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Abraham- Curiel Department of Foreign Literature and Linguistics. Survey of American Literature to 1865- Assignment n 2. Dr. Yael Ben-zvi. 3rd July 2012 A dialectical process on the symbol of the Scarlet Letter, as a sign of freedom Among the many riches of Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter, we can find its symbolic horizon. Contained in this, it undoubtedly appears the concrete and material sign of the badge of the Scarlet Letter, as the bearer of diverse senses along the story. The pretension of this paper is to show how the Scarlet Letter, despite of its immediate and permanent negative connotation (sign of sin, marginalization, punishment and exclusion), entails a world of positive significances which develop a dialectical move on the concept of freedom. Freedom cannot be understood in such a single way, but can be explained through three dialogs of contraries or contrasts that the main character, Hester Prynne, portrays somehow in the process of the novel. These positive significances, in the way of that dialectics can be named as: Guilt and shame versus dignity and self determination; marginalization and slavery versus ladyship and free will; and external world versus inner world; where the latter elements in each couple point at the positive feature of freedom. First dialectics: Guilt and shame versus dignity and self determination. The Scarlet Letter, in opposition to the recurrent negative sense, is now inscribed into a reactive move that emerges from Hesters wish of keeping self dignity as well as the need to exercise self determination: ...on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free-will. (Hawthorne 1380; my emphasis). These are primary data which appear within the horizon of paradox, insofar as they show a contradiction with the inner events of the protagonist. The emphases in the quotation are part then of a first dialectics, developed in the very core of the free will-imprisonment paradox, as a trace of the series of reactions that will scatter from the sign of the Scarlet Letter. A first reaction is that of superimposing dignity as a personal resolution. There is a contrast of behavior: the unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman might 1

(Hawthorne 1383). Guilt is an inner burden that cannot be imposed, but faced personally. As a matter of fact, some pages forth, this same struggle comes represented by a second reaction in order to show how an external sign may influence inner reality. Hester was impelled to two actions contradicting this spirit of self dignity: Speak out the name! That, and thy repentance, may avail to take the Scarlet Letter off thy breast (Hawthorne 1389). The action of confessing and the act of repentance have a resolute force over here, maybe displacing the personal capability of self action. Hester responds from her own conscience of identity, reacting to these two moves: Never! (...) It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. (Hawthorne 1389). Here the sign of the letter represents her will and power to face her own reality and to determine when it is right to proceed, by exercising her freedom of conscience and speech. This revelation of conscience, as a scenario of free will, makes possible in the character of Hester a process of affirmation where the Scarlet Letter helps a state of inner conscience. Far from any resentments, this issue leads Hester to find the very essence of her being: The letter was the symbol of her calling... so strong was Hester Prynne, with a womans strength (Hawthorne 1439) and further on: They had begun to look upon the Scarlet Letter as the token, not of that one sin... but of her many good deeds since (Hawthorne 1440); that even if they may appear as a part of her own redemption process from guilt, they are also a free and resolute action of Hesters will in this sense of dignity. One last reaction, regarding this dialectics, is one that has to do with time, in the process of recovery and reconciliation of a cracked identity. Hester embodies these actions when saying: Let us not look back... The past is gone (Hawthorne 1461). Present and future are now the real time. She takes the Scarlet Letter badge away, as a sign of this reconciliation, only when she has the capacity of this resolving look upon the past, allowing her to go further: See! With this symbol, I undo it all, and make it had never been! (Hawthorne 1461). The actions she undertakes are truly significant for this process: she undid the clasp that fastened the Scarlet Letter...which is to release, allowing deliverance; ...taking it from her bosom..., which is to dispossess ones self allowing starting all over; threw it... (Hawthorne 1461 as the previous quotations), which is to set in a distance, allowing disposition. Within this conjunction of time and actions, the sign of the Scarlet Letter is stated as a point of emerging, of coming to the surface and revealing true identity: The Scarlet Letter brought her back from this twilight indistinctness, and revealed her under the moral aspect of its own illumination (Hawthorne 1473). Second dialectics: Marginalization and slavery versus ladyship and free will. 2

