Why is there no opera of The Scarlet Letter? The novel opens on a scene, “The Prison-Door,” that is so dramatic in its starkness that one half-expects to hear an audience burst into applause. “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.”

The cruel public spectacle that follows is contained in the fact that although this is a primitive Boston, only some fifteen or twenty years old, “the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave yet a darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the new world.” To a “new world” these Puritans have transferred intact from the old everything rigid, intolerant, aged, and cramped in spirit.

The contrast between old world and new, between the dour old Roger Chillingworth and his estranged and lively young wife Hester Prynne, is fundamental to a novel so overwhelming in its images and driving in its symbols that Henry James said that Hawthorne’s method amounted to “importunity.”

Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

No opera could begin with a scene of more violent contrasts of costume, color, and personality than in what follows. A young woman, tall, “with a figure of perfect elegance,” stands on a scaffold before the whole town clasping a three-month-old baby.

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore.

Hester Prynne, a married woman with a missing husband, could have been sentenced to death for adultery. Condemned always to wear the letter A as a badge of shame, this gifted seamstress has turned it into a resplendent work of art. To make the contrast between Hester’s condemnation and the splendor of the scarlet letter, between her dignity on the scaffold and the deadly crowd of gray, bitter old women watching her, even more operatic and instantly thrilling, she is beautiful, with “dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam,” and “deep black eyes.”

As she stands there, about to be castigated for her sins by two leading clergymen of Boston who demand the name of her lover, Hester is horrified to see in the crowd her shriveled, twisted husband, Roger Chillingworth, who has been a captive of Indians in the wilderness. Talk about opera! While the town chorus is murmuring against her, her silently fanatical husband staring at her, the ethereal-looking young clergyman, Arthur Dimmesdale, frightened and trembling, is also compelled to demand the name of her partner in crime. Since there seems to be no one else in this crude settlement likely to interest Hester Prynne, it is obvious from his double-edged aria that he is her lover.

The extraordinary narrowness of Puritan life and thought is vividly brought out by the little space Boston occupies between the wilderness and the ocean. Theatrically, almost all the action takes place between any two of the four main characters. Hester’s only companion is her mischievous, provocative daughter Pearl—an emblem of the “lawlessness” in her mother’s suppressed nature. Because Roger has mysterious medical knowledge, he is called in to treat the hysterical Hester after her public humiliation, then Arthur, who is deteriorating under his inability to confess his guilt. Roger soon manages to take up residence with Arthur in order to investigate to the full and eventually expose the man he has spotted as his wife’s lover.

With Hester trying to control her flamboyant daughter, with Roger secretly preying on Arthur, and Arthur helplessly trying to resist his supposed benefactor who is his “fiend-like” enemy, the concentration of repressed thought and emotion on the part of all the characters becomes more and more explosive, and breaks out only in the grand denouement, the most operatic imaginable. The formal procession of the townspeople in celebration of Arthur’s overcharged Election Day sermon ends in Arthur’s public confession on the scaffold, embracing Hester and Pearl, before he triumphantly dies. Repression at the heart of this Puritan civilization, a necessary way of life, induces such a consistency of tone that Hawthorne said the novel “is positively a hell-fired story, into which I found it almost impossible to throw any cheering light.” He recalled years later “my emotions when I read the last scene of the Scarlet Letter to my wife, just after writing it—tried to read it, rather, for my voice swelled and heaved, as if I were tossed up and down on an ocean, as it subsides after a storm.”


Why was he more disturbed by this book than by anything else he ever wrote? He was invading the country of his ancestors, but he had done this in story after story in the collections so wearily named Twice-Told Tales and Mosses From an Old Manse. In The Scarlet Letter, however, he was not just beautifully (and often defensively) invoking the old Puritan world in bits and pieces. Now there surfaced the long interior conflict between natural respect for the past and his equal abhorrence of its theological cruelty. (And Hawthorne was not a church-goer, not even a liberal one.) Only a work of art, of the intensest emotions, could even begin to answer to his struggle with himself over a past in which, dreamlike, he often felt he was living. There was no rejecting the past in the transcendentalist style, which he despised. So there was no great comfort for him in writing this “hell-fired” book. The only relief this bitter man gave himself was in creating his heroine. The only fully admirable character in The Scarlet Letter is Hester. Quite apart from her “elegant figure” and “dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam,” Hester is the only character in the book big enough to sustain a conflict with the harsh Puritan world equal to Hawthorne’s own. In a book without heroes, Hester has to carry the love story all by herself.

