Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A is for Abatement

Got loads of family staying overnight here somewhat unexpectedly, but I get to use the computer upstairs while imoto is napping and everyone else is finishing up preparations. Our topic today is Hawthorne's use of heraldry in The Scarlet Letter.

Even the Indians were affected by a sort of cold shadow of the white man's curiosity, and, gliding through the crowd, fastened their snake-like black eyes on Hester's bosom; conceiving, perhaps, that the wearer of this brilliantly embroidered badge must needs be a personage of high dignity among her people.

The office of the scarlet letter, to borrow a phrase famously analyzed by Sacvan Bercovitch, is a herald's office. One of Governor Bellingham's "bond-servants," a "free-born Englishman, but now a seven years' slave," newly arrived in Boston and not familiar with Hester Prynne, makes the same assumption as the Indians who saw in her "brilliantly embroidered badge" a mark of colonial aristocracy:

"Ye may not see his worship now."

"Nevertheless, I will enter," answered Hester Prynne; and the bond-servant, perhaps judging from the decision of her air and the glittering symbol in her bosom, that she was a great lady in the land, offered no opposition.

These characters of lower status in Puritan society or outside it are joined by the narrator, who is separated by time and temperament from the era, when he "discovers" the remains of the scarlet letter in the Salem Custom-House:

It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving.

The narrator, certain that he has come across an item of colonial fashion, nevertheless admits to being fascinated and "perplexed" by it, wondering even if "the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive to take the eyes of Indians." Of course this turns out to be as mistaken as his original, bland version of Hester Prynne--"rather a noteworthy personage in the view of our ancestors." But actually these kinds of assumptions about Hester Prynne's "badge" are not that far off.

Consider the first description of the letter in the romance itself:

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

No wonder, then, that one of her harsher judges among the "female spectators" at this first scaffold scene remarks, "She hath good skill at her needle, that's certain, but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the face of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?" The largely uncharitable remarks of the audience in this and other scenes raise questions about Hester's intentions and the effect of the magistrates' punishment on her, but they also align her with an English, aristocratic, and Catholic past (and hence suggest a certain critical attitude toward English as well as American Puritans at this point in the novel, a point that has been well made by Larry Reynolds and Frederick Newberry). Among the "mass of imperfectly shaped and spectral images" that bring to Hester's mind "other scenes than this roughly hewn street of a little town, on the edge of the Western wilderness; other faces than were lowering upon her from beneath the brims of these steeple-crowned hats," was "her native village, in Old England, and her paternal home; a decayed house of gray stone, with a poverty-stricken aspect, but retaining a half-obliterated shield of arms over the portal, in token of antique gentility."

The herald's office is to assign coats of arms to families of sufficient birth and standing; the Puritans have appropriated this office for their own purposes, using the scarlet letter to indicate that Hester may well be a descendant of English aristocracy, but she is fallen in more ways than one. Hester to some extent accepts the terms of her punishment when she tells Pearl, "Once in my life I met the Black Man! This scarlet letter is his mark!" On the surface at least, this rare admission echoes Roger Chillingworth's interpretation, "Thus she will be a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her tomb-stone." But designating the scarlet letter the Black Man's mark does not necessarily make it a symbol of her sin, or her sin alone; it could easily refer to two other men she's met in the forest, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, or it could refer to the Puritan magistrates themselves, sinning against the act that she later tells Dimmesdale "had a consecration of its own."

The battle over the meaning of the A is a well-trodden topic, so I'll stop with four observations: 1) the scarlet letter is is intended to function as a mark of dishonor; in the language of heraldry, it is an abatement; 2) Pearl disappears from the novel, but the narrator strongly suggests she has married a non-English aristocrat and is living abroad with him and their child when he notes that "Letters came, with armorial seals upon them, though of bearings unknown to English heraldry," again emphasizing her and Hester's contrast with the natal alienation and long-term inheritance of the mother's condition that marked female slaves from the mid-seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century in England's American colonies from Hester Prynne's time until the independent America of Hawthorne's time; 3) nevertheless, the narrator returns to heraldry at Hester's death, appearing to ratify Chillingworth's prophecy of the monumentalizing of the letter by ending the novel with "a herald's wording" of the "semblance of an engraved escutcheon" and "device": "ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES"; 4) Jim's coat of arms in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn parodies Hawthorne's ending of The Scarlet Letter, in ways crucial to understanding the compromises of 1850 and 1876--but that will be the subject of an Intertextual Thursday after I've finished with Beloved.

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