Tuesday, December 26, 2006

CRT II: The Scarlet Letter Remix

Since I don't have time to do a good close reading this Tuesday, I'll settle for a second-worst one. Hopefully.

"Look your last on the scarlet letter and its wearer!"--the people's victim and life-long bond-slave, as they fancied her, might say to them. "Yet a little while, and she will be beyond your reach! A few hours longer, and the deep, mysterious ocean will quench and hide for ever the symbol which ye have caused to burn upon her bosom!"

This quotation comes at a key moment in The Scarlet Letter, before Dimmesdale has begun his Election Day sermon and before Hester discovers that Chillingworth has booked passage on the same "questionable vessel" on which she and Dimmesdale have resolved to flee Boston for Europe with Pearl. The narrator is trying to convey her emotions upon wearing the scarlet letter for what she believes will be the last time in Boston, and perhaps ever. In this passage, he invents an internal monologue for her ("might say") and embeds within it a curious interjection. What I am interested in is the reference to Hester as "the people's victim and life-long bond-slave"--and how qualified it is, for immediately the narrator concedes, "as they fancied her." This is both a reference to her intended escape and an acknowledgement of the game he's been playing throughout the romance in using the iconography of the female slave and, here, the fugitive slave to dramatize Hester's relationship with her community. As this is ground that Jean Fagan Yellin and Jennifer Fleischner, among others, have covered thoroughly, I'm going to focus on an aspect of Hester's "social death" that has not to my knowledge been discussed before, and, in so doing, pick up where my not-very-intertextual Intertextual Thursday left off last week.

For this passage is a culmination of sorts of a consistent motif in The Scarlet Letter: the idea that the scarlet letter imposes a kind of social death upon Hester. This is the reason for all the ghostly imagery the narrator uses when attempting to identify Hester's place in the Boston Puritan community. As I (barely) discussed last Thursday, Hester could have been sentenced to death for her adultery and hence the letter is a kind of suspended death sentence; Hester is consistently portrayed as banished from the community yet still haunting it; the figure of the ghost is an apt figure for her there-but-not-quite-there, not-there-but-not-quite-not-there presence/absence. In a certain sense, then, the "social death" Hester suffers in Boston is not so different from being a "life-long bond-slave," for her condition satisfies key parts of Orlando Patterson's classic definition of slavery in his Slavery and Social Death. She is enduring a kind of social death that involves both "dishonor" and "natal alienation" (she is completely separated from her ancestors and disavowed by her husband); her "enslavement" takes place at a time in 17th-century British America when slavery was becoming racialized (the first Africans in the English-speaking New World were, like poor whites, indentured servants--it took most of the century for temporary indentured servitude to be limited to non-Africans); her daughter Pearl is, in a certain sense, following the condition of her mother; both, like some 19th-century black colonizationists or fugitive slaves, are attempting to leave North America for "the old world" (in their case, Africa; in hers, Europe) in a kind of reverse middle passage.

But at the same time as he invokes these associations of slavery, the narrator stresses the differences. Hester is, after all, only wearing a symbol, one she hopes "the deep, mysterious ocean will quench and hide for ever," rather than being branded as many African-American slaves were. She is allowed to keep her daughter, unlike most African-American slaves--her natal alienation has limits theirs didn't. In fact, in the scene in Governor Bellingham's mansion where she successfully argues her case, her status is contrasted with that of a recently-arrived indentured servant of the governor. More on that scene next Tuesday, for it can be linked to another key motif in The Scarlet Letter--heraldry. But my older daughter--who on this blog will go only by the names onechan, or Gohan Girl, or "Uh oh Diva Girl"--had the shortest nap ever, and it's back to daddy duty for CitizenSE.

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