The Scarlet Letter was immediately recognized on its publication in 1850 as the masterpiece a young and self-conscious country was waiting for. It was assimilable in a way that works by two New Yorkers, Melville’s MobyDick (1851) and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), were not. New England still seemed the source and center of an American civilization founded on Protestant tradition. It is impossible to imagine Melville and Whitman sounding as institutional as Hawthorne. They were engaged, like true American originals, in the prodigious language experiment necessary to their “primitive” understanding of life, meaning life at the bottom.

Hawthorne was a true son of clerical New England in his formal and even stately style. It had great tonality of sound and enormous suggestiveness—irony was Hawthorne’s favorite maneuver in telling a story. The dark and solemn music of his unrelenting commentary on the story he is presenting intervenes in the way an orchestra does at the opera—setting the emotional background and reinforcing it at crucial points. The Scarlet Letter is an elaborately stylized and formal performance in every sense. It never bursts out from the depths of our hidden animal nature as Melville and Whitman do. Just as the novel’s climax is a sermon, so the long tradition of reading sermons to an audience that always knew what to expect is also behind Hawthorne’s novel. He is constantly beckoning to the reader to join him in sighing over the “positively hell-fired story” he feels compelled to tell. There is a literary domesticity in Hawthorne’s many gestures to the reader that is very New England, based as they are on the sermon, the chief medium of Protestantism, and on a congregation to hear it.

In The Scarlet Letter, for once in his anxious literary career, Hawthorne and his immediate New England audience were not at home with each other. An aggressive religious conservative, Orestes A. Brownson, thought the book grossly immoral. “There is an unsound state of public morals,” he complained, “when the novelist is permitted, without a scorching rebuke, to select such crimes, and to invest them with all the fascination of genius, and all the charms of a highly polished style.” An article in the Church Review asked, “Is the French era actually begun in our literature?” No, it was just the revisionist era, the literary emancipation of New England from its old clerical tyranny. But this rear guard guessed a vital fact behind the book that admirers did not. Hawthorne was a deeply sexual man. Hester was the creation of someone who loved women, saw them, as Verdi did, as necessarily tragic and alone, but emotionally sacred in a diminished world.


In revisiting the old Puritan tyranny, Hawthorne was lucky, for once, in his opportunity. The Scarlet Letter was his first and only great literary success in a peculiarly hard and solitary career as a writer. He was forty-five when he set out to write the book. He was passionately married to Sophia Peabody, but except with a few college friends, a bitter, usually silent, man hard to know and to like. He scorned the uplift philosophy of the transcendentalists in Concord. Emerson, a prig for all his genius, could not read fiction intelligently. Hawthorne was unique in the literary New England of his day—a grimly honest storyteller fascinated by the perversity in human affairs central to his hereditary Calvinism.

Always worried about money, Hawthorne made an uneasy living writing for magazine editors who paid him a pittance for some of his greatest stories without recognizing their uniqueness. There was a lot of hack work behind him. Like so many other American authors in the nineteenth century, Hawthorne aspired to political appointments. He was a solid adherent of the Democratic Party, which as the party of Andrew Jackson officially represented the masses but so dominated the South that it rejected criticism of slavery. This suited Hawthorne’s lack of political idealism. He claimed that New England was as large a lump of earth as his heart could hold. He was fortunate in having as his closest friends Bowdoin classmates who were influential in the Democratic Party. One of them was Franklin Pierce, who in 1852 became the fourteenth president of the United States. In 1846 Hawthorne’s party friends secured him appointment as Surveyor of Salem, his native town. He needed to show himself in the Custom House for only a few morning hours before getting back to his writing. In 1848, however, the Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, running as a Whig, was elected President, and when he assumed office in 1849 Hawthorne was replaced.

This, was devastating. Friends—including Longfellow and James Russell Lowell—had to raise a subscription for his support. Hawthorne took his being fired as a summons to begin The Scarlet Letter, long in his mind. The central situation—a young woman punished by the Puritan theocracy for adultery by having to show the letter A on her dress—Hawthorne claimed to have discovered at the Salem Custom House in a file of old papers left behind at the outbreak of the American Revolution by Loyalists fleeing to Nova Scotia. In “The Custom-House,” the preface to his novel, Hawthorne pictured himself brooding on the ancient story in the same place where he had to associate with fossilized political hacks.

