Seduction may be baneful, even tragic, but the seducer at his work is essentially comic. It is a question whether there is such a thing as seduction when the affections play a part; and yet this is a murky matter because of the way affections, even those of tenderness and concern, have a tendency to diminish and augment, to transform themselves under the influence of experience, satisfaction, or disappointment. The seducer as a type, or as an archetype, hardly touches upon any of our deep feelings unless there is some exaggeration in him, something complicated and tangled and mysteriously compelling about a nature that has come to define itself through the mere fact of sex. For the most part the word, seduction, indicates effort of a persevering, thoughtful sort. When it is successful we naturally look about for a lack of resolution and resistance in the object; guile and insistence are clever at uncovering pockets of complicity. A seduction is the very opposite of the abrupt, which is, of course, rape.
The most interesting seducers are actually rapists; for instance, Don Giovanni and Lovelace. Their whole character is trapped in the moil of domination and they drudge on, never satisfied, never resting, mythically hungry. The fact that the two characters mentioned are gentlemen gives a stinging complication to their obsessions. Ritual comes natural to them and birth bestows rights and blurs cruelties. What we may feel is a misplaced elaboration of desire in a gentleman would be in a man of less imagination and of inferior social and personal decoration simply coarse or criminal. In the common man, excessive demand for sex is repulsive. Gentlemen merely run the risk of being ridiculous. To have in Espagne alone, mille e tre, is a most exhausting dedication, and also quite funny.
The danger of ridicule must, in literature, be circumvented if the man is to retain force, magnetism, spirit. (Dignity is scarcely at stake, since it is the mark of a gentleman to look upon dignity as a quality given and once given the last to crumble.) When the Don in Mozart’s opera is found in the first scene dragging Donna Anna about, rushing into her bedroom like a burglar, we know that he is a complete fool. (“How can I believe a nobleman guilty of such a crime?” Don Ottavio, another fool, asks.) It is only when the Don murders Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, that he is redeemed as a character, a creation. He who was a fool has suddenly become sinister, evil, damned; the attention immediately shifts from the victim, the assaulted, sobbing woman, back to the great violator himself. The Don still does not have motive and we cannot understand his raging pursuits, yet we see how complete is his will, his defiance, how devastating his empty energy. The Don will ultimately have, in the opera, a cruel, useless courage in living out his nature to its very end.
In the waste of sensuality, boredom, compulsion, the Don never shows love or pity for the women. That we soon accept, aesthetically, as the frame of the plot of his existence; we are then free to go the next step with him. We accept that he is saved from being a fop by his equal lack of pity for himself. There is nothing self-protective in the Don. If he had called upon the favors of some higher nobility to intercede for him, he would be contemptible in every part of his nature. As it is, he is awful, trapped in his own being. His “extensive sentiments” and his “tutte quante” are a malignant growth which he, either by the charms of his character or the weakness of women, wishes to present as a caprice, a temperament, a disposition perfected by a fantast.
Donna Elvira’s fascination with the Don makes her a more interesting person than Donna Anna, who is, after the murder and perhaps before, only interested in her father, a totemic figure well-dressed in stone. We do not know whether to call Donna Elvira’s attraction under the name of love; perhaps, yes. She herself gives hints of some liking for exorbitance and her love is scarcely put to the test of endurance because the Don gives her such a short tenure as his betrothed—three days in Burgos.
It is a lack in the Don that he doesn’t understand the way Donna Elvira’s passion for him makes him a more seductive and profound lover because she is interesting and complicated herself. It does not occur to him that she is an ornament his tawdry soul can well use. Instead he runs around in the shadows of her infatuation, inanely whispering, “poverina, poverina.” But nothing indeed prepares us for his inexplicably ferocious jest in falsely reawakening Elvira’s love only to pass his cloak to his lowly servant, Leporello, and command him to make love to her. The Don sinks here into the depths of coarse, personal dramaturgy. His invention has run out, his labors have exhausted his plotting imagination—and his own delight in the unworthy caper almost destroys him as a character. He would have returned to his condition of fool, if it were not that he is saved again by the indestructible romantic concentration of Donna Elvira. She is soon again pitying him and by this eternal flaming of hers the Don is rescued from inane buffoonery and restored once more to his interestingly sinister shape.
