Het is vandaag 155 jaar geleden dat de Amerikaanse schrijver Nathaniel Hawthorne is gestorven. Hij is vooral bekend van “The Scarlet Letter”.

Nathaniel Hathorne was born on July 4, 1804 in the city of Salem, Massachusetts. He later changed his name to “Hawthorne”, adding a “w” to dissociate from relatives including John Hathorne, a judge during the Salem Witch Trials (*). His father was a sea-captain who died in Suriname when Nathaniel was four years old. Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College and graduated in 1825; his classmates included future president Franklin Pierce (later he will write his biography) and future poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (**). Hawthorne anonymously published his first work, a novel titled “Fanshawe”, in 1828. He published several short stories in various periodicals which he collected in 1837 as “Twice-Told Tales”. The next year, he became engaged to Sophia Peabody. He worked at a Custom House and joined Brook Farm, a transcendentalist community (***), before marrying Peabody in 1842. The couple moved to The Wayside in Concord. In 1846 Hawthorne was appointed as a surveyor at the Salem custom house, but when the Republican Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1848 he lost his job. In the summer of 1849 he was removed from office on petty charges. He turned immediately to the composition of what was to become his most famous work, “The Scarlet Letter”. It was finished in February and published in April 1850, the so-called “birthyear of American literature”, as besides “The Scarlet Letter” it was also the year in which Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” were published.
Introductory notes to “The Scarlet Letter”: description of his task as a surveyor at the Salem custom house and the people in his service (it is hinted at that his complacency in their laziness was the presumed reason of his removal). He finds a packet of a former Surveyor, Pue, containing a scarlet letter A and a declaration of its meaning. He intends to write a book about it, but “My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I ded my best to people it” (p.45-46). But then came the elections: “my fortune somewhat resembled that of a person who should entertain an idea of committing suicide, and although beyond his hopes, meet with the good hap to be murdered” (p.55). He was fired and could now write his story.
The story is set in New England in the seventeenth century, in a so-called theocratic society (church was more influencial than any other political body from 1620 till 1750).
Ch.1: the prison-door
Ch.2: the market-place. Hester Prynne is shown upon the scaffold with her child and a letter A (for adultery) eombroidered on her breast (on her gown, of course).
Ch.3: the recognition. Somebody informs a stranger (we can suppose that it is master Prynne) that Hester isn’t punished as usual (death-penalty) because her man had to come from England two years ago, but he hasn’t shown up. He might as well be dead. It is the young Dimmesdale himself (but we are not supposed to know this) who has to entreat her to reveal who is the father, but she refuses.
Ch.4: the interview. Between Hester and the stranger (as a physician). It is, in fact, her husband. He doesn’t blame her (she didn’t love him; he’s old and ugly) but she refuses to denounce the father. Then he makes her promise that she won’t betray him and that from now on he will be called Roger Chillingworth (in his presence everything “chills”).
Ch.5: Hester at her needle. Unintendedly (?) Hawthorne creates a sensuous atmosphere: the Scarlet Letter is held in the focus of the reader’s attention, but this letter is embroidered on the breasts of Hester… The needle is her way to keep her alive, because she does not want to go away from Salem. Why? She’s a stay-at-home (like me), she wants to be near her lover and it’s also a kind of self-punishment.
Ch.6: Pearl. Absurd. Stupid. She’s beautiful, but mean. Pearl is English for Margaret, as the Greek Margaritès means “pearl of the sea”. (Inspiration for Janis?)
Ch.7: the Governor’s Hall. Hester and Pearl are going to the Governor because there are rumours that her child will be taken away from her.
Ch.8: the elf-child and the minister. Roger and Rev.Dimnesdale are there too and the latter pleads for her. The Governor agrees to let her keep the child (Pearl seems to be very fond of Dimnesdale). In leaving, a witch tries to convince Hester to come to a sabbat. In vain.
Ch.9: the leech (d.i. een dokter, maar ook een bloedzuiger!). Roger and Arthur become friends. Arthur is ill and follows a treatment by Roger, who is a well-known physician (someone remembers him as having played a part in the Overbury-murder, under another name). The common people begin to think of him as being Satan.
Ch.10: the leech and his patient. Roger begins to suspect Arthur.
Ch.11: the interior of a heart.
Ch.12: the minister’s vigil. Powerful scene in the night with the four main characters on the scaffold. Arthur has an A on his chest and a meteor has drawn it in the air (other bystanders interpret it as standing for “angel”). Turning point: after his vigil the minister realizes that he will not be able to guard the secret of his guilt.
Ch.13: another view of Hester. The people have started to worship her because of her virtue (helping the poor). They say A stands for Abel.
Ch.14: Hester and the physician. She asks him to break her promise. His answer: do as you please. Many critical remarks on puritanism. (Much of Hawthorne’s writing features moral allegories with a puritan inspiration. Hawthorne was affected by the puritan belief, but he was hostile to it.)
Ch.15: Hester and Pearl.
Ch.16: A forest walk.
Ch.17: the pastor and his parishioner. Hester tells him that Roger is her husband.
Ch.18: a flood of sunshine poors down on Hester, when she tears off the scarlet letter.
Ch.19: the child at the brook-side. This is Pearl. She impels her mother to wear the scarlet letter again.
Ch.20: the minister in a maze. Arthur resolves to flee with Hester and Pearl to the continent after his Election Sermon.
Ch.21: the New England holiday. Roger has arranged (with the captain) to go with them.
Ch.22: the procession.
Ch.23: third cardinal scene on the scaffold: the revelation of the scarlet letter by Arthur, when they are all four on the scaffold before the crowd. Then he dies.
Ch.24: conclusion. Roger dies shortly afterwards and leaves his fortune to Pearl. Pearl marries an English nobleman and Hester returns to Salem.
In Hawthorne’s view all art is symbolic (conventional symbols as the visual presentations of an idea) but not all art is symbolistic. In the latter fiction the distance between the symbol and the presented thing is at its greatest (private symbolism). E.g. the sea represents real life to Herman Heijermans, artistic impotence to Stéphane Mallarmé and purification to Leonard Cohen or Paul van Ostayen.The same applies to “The Scarlet Letter”. It is about the letter A. But what does it stand for? Adultery it seems. But couldn’t it also be “angel”?
Flowers are other frequent symbols in the novel. When one knows that Pearl is sometimes associated with the rose, one is inclined to think of the scenario Bo Goldman wrote for the film by Mark Rydell.
Mirror symbolism on the other hand is found on the pages 45-46, 48, 73, 119, 129, 175, 202, 207, 212-213, 224, 229, 250 and 252 in the 1969 edition of Dent (London).
Other novels followed. A political appointment took Hawthorne and his family to Europe before their return to The Wayside in 1860. Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864, leaving behind his wife and their three children. His fiction works are considered part of the Romantic movement and, more specifically, dark romanticism. His themes often center on the inherent evil and sin of humanity, and his works often have moral messages and deep psychological complexity. He prefers writing historical romances (****) as a form of escapism from his own, rather dull, time. Another possibility was of course exotism, to be found in the far west (James Fenimore Cooper), in Europe (Henry James) or at sea (Herman Melville).