Hawthorne even claimed to have found a “rag of scarlet letter” with still-visible traces of the letter A. The enduring cruelty done to a woman possessed him, as did every record and relic of the Puritan period, in which two of his ancestors had been particularly brutal, condemning women who were “witches” and Quakers. Hawthorne abominated the “damned lot of scribbling women,” but he was certainly drawn to women as patient sufferers. Everything about the old Puritan world was so central to Hawthorne’s interior life that the mildest eccentricities of behavior he observed in Salem still showed the grip of the past. In some way that was both his life ordeal and his opportunity as a writer, he was bonded to the past. He associated shame over his terrible ancestors with the guilty excitement he felt in taking up the story. But as with his attraction to the long-forgotten woman who had to wear the letter A, he now pursued the woman and her story to the depths of his secretly erotic imagination. As William Faulkner, another hereditary Calvinist who broke away from history to write his own history of his homeland, said of the past, “it is not even past.”

In the “Custom-House” preface Hawthorne imagined his terrible judicial ancestors now sitting in judgment on him:

No aim, that I have ever cherished, would they recognize as laudable; no success of mine—if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been brightened by success—would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively disgraceful. “What is he?” murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to another. “A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” Such are the compliments bandied between my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.

That “intertwining” was subtle, and for all of Hawthorne’s geniality in “The Custom-House,” painful to discover in himself. That old world always in Hawthorne’s mind was grimly devoted to the identification of evil at the center of human affairs. For all his illiberality in party politics, Hawthorne, born only four years after the eighteenth century ended, was a beneficiary of the American Revolution and a product of its new world. The terrifying founder of the Puritan faith, John Calvin, condemned sex as the root of all evil. In Institutes of The Christian Religion (Book II, Chapter I) he roundly declared,

Original sin is seen to be an hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul…wherefore those who have defined original sin as the lack of the original righteousness with which we should have been endowed…have not fully expressed the positive energy of this sin. For our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive…. Whatever is in man, from intellect to will, from the soul to the flesh, is all defiled and crammed with concupiscence; or, to sum it up briefly, the whole man is in himself nothing but concupiscence.

It is startling to realize that of all the American masters in this period, Hawthorne was the only one capable of even acknowledging full heterosexual love in his work. Thoreau? Emerson? Poe? Melville? Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody were so avidly married that Sophia was sure “nobody but we ever knew what it is to be married.” Certainly no other writer’s wife in this period was capable of saying of sexual intercourse that “the truly married alone can know what a wondrous instrument it is for the purposes of the heart.” Until premature middle age took him over, and he grew a heavy moustache, Hawthorne was extremely handsome. D.H. Lawrence, not fooled by the “hell-fires” under New England, saw the virtuous Hawthorne as “the blue-eyed darling”: Lawrence went on to say, “That blue-eyed darling Nathaniel knew disagreeable things in his inner soul. He was careful to send them out in disguise.”

In the astonishing theatrical image of Hester Prynne on the scaffold with which the book opens, Hawthorne made a point of the “fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy” with which she had defiantly decked out the badge of her supposed shame. It even pleases Hawthorne in his excitement over the picture Hester presents to imagine a papist worshiping her as “an image of the Divine Maternity.” Her black hair gleams in the sun, her “face, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes…. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.”

As for the over-decorated A, it

was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

The “taste” of the age refers to the England Hester has left, not the New England in which the prison was built right after the church—an England that has not forgotten its Elizabethan vitality. When Hester alone on the scaffold dreams back to her happy youth in England, it is of a sensuous world. The splendid attire and armorial trappings which Governor Bellingham wears when he questions whether Hester is worthy of bringing up her child are vanities not permitted to women. So Hester must parody her badge of shame by turning it into so startling a thing of beauty that it captivates some of the braver women. Her skill at the needle makes her indispensable to the town and helps to dissipate the stigma. Nevertheless, she remains a figure of mystery, the strangest of living legends.

What no one knows but Hester is the extraordinary level of inner freedom she has attained in her forced solitude. Her sexuality is still her life, just as it made her on the pillory superior to her undisclosed husband and lover. She rises above both in the rejection of her aged, crippled, disturbing husband and in the strength of her passion for Dimmesdale. After seven years in her hut by the shore, she contrives to meet him in the forest so that she can at last tell him that Chillingworth is her husband. Begging him to forgive her for the long silence Chillingworth had forced on her, her feelings overcome her. The “Black Man” who tempts poor beings to sin, and whose home could only be this forest, is now forgotten. The forest now exists for love. In a book full of relentless silent brooding over sex, punishable but not mentionable, the god of guilt gives way to Hester’s gift of love. She begs Dimmesdale to forgive her for waiting so long to tell him that Chillingworth is her husband.

