The Scarlet Letter


(Image from Nerdalicious)

Over the last few sessions, we have been looking in some detail at the initial phases of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1849-50). Given the limitations of time in the course programme, I have deliberately set out to explore a political reading of this novel, most especially because I think that such a reading can help us understand not only the specific narrative context of the story—which is located in the foundational “moment” of US history—but that it also demonstrates aspects of the contemporary social tensions that were beginning to tear the new nation apart by the middle of the C19.

What is of interest in this political reading is to realise that the narrator takes a highly emphatic ideological stance from the very outset of the novel. First, by setting himself (and it is a He) as a contributor to history, then appearing to tell us that history cannot ever really be understood: it can only be re-presented and is therefore unstable and open to change. But above all, the narrator—doing what all narrators do—manipulates his readers’ response to determined aspects of the text. Specifically, he modulates our sympathy for the heroine of the story (Hester Prynne) and, in doing so, also modulates our antipathy towards her persecutors. He sets Hester the individual against her community and comes down firmly on her side.

This is hugely significant as it effectively challenges a fundamental tenet of US history, which is the untouchable virtue and righteousness of the early Puritan communities, which had set themselves up precisely to escape the overly authoritarian, intrusive and despotic rule of the British. In other words, Hawthorne’s narrator takes an ideological stance that appears to forward the need to revise this aspect of history. Why? Perhaps to draw attention to the fact that the only hope for a stable and peaceful community is to recognise its wrongs and to support the freedom of those that it is wrongfully limiting and abusing. For a nation on the cusp of a civil war fought largely for ideological reasons, this is a particularly relevant concern.

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