineteenth cenhiry observer. There is no wonder that in the first scaffold scene, Hester is described by the narrator through an intensely Catholic image of Virgin Mary. The Scarlet Letter which is a badge of sin and shame appears to Indians as a symbol of “a personage of high dignity among her people” (The Scarlet Letter, p.296). Later on, even to the Puritans of Boston, The Scarlet Letter ceases to be a badge of sin and damnation and becomes holy as the cross on a nun’s bosom. One can safely affirm that the narrator’s voice through irony and diverse images creates a sort of polyphony. The community in Boston that is initially so hostile to Hester’s defiant radicalism, eventually accepts her as a holy nun.
There are gaps and silences in the text. When Dimmesdale returns from the forest, he is a rejuvenated man. He is full of energy and a vision. In his Election Sermon he visualises a glorious future for the Republic in New England: After he makes his confession, he is completely debilitated. He collapses suddenly and dies in the arms of Hester. It is difficult to understand that a man who returns from the forest completely rejuvenated becomes so weak after his confession. It can only be taken as a mystery of life. Perhaps, the burst of energy after he returns from the forest could be taken as the last flicker of a dying candle. There is no doubt that the text is open-ended and could be interpreted differently. Hester becomes pious as a nun towards the end of the tale yet the narrator’s voice is sceptical as ever, “Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow” (p.3 15). Even Hester’s radicalism is subject to the narrator’s irony and scepticism.
The narrative in The Scarlet Letter encompasses both action and commentary. The commentary is from the perspective of a mid-nineteenth century observer of the life in colonial New England. The symmetry of the narrative design is due to the three scaffold scenes at the beginning, the middle and the end. They hold the scenes together. While the scaffold scenes are grim, sombre and dramatic the forest scenes are lively, bright and lyrical. While the scaffold scenes are charged with piety, the forest scenes are charged with passion. The narrative generates a kind of dialogue between the past and the future. There is also a kind of open-endedness embedded in the text.