Case Study of Key Texts 1
Biblical Allusions in the Scarlett Letter
Northrop, a scholar who studied the Bible and Literature states that “One of the first things I noticed about literature was the stability of its structural units: the fact that certain themes, situations and character types […] have persisted with very little change from Aristophanes to our own time.” (49). There are many examples and different perspectives of human conditions and experiences to be found in the Bible which give depth to a vast amount of Literature. Hawthorne’s work The Scarlett Letter is full of biblical symbols, reverences and up to whole storylines that seem to be very similar to one another. Especially because the “Legal metaphor that runs all through the Bible, […] sees a man [or in this case a woman] as under a trial and subject to judgement.” (49) is also the topic of Hawthorne´s book. The use of biblical allusions allowed him to connect deeper with his audience because they were intimately familiar with the bible at that time and add more meaning to his story. To take a look at how he used these allusions and what effect they might have had on the reader, this essay will break down the main connections of The Scarlet Letter and The Bible in order of general events that are similar to the specific symbols used. Therefore, it will first compare the biblical story of Esther to the Story of Hester, in the next paragraph the origin of sin in Adam and Eve´s story to Arthur and Hester´s, after this it takes a look at allusions as to the punishment of wearing the scarlet letter, then where Hawthorne got the name Pearl from and how her story is described in contrast to Jesus and lastly why Hawthorne places the tapestry of the story of David in Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth´s shared apartment.
The first and one of the most obvious biblical allusion is that of Hester being a modern Esther. The similarities begin here simply by the names of these two women, where Hawthorne only moved letter ´h´ in the originally biblical name to the front. In addition to that, he gives Hester beautiful looks, describing her as “Tall, with dark and abundant hair and deep black eyes, a rich complexion that makes modern women […] pale and thin by comparison” (Van Doren 48) and as someone “Whose passion and beauty dominate every other person, and color each event. […]” (Munger 48). In the same way Esther is described as “[…] a beautiful young woman [who] had a good figure […]” (Good News Bible Esth. 2.7) and was “[…] admired by everyone who saw her.” (Esth. 2.15). But they are not only alike in appearance. In the introduction to the book of Esther it reads “[…] by her great courage and devotion to her people [she] saved them from being exterminated from their enemies.” (Good news Translation 584). Hester and Esther both keep a secret which, ones revealed, changes their own lives and the lives of people around them for the better. Hester keeps the identity of her child’s father, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a secret and once it is revealed by the two of them “Hester´s life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world´s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe […]” (Hawthorne 233). Her child´s life is also completely changed by this event. “Pearl – the elf child – the demon offspring, as some people up to that epoch persisted in considering her – became the richest heiress of her day in the New World.” (231). In the biblical story, once Esther´s secret of her Jewish background and religion is revealed “King Xerxes gave Queen Esther all the property of Haman, the enemy of the Jews.” (Good News Bible Esth. 8.1). And the Jews, which might be considered Esther´s family as many people describe others who share the same religious believes as their ‘brothers and sisters’, “[…] the king would allow […] to organise for self-defence [against their enemies].” (Esth. 8.11) and even instated a public holiday which is to be celebrated each year on the “Days on which the Jews had rid themselves of their enemies; this was a month that had been turned from a time of grief and despair into a time of joy and happiness.” (9.22). In addition to that there are even similar side characters, namely Roger Chillingworth and Haman. They are the enemies mentioned above that plot to destroy the lives of one of the women’s close male friends Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter and Mordecai in The Book of Esther. But they both do not succeed because even though Arthur dies, he does not die a scorned, hated man but “He had made the manner of his death a parable, in order to impress on his admirers the mighty and mournful lesson, that, in view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike.”(Hawthorne 230) which is not what Chillingworth intended. Mordecai on the other hand did not only survive the evil plans of Haman but thrives through the honour that is given to him by the king. Through this allusion Hawthorne gives his characters a lot more depth, Hester seems purer, her sin less harsh if you look at her as Esther and Chillingworth seems eviler when seen as another Haman. Additionally, in both stories it seems that god favours the heroines in the end which means even a sin as bad as adultery can be forgiven by god and people should not be judged on their sins or believes by others.