Ronny De Schepper
(met dank aan Wikipedia en prof.Willem Schrickx)

(*) He sentenced thirty women to death and only one man. This man, Matthew Moore, uttered a curse against him and this curse inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to write “The House of the Seven Gables”.
(**) Hawthorne kreeg dikwijls een uitgeweken Acadien op bezoek die hem de legende vertelde van Evangeline, die door de Engelsen naar Louisiana werd gezonden, terwijl haar verloofde ergens anders heen moest. Zij tracht hem met alle middelen terug te vinden, zodat zij, als haar zieke vader overleden is, als oorlogsverpleegster overal rondtrekt. Zij ontmoet haar verloofde in een hospitaal, maar tegen de tijd dat ze weet dat hij het is, is hij al overleden (niemand minder dan… Konsalik heeft dit thema later in gewijzigde vorm aangewend). Hawthorne vond dat hij echter niet de geschikte man was om zoiets tot een roman om te werken en daarom gaf hij de opdracht door aan zijn vriend Longfellow, die daarop het bekende lange episch-lyrische gedicht “Evangeline” schreef. Dat er echter ook veel Longfellow inzit, bewijst de merkwaardige overeenkomst met Goethes “Hermann und Dorothee”. Goethe was Longfellows grote voorbeeld en vooral de pastorale elementen zijn bij hem ontleend.
(***) Thoreau participated in this experiment too and gave a description of it in “Walden”. Hawthorne zelf schreef erover in “The Blithedale Romance”.
(****) Hawthorne prefered “romances” to “novels”. A novelist is faithful to the probable and ordinary course of human experience. The romance on the other hand will mingle the marvellous with the real life. Therefore he was against the picturesque externalism of Walter Scott.

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