The illicit, as R. P. Blackmur writes in his extraordinary essay on Madame Bovary, and its identification with the romantic, the beautiful, and the interesting, lies at the very center of the dramatic action in the novel form. “The more lawful the society, as we say the more bourgeois the society, the more universal is the temptation to the illicit per se, and the stronger the impulse to identify it if not with life itself at least with the beauty of life.” For us now, the illicit has become a psychological rather than a moral drama. We ask ourselves how the delinquent ones feel about their seductions, adulteries, betrayals, and it is by the quality of their feelings that our moral judgments are formed. If they suffer and grieve and regret, they can be forgiven and even supported. If they boast or fall into an inner carelessness, what they are doing or have done can seem to be wrong. Love, even of the briefest span, is a powerful detergent, but “destructiveness” is a moral stain. In novelistic relations, where the pain inflicted is only upon the feelings of another person, everything is blurred. It is hard to know when rights have been exceeded or when obligations are adamantine.
In The Scarlet Letter, has Hester Prynne been betrayed by the Reverend Dimmesdale? If the matter lies only inside her own feelings, perhaps we would have to say that she is beyond betrayal. Betrayal is not what she herself feels, not the way her experience shapes itself in her mind and feelings. Love, the birth of Pearl, her illegitimate child, her prison term for adultery, her sentence to wear the letter A on her breast, the insufficient courage of her lover, Dimmesdale—what provocation, what abandonment. And yet these visitations, these punishments are embraced by Hester like fate. They are the revelations out of which prophecy is made and so they come to her, not as depressing clouds of consequence, but as opportunities for self-knowledge, for a strange and striking stardom.
Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is stunned by the illicit. It corrupts the air around him; he cannot breathe because of his sin. Thinness, pallor, trembling, wasting, heart-sickness: such are the words that define his state. He feels his transgression more vividly than anything else in his life. He takes society’s attitude toward his adultery with Hester and, thus outcast in his own being, he becomes the betrayed person, almost the betrayed woman. D. H. Lawrence’s idea that the “greatest triumph an American woman can have is the triumph of seducing a man, especially if he is pure,” is a Lawrence paradox arising out of his suspicious dislike of Hester Prynne. It is not true that she seduced Dimmesdale, but it is true in some deep sense that the sexes are reversed in the peculiar terms of his suffering, his sinking under it, the atmosphere around him of guilt, desperation, self-torture, and lonely remorse. The weak and the strong are clearly not where we would expect them to be. Moral courage is the dominating force in Hester Prynne, just as fearfulness, neurasthenic self-abasement are the fate of Dimmesdale.
Still, it would be outside history and a psychological falsification for us to look contemptuously upon poor Dimmesdale. He is occupied with God, truly; he has his mission on earth as a clergyman. His pastorate is serious, his integration in Puritan society is passionate. He is a man in time, living under the dispensation of his moment and his region, Boston, 1642. We cannot condemn his religious scruples, his Puritan dogmatism. We can understand his not wishing to remove himself, by the confession of adultery, from the possibility of bringing light and goodness to his world. It is actually Hester Prynne who is outside history. Her indifference to adultery, her staying on in Boston with her illegitimate daughter, Pearl, her defiance, the striking skepticism of her mind, the moral distance she sets between herself and the hysterias of the time—these qualities are the cause for wonder.
The heroine whose fate is defined by adulterous love is a central and enduring theme in fiction. Love and power are the landscape in which imagined destiny is lived. Power as a consequence of conventional love is suitable for comedies and for the intense dramas of the well-to-do classes and their daughters. Love destroys power in the great tragic heroines, in Greek drama, in Anna Karenina, in Cleopatra. It is infinitely more complicated and mixed in the bourgeois novel. What is asked of the heroine is not always a grand passion, but a sense of reality, a curious sort of independence and honor, an acceptance of consequence that puts courage to the most searing test.
In the novel, when the heroine’s history turns about a sexual betrayal, it matters whether she is the central figure in the plot or a somewhat less powerfully and less fully considered “victim” on the periphery. If she is the central figure, psychological structure seems to demand a sort of purity and innocence. Not physical innocence, but a lack of mean calculations, of vindictiveness, of self-abasing weakness. Sexual transgression loses its overwhelming character as a wrong or as a mistake when the persons have virtues of a compelling sort, or spiritual goodness, or the grandeur of endurance. The inner life of the woman matters, what she feels and has felt, the degree of her understanding of the brutal cycles of life.