With sudden and desperate tenderness, she threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom; little caring though his cheek rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should look her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her,—for seven long years had it frowned upon this lonely woman,—and still she bore it all, nor ever once turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven, likewise, had frowned upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of this pale, weak, sinful, and sorrow-stricken man was what Hester could not bear, and live!

When he does abjectly “forgive” her, he agrees that the “old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!” Triumphant, she whispers back, “Never, never! What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou forgotten it?”

This, at one polarity, has to be set against the scene, earlier in the book, when Hester begs her husband to pardon Dimmesdale as he has just indifferently “pardoned” her.

“Peace, Hester, peace!” replied the old man, with gloomy sternness. “It is not granted me to pardon. I have no such power as thou tellest me of. My old faith, long forgotten, comes back to me, and explains all that we do, and all we suffer. By thy first step awry, thou didst plant the germ of evil; but, since that moment, it has all been a dark necessity. Ye that have wronged me are not sinful, save in a kind of typical illusion; neither am I fiend-like, who have snatched a fiend’s office from his hands. It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may.”

In the opening scene of the book Hawthorne called the prison the “black flower” of Puritan civilization. In Chillingworth’s speech the black flower remains the iron law of necessity that will operate against Hester’s hard-won inner freedom as a woman and thinker. Her development was so prodigious that it seemed that “the scarlet letter had not done its office.”* But it has—it will. In the beautiful scene in the forest, “A Flood of Sunshine,” that marks the loving reconciliation of Hester and Arthur, she frees herself of the letter, unpins her hair, finally persuades him to leave the settlement with her. But he is dying under the torment of his long-sustained guilt. In the final scene he can finally become cleansed, hand in hand with Hester and Pearl on the scaffold where Hester suffered alone. Then he dies, to conclude the operatic climax.

The “iron men” who rule Boston, as Hester bitterly names them to Arthur as the tyranny they must escape, are only the legatees of the Old World’s tyranny. But, as yet, the New World is bound to it—and to them. Calvinism held the faithful by picturing the human race entirely under God’s sovereignty—a home for the spirit, no matter how uncertain the chance of salvation. So at the very end Hester returns to Boston from England, where she has left Pearl, and resumes the scarlet letter. With a free heart, she takes up again the penitence long ago imposed on her. She may be transfigured by her beauty, intelligence, personal nobility, but in her heart she is an “adulteress.” She has returned to the endless chain of guilt that is her religious history.

So Puritanism, tradition, moralism, the “world’s law” that once was “no law for her mind,” all triumph in the end. The “dark necessity” in all human affairs is the inheritance Hawthorne did not quite know what to do with. He was a storyteller, never wished or pretended to be anything else. Orthodoxy does not permit the irony, skepticism, personal despair, above all the sense of contradiction and unreality in human affairs that made up Nathaniel Hawthorne. He would have agreed with William Blake:

Do what you will, this life’s a fiction
And is made up of contradiction

But if life’s a fiction, nothing in it is ever quite novel. The Puritan tradition of finding correspondences and symbols in everything so worked itself into Hawthorne’s inkstand that at least one character, the “elfin” Pearl, is nothing but a symbol, the names “Chillingworth” and “Dimmesdale” all too sufficiently mark the men who bear them, while Hawthorne’s little moral reflections and allegories, intervening at every point, come to seem a way of sugarcoating a tragedy inextricably what it is—the first American tragedy in the novel. Yet the insistent symbols that for James amounted to “importunity” can also be seen as an attempt on Hawthorne’s part to keep his distance from the “hell-fired” story. Even Hawthorne’s way of wrapping up everything in his always solemn and formal style can be seen as a way of standing aside.

The absolutism of seventeenth-century dogma could be too much for a nineteenth-century American. Hawthorne was so afraid of his material that his publisher had to talk him out of wanting to include other “tales” with The Scarlet Letter. “Keeping so close to its point as the tale does,” Hawthorne wrote to James Fields,

and diversified no otherwise than by turning different sides of the same, it will weary many people and disgust some. Is it safe, then, to stake the fate of the book entirely on this one chance?

He could not read his manuscript aloud without trembling.

Copyright © 1992 by Alfred Kazin

This Issue

October 8, 1992