Another allusion to the Bible is how similar the story of Hester and Arthur´s sin is, compared to the story of Adam and Eve´s original sin in Genesis. Adam and Eve are created and live their life in the perfect Garden of Eden. They are the only two humans in the garden, surrounded only by animals, angels and occasionally even god himself. One of the animals, a snake “The most cunning animal that the Lord God had made.” (Good News Bible Gen. 3.1) tempts Eve to commit the first sin, which is in this case to eat the fruit of a forbidden tree. Even though God had said they would die if they only came in close contact with it, “The snake replied, [to Eve] „That’s not true, you will not die.”” (3.4). So, Eve ate of the fruit “Gave some to her husband, and he also ate it.” (3.6). Once God realized what they had done he “Sent them out of the Garden of Eden and […] put living creatures and a flaming sword which turned in all directions [at the entrance of the Garden].” (3.23-24). Huber says about The Scarlet Letter, “Wie die metaphorischen ersten Menschen von Gott wurden Hester und Dimmesdale im übertragenen Sinne nach einmaligem beisammen sein von den Puritanern aus dem „Paradies ihrer Liebe vertrieben“ und jeder auf seine Weise bestraft.“ (Huber 33). And like in the biblical story they were not killed after they sinned once, as at least Hester should have after Puritan rules, but instead get to live outside the community with the scarlet letter as the flaming sword which keeps them at arm’s length to society. „[…] Auch die zum Mythos des Gartens Eden […] gehörige Schlange, […] [fehlt] in TSL nicht. Die eigentliche Schuld an Hesters Lage liegt ursächlich bei Chillingworth, wie dieser selbst einräumt:“ (Huber 34). He tells Hester “What had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own? […] I might have foreseen all this. […] From the moment when we came down the old church-steps together, a married pair.” (Hawthorne 65) which in this context seems like he admitted that he laid the groundwork for her sin. Hawthorne gives him even more similarities to the snake though when he describes him as a wanderer, with no real home in the world and that his way to revenge Hester´s adultery is not to outright kill the man she sinned with but slowly over time tear the same down from the inside, just like the poisonous bite of a snake would. In addition to that, once Adam and Eve sin, God says to Eve “You will be subject to [Adam].” (Good News Bible Gen. 3.16) and right at the beginning of The Scarlet Letter the governor turns to Arthur Dimmesdale as Hester stands on the scaffold as punishment, saying, “The responsibility of this woman’s soul lies greatly with you.” (Hawthorne 58). So the governor takes over the role of God here, not only responsible for the judgement of Hester but also gives, through this address to Dimmesdale at that point in the story, a subtle hint about Arthurs involvement with Hester to the reader. The most obvious hint that links these two stories though is when Hawthorne writes “The infant [that came of Arthur and Hester´s adultery] was worthy to have been brought forth in Eden: worthy to have been left there to be the plaything of the angels after the world´s first parents were driven out.” (78,79) as if Hester committed the sin and conceived Pearl in the same garden and then had to leave with Arthur just like Adam and Eve. And again, later when the governor thinks about taking the child away from Hester, back into Puritan society, the Garden of Eden. So, Hawthorne shows his audience how,
” […] the sin of The Scarlet Letter is a symbol of the original sin, by which no man is untouched. […]. Hester, having sinned, makes the best possible recovery […] yet the sin remains real and inescapable, and she´s spending her life in retribution. […]. This is the dilemma: human beings in their natures must fall into error- and yet it would be better if they did not.” (Fogle 24).
And just like “ […] Eva, die als “erste Sünderin“ zum Sinnbild für die weibliche Schwäche überhaupt wurde, wird aus Hester ein „general symbol“ (74)“ (Huber 34).
Equally important is the next biblical allusion to be mentioned here, that of the scarlet Letter itself. In the paragraph above it is already hinted why Hester was not put to death as punishment for her sin but just sent out of society. Now, arises the question why the punishment should be realized in form of a sign that Hester is, from that point on, to wear for the rest of her life. The bible states to “Rebuke publicly all those who commit sins, so that the rest may be afraid.” (Good News Bible 1 Tim. 5.20) so a mark is put on Hester´s body for people to tell at first glance what she did, wherefore a spectator in The Scarlet Letter, after also witnessing the mark on Hester´s bosom, says “A wise sentence, […] Thus she will be a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her tombstone.” (Hawthorne 55). Another reasons why it is necessary to put a sign on Hester´s body is that when Cain, the son of Adam and Eve sinned by killing his brother, “The Lord put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who met him not to kill him.” (Good News Bible Gen. 4.15). The real punishment for Cain was to “Be a homeless wanderer on the earth.” (4.12). So the lesson here is that “Sin does produce isolation from whatever the sinner holds valuable.” (Roper 19). The particular thing about the mark is, that it was therefore not meant as a punishment but was placed there by God to protect Cain from anyone who would have murdered him to exercise judgement. As Hawthorne let one woman cry out “What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown or the flesh of her forehead? […] This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die.” (45) he expresses the want for blood in many people who would have potentially killed Hester. Another passage in the bible warns of “Of these self-constituted judges.” (45) stating, “Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you, for God will judge you in the same way you judge others […]” (Good News Bible Matt. 7.1). So he did not only protect Hester´s life here but the eternal life of people who might be tempted to commit the sin of murder. This form of punishment also gives her the chance to redeem herself again in the eyes of the Lord during her life, as “The torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul and work out another purity than that which she had lost: more saint-like because the result of martyrdom.” (Hawthorne 71). Moreover, Hester´s sign is said to be “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, […] the letter A.” (46) and the color of it seems to be an easy choice. As also mentioned above “a flaming sword” (Good News Bible Gen. 3.24) was put in front of the entrance of Eden which already suggests the color red. Additionally right when it is worn by Hester for the first time is it described as “[…] [Throwing] a lurid gleam along the dark passageway of the interior.” (Hawthorne 61) suggesting a similar picture to a passage leading down to hell, which her life seems to be like from that moment on and hell is often depicted as red as well. Last but not least the bible says that “You are stained red with sin, but I will wash you as clean as snow. Although your stains are deep red, you will be as white as wool.” (Good News Bible Isa. 1.18) this connection gets even more important when you include the preface of The Scarlet Letter which is called Custom House, where the I-narrator first encounters the scarlet letter describing it as “Of fine red cloth, much worn and faded […].” (Hawthorne 28) and compare this description to the time when Hester first wears the letter, where it is described as “[…] fantastically embroidered and illuminated on her bosom.” (47). So, for Hester this means, as “The scarlet letter faded out […] [it] even acquired another meaning. Her life came to blessed uses, with rewards of love and gratitude from others that reached even unto death.” (Munger 42). So you could say her sin is slowly washed away. Here the allusions to the bible convey to the reader that, like Regina Schwarz says, “[…] God is depicted not as a judge nor an executer of righteous wrath but as forgiving.” (219) which a lot of religious people especially at that time often seemed to forget. Hawthorne shows his audience that no matter how bad the committed sin is, God is forgiving if you repent and people need to be careful in judging others too quickly or harshly. “Thus the scarlet letter was a penalty with rich and multiple significance, and Hawthorne found it a symbol that turned and glowed beneath his hand until it became the center of his greatest novel.” (Orians 432).
- Quote paper
- Annika Zöpf (Author), 2019, Biblical Allusions in "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/516557