Something that truly derives from the anterior considerations is to picture Hester in a state of ladyship. Hester has suffered a process of neglecting and now she tries to recover her place of affirmation as a woman and never more as a sinner, as a prisoner or as the holder of the cursing badge: And never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like, in the antique interpretation of the term (which points at the ladyship), than as she issued from the prison (Hawthorne 1381, my explanation). When she looks lady-like, presenting herself as a woman with all her right, contrasts with the imprisonment and slavery states, and delivers the force of a self possession, translated in that image of the ladyship. If there is a quote that might help us to visualize this force of ladyship in the persona of Hester is that of the scene of Hester coming to the Governors house. Her image is contrasted with that of the governors servant in a very rich paradoxical approach to freedom and slavery. The parallel might give us this comparison (servant-Hester): slave by trade versus a slave by social prejudices; owned by his master: a free-born English man, but now a seven years slave (Hawthorne 1408), versus Hester owner of herself; the blue coat, the customary garb of serving-men (Hawthorne 1408) versus the glittering Scarlet Letter as sign of dignity; the look of the servant at the Scarlet Letter, longing for freedom: staring with wide-open eyes at the Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne 1408), versus the already assumed conscience of Hesters own dignity; the servants reaction by exercising some minor authority: Yea, his honorable worship is within. But... (...)Ye may not see his worship now (Hawthorne 1408), versus the strength of Hesters word and determination to overcome that fake authority obstacles, showing her ladyship:Nevertheless, I will enter (Hawthorne 1408); dulling of the servants identity who could not reach his own freedom, versus Hesters entrance and being admired as an important character, expressing, once again, the force of her inner freedom: and the bond-servant, perhaps judging from the decision of her air and the glittering symbol in her bosom, that she was a great lady in the land, offered no opposition (Hawthorne 1408; my emphasis in order to remark the elements concerning the freedom granted by the sign of the Scarlet Letter). Hesters figure is not a diminished figure whatsoever. Although it occurs in the inner world, it is gradually expressed in the external world. She is going to deliver a reaction that allows us to see the power of her will: It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take off this badge, calmly replied Hester (Hawthorne 1443); the adverb in fact points at this stance of acceptance and maturity. It is thus her own capacity of facing odd circumstances and to interpret possible inner transformations, which is going to be imposed as a direct consequence of this ladyship over the sign of the Scarlet Letter: Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall 3

away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that should speak a different purport (Hawthorne 1443). Third dialectics: external world versus inner world. This sought for freedom in the character of Hester, implies now a third dialectics between the external and the inner worlds. Portraying the external to the inner situation, the sign of the Scarlet Letter appears then, more as an emblem of ladyship than a sign of humiliation and doom. The making in fine red cloth, proper of royal or noble special outfits, as the elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread (Hawthorne 1381; as also previous), are a sign of dignifying rather than feeling shame, about a complex situation of conscience. It is about to create an external effect that can not only heal but also give sense to an inner reality. Hester shows therefore a spirit of appropriation of the Scarlet Letter, exercising her will on it, and excepting the external voices and dispositions. She is the one who must transform the negativity of the Scarlet Letter into a sense of possibility. The fact that Hester is now placed in a world apart -in a sphere by herself, (Hawthorne 1381)- , speaks of that inner world, that of meditations and freedom granted by loneliness, in contrast with the common crowded world, full of judgment and prejudice. In this inner world, even when she has to face her emotions (guilt, shame, fear) she is the owner of those feelings and of her own identity. It is the inner world to shred life upon her, and to invite her to a new state of being. The real source of life then is the inner world, where emotions, dignity and self conscience are safe. It is a world where she moves freely and widely, in contrast of the narrowness of the external world which is actually reduced to her: ...the little world with which she was outwardly connected (Hawthorne 1398). Here comes the very dialectics between the external and the internal. Before the insensibility, superficiality, indifference and disdain of the external world, it appears the recovery of the human being by appealing to the features of the internal world: profound attitudes, sensibility, importance, caring, making of sense: ... the Scarlet Letter had endowed her with a new sense (...) It gave her a sympathetic (to suffer and commiserate with someone else) knowledge of the hidden sin of other hearts (Hawthorne 1398). The sign of the Scarlet Letter is now a reflection of those feelings rather than of shame, vulnerability and fear which did not allow her to move but to remain static. Dynamics is a constitutive element of her freedom: This outward mutability indicated, and did not more than fairly express, the various properties of her inner life (Hawthorne 1400). Coming to this point, we can come to say that the sign of the Scarlet Letter has offered its content after being subject of a dialectical process. Hester proposes a move of self 4

determination in order to underline her own identity; a free identity at last, where the dignity of the woman is now present: After sustaining the gaze of the multitude through seven miserable years as a necessity, a penance, and something which was a stern religion to endure, she now, for one last time more, encountered it freely and voluntarily, in order to convert what had so long been agony into a kind of triumph (Hawthorne 1473; my emphasis). We have been through three dialogs and contrasts on the Scarlet Letter. All of them are only close readings or approximations to Hawthornes intentions and images, used to write this book. He has pictured a scenario that allows different readings and significations. We have followed a path. New readings are to be done and new interpretations to be made. This one has made us go through the path followed by the figure of Hester with her Scarlet Letter, which is the path of the resolution and the will of a free woman, that has become herself an icon of the struggle within, but at the same time, the image of an open, permanent and inevitable question that we cannot escape from: What does freedom really mean? Woks cited Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Baym, Nina (ed.). The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th Edition. Volume B: 1820-1865. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007: 1352-1493.