The Scarlet Letter as a Romance Novel

The Scarlet Letter as Romance Novel

The Scarlet Letter as a Romance Novel

Hawthorne differentiated his long stories from those of English writers like Trollope’s. Though he admired their detailed social analysis and study of human motives, Hawthorne could never write a novel like them. What he wrote instead were Romances like The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance and The Marble Faun. The romance gave him a greater freedom to merge fact and fiction in his writings than the novel permitted.

Richard Chase in his book The American Novel and Its Tradition seems to recognise the difference between the European novel and the American romance. An American cares much less for social analysis and character development than the European novelist. He also does not try to copy the world of the reality in his stories. He wants greater freedom, and he freely mixes fact and fiction. Reality is not a strong point of the American novel. Hawthorne’s partiality for Romances suggests this love of freedom in creation.

Whereas the English novelist may give more time to character analysis and motivations, the American Romance-writer substitutes symbolism and fantasy for fact-finding and a study of a living society. Henry James, in his essay on Hawthorne, pointed to the lack of historical tradition in America. In view of this lack, the American artist shows indifference to both the past and the present living society. It is the individual and his fantasy that matters in an American Romance. Although The Scarlet Letter is a historical novel in a sense (it studies a particular society which is now no more extant), we shall hardly call it realistic, like Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, for instance. Psychology, symbolism and fantasy seem to be much more important to Hawthorne than real people in a real society. Like most of the great American stories, The Scarlet Letter lends itself to myth-making because there is very little real society in it. Mostly, it is a story of permanent interest to the human heart. Therefore, The Scarlet Letter lacks the “specificity” (details) of a great novel. The study of the motivations of characters (e.g., Chilling worth’s and Dimmesdale’s) is superficial, if not completely absent. Things happen, just as in a dream, because the story writer wants them to happen. There is no context for action or the characters.

The Romance may, then, be defined in Hawthorne’s own words (in “The Custom House“, the Introductory to The Scarlet Letter) as “a neutral territory somewhere between the real world and fairy land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here without affrighting us.” The Scarlet Letter is a myth-making, symbolic, psychological Romance, but it is not a novel. It lacks a novel’s “reality”. It has only a few concrete details and lacks properly analysed characters who are “living”.

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Mark Van Doren made one of the most cryptic statements of all times when he described The Scarlet Letter as one of the great love stories of the world. As if this were not intriguing enough, Ernest Sandeen has tried, through sheer verbal legerdemain, to establish that The Scarlet Letter could be read, with an appropriate shift in emphases, as a love story, a tragedy of the grand passion rather than as a tale of guilt and redemption that it actually is. Such conjectural kite-flying, however, hardly belongs to the realm of rational, critical analysis of a work of art. Perhaps it may be possible to describe the book as “a tragic love story” if one were to stretch one’s imagination to its farthest limits to imply that it portrays a love story (antecedent to the book itself) which has had tragic repercussions upon its protagonists, and that while element of a love story is conspicuous by its absence in the book, the consequences of this love assume total significance in the book. To do so, however, would amount to nothing less than indulging in logomachy. To call the book “a tragic love story, is then tantamount to suggesting that The Scarlet Letter is of a kind with Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whereas Hawthorne’s book is nothing of that sort at all.

As a good majority of critics have emphasized again and again, The Scarlet Letter deals with the consequences of sin rather than with the sin of adultery, or illicit love. Thus, both Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale are made to suffer the consequences of their sin in a most unlover-like isolation, in which each suffers not together, but alone. Apparently, the world is not well lost for these two lovers, as it is for Shakespeare’s as well as John Dryden’s Anthony and Cleopatra. A critic has, indeed, suggested that the Scarlet Letter is one of the most asexual of books, and this statement describes it quite adequately. Even if one has enough imaginative resources to conceive how a vivacious, sprightly woman like Hester Prynne can “all” (to use a modern diminutive) for a self-absorbed pastor like Arthur Dimmesdale, there is hardly as much as a glance or a caress that takes place between these two putative “lovers”, except in the Forest Scene, where Hawthorne creates an illusion of warmth through his imagery of sunshine and light, and through the only normal conversation in the book between these two erstwhile lovers. In terms of a conventional love story (akin to the majority of the mishmash from Bombay film studios), there is a heroine, a hero, and a stereotyped villain (here, Chillingworth) who would appear to have vowed to himself to keep the “lovers” apart. However, Hawthorne invests all his characters with enough ambiguity to defy a simple moral analysis of them. Hence, Chillingworth may be viewed as a stereotyped villain in a conventional story: however, he is also the wronged husband.

Again, there seems to be more passion that Hester and Dimmesdale each expends over himself or herself than there is between them and this hardly qualifies them to be described as “lovers”. Again, although Hawthorne attempts to provide a gloss on Hester and Dimmesdale’s adulterous relationship by echoing it in a detail on the tapestry in Dimmesdale’s lodging, it is doubtful whether anybody would find Hester and Dimmesdale in the same class as David and Bathsheba as lovers. If anything, The Scarlet Letter seems to emphasize the terrible consequences of a momentary lapse that the sexual passion, within the framework of the book, appears to be. Sex is, thus, the occasion for Hawthorne to hang his tale by; it is certainly not central to his preoccupations in The Scarlet Letter.

Therefore, it seems absurd to classify The Scarlet Letter as “a tragic love story”. If anything, the love interest in the book (if any) appears to most readers as subservient and auxiliary to Hawthorne’s basic preoccupations with the consequences of sin rather than with the sin of adultery or illicit sexual passion itself.

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