Let me start off by observing that it's totally unoriginal to link Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter to Morrison's Beloved. (In my manuscript, which I'll discuss Saturday [with luck], I focus on "specter evidence" in "Young Goodman Brown" and Beloved, which may actually still be original almost ten years after I first came up with the idea [can I really be that lucky?], as part of a larger argument that puts The House of the Seven Gables and Song of Solomon alongside each other [presence of the past] and The Blithedale Romance and Paradise together [failed utopias] in order to read some pregnant silences in Morrison's "Unspeakable Things Unspoken" and Playing in the Dark and make some points about race and American literature.) But since I'm not going for originality on this blog so much as stream of consciousness "free write"-style quick-hit readings--on the theory that nothing focuses the mind like knowing you have to finish what you're writing in no more than, say, 30 minutes from now--let me boldly restate the obvious on my way to hopefully less-than-obvious points.
Obvious Point I: How can anyone today read the following from "The Custom-House" and not think of Beloved?
Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly,--making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility,--is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a work basket, a volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the book-case; the picture on the wall; all these details, so completely seen, are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity thereby. A child's shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage; the hobby-horse;--whatever, in a word, has been used or played with, during the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness or remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by daylight. Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become 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. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.
While that last sentence especially is resonating in your head, let me drop a few quotes from The Scarlet Letter to link it to one key image cluster in Hawthorne's representations of Hester Prynne, Pearl, and Arthur Dimmesdale:
"What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?" cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constructed judges. "This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book...."
But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer,--so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time,--was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.
In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than the rest of human kind. She stood apart from mortal interests, yet close beside them, like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside, and can no longer make itself seen or felt; no more smile with the household joy, nor mourn with the kindred sorrow; or, should it succeed in manifesting its forbidden sympathy, awakening only terror and horrible repugnance.
Brooding over all these matters, the mother felt like one who has evoked a spirit, but, by some irregularity in the process of conjuration, has failed to win the master-word that should control this new and incomprehensible intelligence.
Pearl was a born outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants. Nothing was more remarkable than the instinct, as it seemed, with which the child comprehended her loneliness; the destiny that had drawn an inviolable circle round about her; the whole peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other children.
Once, this freakish, elfish cast came into the child's eyes, while Hester was looking at her own image in them, as mothers are fond of doing; and suddenly,--for women in solitude, and with troubled hearts, are pestered with unaccountable delusions,--she fancied that she beheld, not her own miniature portrait, but another face in the small black mirror of Pearl's eye. It was a face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice, yet bearing the semblance of features that she had known full well, though seldom with a smile, and never with malice in them. It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child, and had just then peeped forth in mockery.
Thus, Hester Prynne, whose heart had lost its regular and healthy throb, wandered without a clew in the dark labyrinth of mind; now turned aside by an insurmountable precipice; now starting back from a deep chasm. There was wild and ghastly scenery all around her, and a home and comfort nowhere. At times, a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl at once to heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide.
The scarlet letter had not done its office.
"Hester! Hester Prynne!" said he. "Is it thou? Art thou in life?"
"Even so!" she answered. "In such life as has been mine these seven years past! And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live?"
It is no wonder that they thus questioned one another's actual and bodily existence, and even doubted of their own. So strangely did they meet, in the dim wood, that it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the grave, of two spirits who had been intimately connected in their former life, but now stood coldly shuddering, in mutual dread; as not yet familiar with their state, nor wonted to the companionship of disembodied beings. Each a ghost, and awe-stricken at the other ghost. They were awe-stricken likewise at themselves; because the crisis flung back to them their consciousness, and revealed to each heart its history and experience, as life never does, except at such breathless epochs. The soul beheld its features in the mirror of the passing moment.
Her face, so long familiar to the townspeople, showed the marble quietude which they were accustomed to behold there. It was like a mask; or rather, like the frozen calmness of a dead woman's features; owing this dreary resemblance to the fact that Hester was actually dead, in respect to any claim of sympathy, and had departed out of the world with which she still seemed to mingle.
"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!"
OK, so as you've been reading you've probably been thinking something like the following (besides "when is he going to stop with the quotations?! enough already!" that is): hmm, doesn't it seem as if Morrison takes many of Hawthorne's metaphors and, if not literalizes them, magically realizes them? I guess that romance/gothic/magical realism connection all the kewl kidz have been talking about makes a lot of sense! isn't the Hester/Pearl/Dimmesdale relationship (to each other and between them and their community) something of an interesting model for the Sethe/Denver/Beloved/Paul D relationship, especially when differences as well as similarities are taken into account?
Yes, dear imaginary reader, it's as if you are reading my mind. It's almost like Morrison was talking with Jean Fagan Yellin, who wrote one of the most comprehensive examinations of this social death/bond-slave theme in The Scarlet Letter back in 1989, the same year as Morrison's "Unspeakable Things Unspoken" essay on race and American literature, while both were working on their projects. Or better, that Morrison and Yellin, working independently, came to similar conclusions (beating people like Jennifer Fleischner and Sacvan Bercovitch to the punch, so to speak).
My argument, which I'll pick up next Thursday, is that you don't need to go to Morrison's later critical work to find in its claims and ornate absences evidence that she was reading and thinking carefully about race and Hawthorne--all you need to do is look in Beloved for the evidence, as critics from Jan Stryz and Caroline Woidat to Charles Lewis and Emily Miller Budick have done, or as careful historical readers of Hawthorne like Teresa Goddu and Arthur Riss have all but done. This much is, by now, quite obvious. What I'll give you next week is a string of Hawthornesque Beloved quotations to match this string of Morrisonesque Scarlet Letter passages. Hopefully then we'll all be in a position to move a few steps beyond the obvious.
Gotta post this before I turn into a pumpkin, but a quick question for my hypothetical reader(s) before I go: when could you tell the title of this premiere Intertextual Thursday post (not to be confused with a premier post) was a joke? Of course this is the "worst evah"!