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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950).  The American Novel.  1921.


Page 92

ordinance. A universal allegory of motherhood, her story is also a criticism of the Puritan attempt to bind life too tightly. In the midst of the drab circumstances of Salem this woman of such radiance of beauty and magnificence of life rises up and cracks the stiff frame of the time. Great as her own suffering is, she has in some measure contributed to let a little light into the general tragedy of her sex. The Scarlet Letter is not merely a Puritan story. A spirit larger than Puritanism, as large as the world’s experience, informs and ripens the book.
  Against a background so somber all the more do the fantastic elements stand out. They are summed up in the crimson brand which Hester wears as the statutory label of her offense but which out of some trait of whimsy she embroiders and illuminates until it is a token of the “rich, voluptuous, Oriental” luxuriance of her nature. The idea of such a label and its consequences for the wearer had long haunted Hawthorne, at least since he introduced it in 1837 into his story of Endicott and the Red Cross. It haunted him, indeed, so impressively at last as now and then almost to detach itself from the matter symbolized and to assume an entity of its own—tending inevitably on such occasions to be a mere frozen fancy. What saved Hawthorne here was his felicitous conception of Pearl, the child of such wayward passion and defiant tenderness, as a reality sprung from a symbol, as the scarlet letter incarnate. Of this little creature, all brilliance and beauty yet all caprice and unaccountability, Hester “felt like one who has evoked a spirit, but, by some irregularity in the process of conjuration, has failed to win the master-word that should control this new and



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