Nathaniel Hawthorne (18041864). The Scarlet Letter & Rappaccinis Daughter.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
III. By Arthur Symons
ALL Hawthornes work is one form or another of handling sin. He had the Puritan sense of it in the blood, and the power to use it artistically in the brain. With Tolstoi, he is the only novelist of the soul, and he is haunted by what is obscure, dangerous, and on the confines of good and evil; by what is abnormal, indeed, if we are to accept human nature as a thing set within responsible limits, and conscious of social relations. Of one of his women he says that she was plucked up out of a mystery, and had its roots still clinging to her. It is what is mysterious, really, in the soul that attracts him. When we find ourselves fading into shadows and unrealities: that is when he cares to concern himself with humanity. And, finding the soul, in its essence, so intangible, so mistlike, so unfamiliar with the earth, he lays hold of what to him is the one great reality, sin, in order that he may find out something definite about the soul, in its most active, its most interesting, manifestations.
To Hawthorne what we call real life was never very real, and he has given, as no other novelist has given, a picture of life as a dream, in which the dreamers themselves are, at intervals, conscious that they are dreaming. At a moment of spiritual crisis, as at that moment when Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale meet in the forest, he can render their mental state only through one of his ghostly images: It was no wonder that they thus questioned one anothers actual bodily existence, and even doubted of their own. So strangely did they meet, in the dim wood, that it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the grave, of two spirits, who had been intimately connected in their former life, but now stood coldly shuddering in mutual dread, as not wonted to this companionship of disembodied spirits. To Hawthorne, by a strange caprice or farsightedness of temperament, the supreme emotion comes only under the aspect of an illusion, for the first time recognized as being real, that is, really an illusion. He himself, as was perceptible by many symptoms, he says of Clifford, lay darkly behind his pleasure and knew it to be a baby-play, which he was to toy and trifle with, instead of thoroughly believing. To Clifford, it is mental ruin, a kind of exquisite imbecility, which brings this consciousness; to Hester Prynne, to Arthur Dimmesdale, to Donatello, to Miriam, it is sin. Each, through sin, becomes real, and perceives something of the truth.
In this strange pilgrims progress, the first step is a step outside the bounds of some moral or social law, by which the soul is isolated, for its own torture and benefit, from the rest of the world. All Hawthornes stories are those of persons whom some crime, or misunderstood virtue, or misfortune, has set by themselves, or in a worse companionship of solitude. Hester Prynne stood apart from moral interests, yet close beside them, like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside, and can no longer make itself seen or felt. The link between Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale, between Miriam and Donatello, was the iron link of mutual crime, which neither he nor she could break. Like all other sins, it brought along with it its obligations. Note how curious the obsession by which Hawthorne can express the force of the moral law, the souls bond with itself, only through the consequences of the breaking of that law! And note, also, with how perfect a sympathy he can render the sensation itself, what is exultant, liberating, in a strong sin, not yet become ones companion and accuser. For, guilt has its rapture, too. The foremost result of a broken law is ever an ecstatic sense of freedom.From Studies in Prose and Verse (1904).